Mary Oliver’s Wild and Precious Life

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
                           -From “The Summer Day

Poetry lovers around the country were saddened to learn of Mary Oliver’s death yesterday. Oliver was one of the most popular American poets of the past thirty years, rivaled perhaps only by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and, more recently, several so-called “Insta-poets.”

In addition to holding Oliver’s books in our physical collections, as well as an assortment of musical settings of her poems, the Library is fortunate to feature several of her poems on our Poetry 180 website. Six of Oliver’s poems currently appear on the site, more than any other poet, and they all demonstrate the clarity, precision, and focus on the natural world for which she was known:

As a testament to Oliver’s popularity, “The Summer Day” was the most shared poem by readers on Poetry 180 last year, and all six of her poems are among the most viewed and shared on the site. One of these, “When Death Comes,” has been frequently cited in obituaries and notices of her death. It is also the subject of a prize-winning letter written by Aidan Kingwell of Illinois for the Library’s 2015 Letters About Literature contest, through which young people in grades 4 through 12 write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. In her letter to Mary, Aidan describes how “When Death Comes” helped her overcome her suicidal feelings and embrace life. (Many of Oliver’s poems, in fact, are used as a form of poetry therapy to help people experiencing mental health issues). Her words are those we might all do well to heed:

When Death Comes, Mary – and it will – I want to face it as an equal, and shake its hand as a friend, and accept it as an eventuality. You taught me that that is the only proper way to die. With your words you taught me that life cannot be lived in the shadow of death – that life must be a thing separate from death. And you taught me that when death comes, I should embrace it, but also that I should not welcome it before its time. You taught me, Mary, that there was nothing to be feared in death so long as my life was one well-lived.

While Mary Oliver never served as U.S. Poet Laureate—her private nature would never have allowed her to assume such a public office—for many readers such as Aidan, that doesn’t matter: Oliver’s poetry transcends any position, and for them has literally made a difference between life and death.


When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

—Mary Oliver (From New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. With permission from Beacon Press.)

5 Comments

  1. Matt
    January 18, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for this, Peter. Amazing as always. Big hugs, Matt

  2. Shirl
    January 18, 2019 at 7:22 pm

    Mary Oliver, all these years she has held us up.
    We won’t forget.

  3. JLEE
    January 18, 2019 at 8:20 pm

    Thank you for reminding us Mary Oliver had the gift of plain speaking. Readers will miss her.

  4. LEE
    January 18, 2019 at 8:22 pm

    Thank you. This was a beautiful reminder. Mary Oliver had the gift of being plain spoken. Readers will miss her.

  5. Tensil Clayton
    February 5, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you for sharing this tribute and poem. Sad to hear of her passing. A great American poet much loved.

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