Mary Oliver’s Wild and Precious Life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” poet Mary Oliver asks in the poem A Summers Day. It’s a question I keep returning to as I wander the earth, wondering what it means to be gifted life as a human, a plant, or a bee. I suspect its presence will continue rolling around my being as long as I breathe, touching places in the ways only poetry can.

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force,” writes Oliver in A Poetry Handbook. “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Mary Oliver should know. The 81-year-old is one of America’s most celebrated poets. Over the last 50 years she’s won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and published over 30 books of poetry and three books of prose. She’s been writing poems since she was a young child – wandering through the woods, pen and pencil in hand. Poetry, it seems, saved Oliver.

Growing up in a small town near Cleveland, Ohio, Mary Oliver had an unhappy childhood. During those sad years she discovered the beauty and sanctuary of the natural world – spending much of her time walking through the woods near her home. “It was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household, not just myself I think. And I escaped it, barely. But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world,” she tells Krista Tippett of On Being in a rare interview in 2015 (Oliver reckons her poems speak for themselves, so she doesn’t often do interviews).

Oliver would pack her knapsack with a copy of Whitman, pencils and paper and head to the woods, skipping school. ‘I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me. And then worked them into poems later,” she tells Tippett. Oliver reckons her first poems were awful, but she kept at it.

With my pencil I’ve traveled to the moon and back. Probably a few times. I kept at it every day. Finally you learn things.”

Fast forward 70 years and Oliver is still doing the same thing – Walking through the woods in the early morning, pencil and paper in hand, writing poetry or ‘listening to the world,’ as she puts it. It seems her commitment to the craft of poetry has been guided by a simple truth: “This I have always known – that if I did not live my life immersed in the one activity which suits me, and which also, to tell the truth, keeps me utterly happy and intrigued, I would come someday to bitter and mortal regret,” Oliver writes in The Poetry Handbook.

When I see the black cricket in the woodpile, in autumn,
I don’t frighten her. And when I see the moss grazing
upon the rock, I touch her tenderly,
sweet cousin.

Excerpt from Moss, Winter Hours, 1999

“The swan, for all his pomp, his robes of glass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.”

Excerpt from Yes! No!, New and Selected Poems Volume 2

Oliver’s reverence for the natural world is obvious. It flows from line upon line of the thousands of poems she’s written. It’s a joyous, rich, and spiritual relationship Oliver has with the world around her – one imbued with a deep sense of wonder, gratitude, and attention. Her poems capture and communicate wisdom found within the smallest details of the trees, the grass, the ocean, the animals. “And speaking of stones, what about / The little ones you can / Hold in your hands, their heartbeats / So secret, so hidden it may take years / Before, finally, you hear them?” she writes in In Your Hands from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems.

But whilst Oliver’s language around nature is often romantic and joyful, there’s also a sense of pragmatism and honesty that underpins her writing.

This is illustrated beautifully in one of my favourite of her poems, How I go to the Woods:  

“Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single / friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore / unsuitable,” Oliver writes. She continues, telling us how she doesn’t want to observed as she talks to the birds or hugs the trees, that when she’s alone she can become invisible, and “I can almost hear the unhearable sound of the roses singing.” She finishes as only she could – “If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love / you very much.” (Excerpt from How I go to the Woods, from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems)

So now, I’m off. It’s time for my lunchtime stroll amongst the trees. Sometimes I take a pencil and paper but mostly I just take my dog. As the aeroplanes grind through the sky above preparing to land just a few kilometers away, I remind myself to breathe, walk and look. It’s a practice partly inspired by Oliver, a woman unafraid of the wilderness within herself. A woman brave enough to fully investigate, observe and celebrate her one wild and precious life, and the multitudes of lives around her. What a woman.

Read more of Mary Oliver’s poems here.