Mary Oliver

Search form

New England Life
Download: Audio icon oliver.mp3

For my part in this celebration I wanted to begin by reading four poems of Emily Dickinson. I think I got the good spot. I'm going to read one, at least, of the very well known poems and three not so well known. There are, in this book, something over seventeen hundred poems and I've had fun in the last week doing my homework, as it were, and found some delicious things that I wasn't that familiar with. This is a fairly early poem, 1861, and I thought it was kind of nice to read for two reasons. It describes New England, which was Emily Dickinson's home, of course, and is also mine, and there's something at the end of it that I liked so much, sad, but very human touch. She is, after all, a mystery as well as a miracle, and it's kind of nice to get this sense of her as a person, which she herself gave us, rather than what we are exploring about her.

What is - "Paradise" -
Who live there -
Are their "Farmers" -
Do they "hoe" -
Do they know that this is "Amherst" -
And that I - am coming - too -


Do they wear "new shoes" - in "Eden" -
Is it always pleasant - there -
Wont they scold us - when we're hungry -
Or tell God - how cross we are -


You are sure there's such a person
As a "Father" - in the sky -
So if I get lost - there - ever
Or do what the Nurse calls "die" -
I shant walk the "Jasper" - barefoot -
Ransomed folks - wont laugh at me -
Maybe "Eden" a'nt so lonesome
As New England used to be!


(JP 215)

This is a later poem, 1883, quite a late poem.

There came a Wind like a Bugle -
It quivered through the Grass
And a Green Chill upon the Heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the Windows and the Doors
As from an Emerald Ghost -
The Doom's electric Moccasin
That very instant passed -
On a strange Mob of panting Trees
And Fences fled away
And Rivers where the Houses ran
Those looked that lived - that Day -
The bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told -
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the World!

(JP 1593)

If I could sing, I would sing a poem. So many of them have that music, of course, of the hymns, that they almost make you try to do it. I won't try. This one, especially, I didn't know before, and thought such a pleasure. I love the repetitions of the lines, which is something which of course I do in my own work. It's a little bit unlike her usual phrasing, a little bit different.

Under the Light, yet under,
Under the Grass and the Dirt.
Under the Beetle's Cellar
Under the Clover's Root,


Further than Arm could stretch
Were it Giant long,
Further than Sunshine could
Were the Day Year long,


Over the Light, yet over,
Over the Arc of the Bird -
Over the comet's chimney -
Over the Cubit's Head,


Further than Guess can gallop
Further than Riddle ride -
Oh for a Disc to the Distance
Between Ourselves and the Dead!


(JP 949)

And the one, which of course will be familiar to all of us.

Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And Immortality.


We slowly drove - He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility -


We passed the School, where the Children strove
At Recess - in the Ring -
We passed the Fields of Grazing Grain -
We passed the Setting Sun -


Or rather - He passed Us -
The Dews drew quivering and chill -
For only Gossamer, my gown -
My Tippet - only Tulle -


We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground -
The Roof was scarcely visible -
The Cornice - in the Ground -


Since then - 'tis Centuries - and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses Heads
Were toward Eternity -


(JP 712)

I will read about half poems from American Primitive, the last book to come out and about half from a new book that will be out next month. It's called Dream Work and I'll start with one of those. I thought it was a nice one to start with. Dickinson's work is so studded with light and I have a previous book called Twelve Moons. I seem to have been kind of soaked in the moon during that period of time. Now, I can't bear to miss a sunrise. I seem to have a lot of poems about the sun coming up. This is called "Morning Poem."

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange


sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again


and fasten themselves to the high branches-
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands


of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it


the thorn
that is heavier than lead-
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging-


there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted-


each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,


whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Always, but certainly in April, one spring poem is appropriate. This is called "Blossom."

In April
  the ponds
      like black blossoms,
the moon
  swims in every one;
    there's fire
      everywhere: frogs shouting
their desire,
  their satisfaction. What
    we know: that time
      chops at us all like an iron
hoe, that death
  is a state of paralysis. What
    we long for: joy
      before death, nights
in the swale-everything else
  can wait but not
    this thrust
      from the root
of the body. What
  we know: we are more
    than blood-we are more
      than our hunger and yet
we belong
  to the moon and when the ponds
    open, when the burning
      begins the most
thoughtful among us dreams
  of hurrying down
    into the black petals,
into the fire,
into the night where time lies shattered,
into the body of another.
into the body of another.

I live on Cape Cod, Provincetown which is a very gorgeous and beautiful and sea kind of place and I have a sort of slow take, I think-I went to Provincetown, I've looked for the inland things there. Now I'm beginning to write more poems about things that pertain to the sea. This is a poem in several parts. It's in the new book, a pause between the sections. It's called "Dogfish," and for those of you who are inland, the dogfish is a shark, but quite a small shark, I've seen them no longer than this. They can get a little bigger, quite harmless really to people, to swimmers.

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman's boot,
with a white belly.


If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.


And you know
what a smile means,
don't you?




I wanted
the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of a song where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,
whoever I was, I was


for a little while.




It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don't know what they were
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.




Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
don't we?






the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.




You don't want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don't want to tell it, I want to listen


to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.
And anyway it's the same old story-
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.


Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.


And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.




And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is bulging toward them




And probably,
if they don't waste time
looking for an easier world,


they can do it.

About a year and a half ago, I was on a United States Information Agency journey to the Far East. We were gone about five weeks and "saw" four countries, so this was a pretty rapid journey. All the same, it was amazing and wonderful and I'm just beginning now, in a way, to write about it. We went first to New Zealand, which is an extraordinarily beautiful country. It has, I think, seventy million sheep, five million people. From New Zealand, we flew to Jakarta, which is the capital city of Indonesia. That city has nine million people, just in the city, so it was very shocking to see the difference. This is a poem called "Acid."

In Jakarta,
among the vendors
of flowers and soft drinks,
I saw a child
with a hideous mouth,
and I knew the wound was made
for a way to stay alive.
What I gave him
wouldn't keep a dog alive.
What he gave me
from the brown coin
of his sweating face
was a look of cunning.
I carry it
like a bead of acid
to remember how,
once in a while,
you can creep out of your own life
and become someone else-
an explosion
in that nest of wires
we call the imagination.
I will never see him
again, I suppose.
But what of this rag,
this shadow
flung like a boy's body
into the walls
of my mind, bleeding
their sour taste-
insult and anger,
the great movers?

I thought I'd like to read today a poem I wrote about another poet and a dear friend. Stanley Kunitz lives in Provincetown in the summer, and has for many years and he is well known as an extraordinary poet and person. He's also a very astonishing gardener. His garden is quite famous there. People might not know it's Stanley's, but they-you just stop your car and look in amazement at what he's done. This is a poem I very much wanted to write and it took its form from his garden. There's one line I should explain a little bit. It's a line that says, "Little snakes lie on the boughs," and in this garden, Stanley has a couple of small trees and the little garden snakes come out in the afternoon. They climb the tree and dangle out to have little sunbaths.



I used to imagine him
coming from the house, like Merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden
where everything grows so thickly,
where birds sing, little snakes lie
on the boughs, thinking of nothing
but their own good lives,
where petals float upward,
their colors exploding,
and trees open their moist
pages of thunder-
it has happened every summer for years.


But now I know more
about the great wheel of growth,
and decay, and rebirth,
and know my vision for a falsehood.
Now I see him coming from the house-
I see him on his knees,
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
coaxing the new,
knowing the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience-
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.


Oh, what good it does the heart
to know it isn't magic!
Like the human child I am
I rush to imitate-
I watch him as he bends
among the leaves and vines
to hook some weed or other;
even when I do not see him,
I think of him there
raking and trimming, stirring up
those sheets of fire
between the smothering weights of earth,
the wild and shapeless air.

And I'll finish with two poems, again from American Primitive.



Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars


of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,


the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders


of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is


nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned


in my lifetime
leads back to this:
the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side


is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world


you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it


against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

And the last poem also has its genesis in Provincetown. Many of you have certainly heard of, or perhaps had the experience yourself of going out to visit with the whales. It's something that's been done in the last few years a great deal and it began on the Atlantic coast, in Provincetown, with a dolphin fleet, so I have been fortunate in having the boats right there and I've gone out many a many a time. Primarily it's the humpback whales that we hope to see. They are an endangered species, and therefore no longer hunted and perhaps it's partly for that reason or perhaps it's some wonderful friendliness and curiosity that makes them come so readily, right to the boat. They're forty-five, fifty feet long and many tons in weight, and you might think of yourself peril, but indeed it's not true. They're agile for all their immense size, and careful for all their great curiosity. They will come very close, but only for our pleasure. Again, it's a poem in several parts. I'll pause between the parts. The word "Stellwagon" appears in one of the sections and that is an area where the whales feed, off of Cape Cod.



There is, all around us,
this country
of original fire


You know what I mean.


The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.




Off Stellwagon
off the Cape, the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage of barnacles and joy
they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
like children
at play.




They sing, too.
And not for any reason
you can't imagine.




Three of them
rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
then dive
deeply, their huge scarred flukes
tipped to the air.


We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky-
like nothing you've ever imagined-
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
our of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then




they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire, you
know what I mean




I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, tossing
the slippery lengths of it into the air.


I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever
she can, and nudge it gently along the bow
with her long flipper.


I know several lives worth living.




listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,


its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones


toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire


where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

Mary Oliver Bio

Read more from Mary Oliver