The work of the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves, yet it’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death. She often wrote nature poetry, focusing on the area of New England which she called home from the 1960s; she mentioned the Romantics, especially John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as fellow American poets Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson as her influences.
Oliver won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her work. Below, we select and introduce ten of Mary Oliver’s best poems, and offer some reasons why she continues to speak to us about nature and about ourselves. You can buy much of her best work in the magnificent volume, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver.
1. ‘The Swan’.
This poem demonstrates Oliver’s fine eye for detail when it comes to observing nature. Describing the swan as an ‘armful of white blossoms’, Oliver captures the many facets of the swan’s appearance and graceful movements.
But part of the joy and wonder of the poem comes from her use of questions, the ‘did you see’ framing of her observations, which emphasises the wonder while also appealing to a shared experience of that wonder.
2. ‘Starlings in Winter’.
Here we have another poem about a bird, but one which describes the starlings in a down-to-earth manner, as if resisting the Romantic impulse to soar off into the heavens with its subject: starlings are ‘chunky’ and ‘noisy’, Oliver tells us in the poem’s opening line, as they spring from a telephone wire and become ‘acrobats’ in the wind.
Here, nature is once again the theme: the ‘invitation’ of this poem is to come and see the goldfinches that have gathered in a field of thistles. It is not just the appearance but the sound of these birds which draws the poet here, their musical competition as they try to outsing each other.
What saves this, and many other Mary Oliver poems from sentimentality is the acknowledgment of how ‘ridiculous’ the birds’ singing contest is, even while it is deliriously life-affirming too.
4. ‘Wild Geese’.
What made Mary Oliver so popular, so that she was at one time the bestselling poet in America? One answer we might venture is that she is an accessible nature poet but also effortlessly and brilliantly relates encounters with nature to those qualities which make us most human, with our flaws and idiosyncrasies.
Here, for instance, we’re over halfway into this short poem before the wild geese which give the poem its title are even mentioned. By that point, we have been encouraged to embrace the ‘soft animal’ of our body, acknowledging the natural instincts within us, and realising that no matter how lonely we may feel, the world offers itself to us for our appreciation.
So many modern nature poets have written well about fish, whether it’s Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’ or Ted Hughes’ ‘Pike’, to name just two famous examples. Here, Oliver once again yokes together human feeling with her observations of nature, as the dogfish tear open ‘the soft basins of water’.
In many ways, this poem is as much about the poet as it is about the fish. But that enriches the poem, rather than diluting its subject-matter.
6. ‘The Summer Day’.
This is another Mary Oliver poem which begins with a question, although here is has the feel of a catechism: who made the world, the swan, the black bear, and the grasshopper, the speaker asks? It then transpires that the speaker is referring to a specific grasshopper, which is eating sugar out of her hand at that precise moment. Once again, Oliver takes us into particular moments, specific encounters with nature which surprise and arrest us.
7. ‘Don’t Hesitate’.
This short poem is unlike many of the poems mentioned so far in that it is not a nature poem at all, but a poem which deals in the abstract. But although ‘joy’, the subject of ‘Don’t Hesitate’, is an abstraction, Oliver wonderfully pins it down here, acknowledging its potential for abundance or ‘plenty’ and telling us that joy was not meant to be a mere ‘crumb’.
8. ‘When Death Comes’.
Beginning with a string of similes to describe the threatening and fearsome idea of approaching death, this poem develops into a plea for curiosity in the face of death and what might come next. Eternity, Oliver asserts, is a ‘possibility’, but this is a poem more concerned with living a curious life now, in this one guaranteed life we have.
9. ‘The Uses of Sorrow’.
The shortest poem on this list, running to just four short, accessible lines of verse, ‘The Uses of Sorrow’ once again provides us with a concrete image for an abstract emotion: here, sorrow, rather than joy. And sorrow is a box full of darkness, given to the poet – for this, too, she realises, is a ‘gift’. (It’s a cliché that writers use even their sorrows for inspiration, turning the worst moments of their lives into something positive – but this poem puts such a sentiment more lyrically and memorably.)
10. ‘The Journey’.
Let’s conclude this selection of Mary Oliver’s best poems with one of her best-known and best-loved: ‘The Journey’. This is a poem about undertaking the difficult but rewarding journey of saving the one person you can save: yourself.
How can we ‘mend’ our lives? By ignoring the ‘bad advice’ the strident voices around us provide, and trusting our instinct, because, deep down, we already know what we have to do.