‘Mindful’ is a popular poem by Mary Oliver (1935-2019), an American poet who has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves (and who has been criticised by some of those who have paid her attention). But it’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death, so some words of criticism and analysis concerning her poetry seem warranted.
In ‘Mindful’, Mary Oliver praises the everyday and ordinary things which lie all around us, calling for us to observe and appreciate them. These phenomena can teach us to grow wise, even though they make us feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
The poem is arranged into nine quatrains or four-line stanzas, which are unrhymed. The poem qualifies as free verse because, as well as lacking a rhyme scheme, it lacks a regular metre.
In the poem, Oliver – or her poem’s speaker, who may or may not be Mary Oliver herself – tells us how she witnesses something so delightful every day of her life that she almost dies with pleasure. She is left feeling like a tiny and insignificant point in a vast world of light, not unlike the proverbial needle in a haystack – hard to locate, tiny in the grand scheme of things, dwarfed by her surroundings.
She doesn’t mind being made to feel so small. Indeed, it is her natural calling, and, by extension, the calling of all of us: to observe the world around us, to listen to its sounds, and to lose oneself in it (hence feeling like that needle lost in the haystack). The world into which she disappears is soft, and therefore welcoming, comforting.
Spending time in such a world teaches her how to be happy and to express her enthusiastic admiration (‘acclamation’) for the world she lives in. She isn’t even referring to the truly unusual and remarkable things that surround us: those terrifying and overwhelming or ornate and grand phenomena we might witness around us.
Instead, she is thinking of the everyday things: the ‘ordinary’ rather than extraordinary, we might say: those daily things which present themselves to us, for us to observe and appreciate.
Now, Oliver’s speaker addresses herself as a ‘good scholar’ because she cannot fail to grow wiser with such a fine teacher as nature to instruct her and help to gain more wisdom.
the daily presentations. The light that fills the world is ‘untrimmable’: it cannot be reduced or made less vast and encompassing than it is. And it is by this light that she is able to see these everyday wonders, such as the way the surface of the ocean shines, or the way such a simple thing as grass inspires the observer to want to pray to God and thank him for such sights.
The title of Mary Oliver’s poem directs us to its principal message: nature can help us to grow ‘Mindful’. But what does ‘mindful’ mean in this context?
The word is surprisingly old, dating back to the Middle Ages: John Wyclif used it in his early English translation of the Bible in the fourteenth century, and in the mid-fifteenth century, a Reginald Pecock wrote, ‘It is resonable … þat … to men be ȝouun an inward witt forto holde bi notable tyme þe lijknessis of þingis … which receyuyng and holdyng power may wel … be clepid “minde” or “myndful witt” or “myndeful power”.’ As Pecock’s quotation marks suggest, the term ‘mindful’ was already in use, although its meaning has morphed over the centuries.
We might say ‘dissolved’ as much as morphed. For ‘mindful’ is not an easy term to define these days. It is often used in a more mundane and everyday sense as a loose synonym for ‘aware’, as in ‘we need to be mindful of the risks of such a venture’. But clearly Mary Oliver, in this poem, is tapping into the more nebulous and even spiritual sense of the word, which has more to do with cultivating wisdom and a sound mental perspective on the world.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helps us somewhat. After providing the original, obsolete meaning of the word (‘possessing a good memory’), the OED goes on to define ‘mindful’ as ‘full of care; heedful, thoughtful; full of memories’. But the more recent meaning of the word, which dates from the 1940s, is defined as ‘Esp. with reference to Yoga philosophy and Buddhism: fully aware of the moment, whilst self-conscious and attentive to this awareness. Also of meditation: producing or undertaken in a mindful state’ (OED).
There are a couple of things to observe of this last definition which are helpful when we turn back to Oliver’s poem. First, there is a spiritual and philosophical aspect to such mindfulness. This is hinted at in Oliver’s reference to ‘prayer’ in the final stanza of her poem, although there is often an ambiguity in a Mary Oliver poem concerning such spiritual allusions: is the prayer simply performative and rhetorical, as any atheist might make to the glory of (evolved) nature? Or is it a prayer to God who (in the speaker’s eyes) is responsible for such things as grass and oceans and sunlight?
The second thing to observe about the OED definition is that it requires two kinds of consciousness, awareness, or – if you will – ‘mindfulness’: awareness of the moment (and, we might add, of the world at large), but also a self-awareness, or an awareness of one’s place within the moment (and the world). Mary Oliver’s poem is an example of Romanticism because it is aware – or ‘mindful’ – of this dual consciousness that is necessary for a truly meaningful relationship with nature.
In other words, it is no good being a passive observer: one must feel the grandeur and vastness of what is all around us. But at the same time, she emphasises that she is not thinking of that Romantic trope par excellence, the Sublime, here. The Sublime is the phenomenon whereby we encounter something in nature that is both beautiful and terrifying or unsettling, because it is so vast and it makes us feel so small: a mountain, a storm, the ocean, might all qualify as examples of the Sublime.
But Oliver’s speaker tells us that she is not thinking of the ‘dreadful’ or ‘extravagant’ things which we might find in nature. Instead, we can feel dwarfed by the ordinary or the quotidian (or ‘daily’). In other words, although her poem is not a traditional expression of the Sublime, ‘Mindful’ is nevertheless a testament to nature’s ability to make us feel like a tiny speck in a vast universe, or – to use her altogether more memorable and striking image – like a ‘needle in the haystack of light’.
Oliver’s poem is also Romantic in another sense: she sees nature as the best teacher that we can have, if we wish to attain deeper wisdom. ‘Mindful’ might be productively compared with two Wordsworth poems, ‘Expostulation and Reply’ and ‘The Tables Turned’, the former of which begins with a schoolteacher rebuking Wordsworth for sitting among nature rather than having his nose buried in a book:
‘Why, William, on that old gray stone,
‘Thus for the length of half a day,
‘Why, William, sit you thus alone,
‘And dream your time away?
‘Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
‘To beings else forlorn and blind!
‘Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
‘From dead men to their kind.
Another text with which Mary Oliver’s ‘Mindful’ might be productively compared is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’. Like Wordsworth and the Romantics before him, Emerson argues that children have a better understanding of nature than adults, and when a man returns to nature he can rediscover his lost youth, that wide-eyed innocence he had when he went among nature as a boy.
And like Wordsworth, Emerson argued that to understand the world, we should go out there and engage with it ourselves, rather than relying on books and tradition to tell us what to think about it.