As I have written in this blog previously, I have been reading a lot of work recently by the great American poet Mary Oliver. Born in 1935, Oliver published her first collection in 1963, and has been wowing critics and readers alike for decades. She's won both the Pulitzer Prize (for "American Primitive," 1983)) and the National Book Award (for "New and Selected Poems," 1992). Oliver may be to American poetry in 2015 what a man like Robert Frost was to American poetry fifty or sixty years ago.
When I read a lot of an author's work, I get a sense – at least, some sense – of who they are, what makes them tick. What's my take on Oliver now? Well, she's a consummate craftsman. And she's a bit crazy – like a kid who marvels every morning that we're all still hanging on to this spinning blue planet.
This evening, I was reading the book that won Oliver the National Book Award: New and Selected Poems: Volume One (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.) (By the way, the book is now referred to as Volume One because in 2007 Oliver published a "New and Selected Poems: Volume Two," which is a phenomenal book ... and may be even better than Volume One.)
Anyway, I'd like to share a poem from "Volume One" that I just read. The poem was originally published in Oliver's collection House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990). On a cold autumn night in Chicago, the poem in a way could not be more inappropriate. Or more perfect.
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
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?