In a rare and wonderful interview, Mary Oliver joined Krista Tippett on her radio program, “On Being,” to discuss the world, her place in it, and how to listen. The interview aired on February 5, 2015, but the audio, a transcript, and related links are available on the show’s website.
The Beacon Press YouTube Channel has a playlist of Mary Oliver (and a couple of her famous admirers) reading her poems. Hear her reading “Wild Geese,” “The Summer Day,” “Sunflowers” and more!
In celebration of the solstice, we post this video featuring Mary Oliver reading her poem, “The Summer Day” (referred to by many as “The Grasshopper”). The audio is from the CD “At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver reads Mary Oliver,” and the pictures are from Welfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod.
Mary Oliver reads “The Summer Day” on YouTube
The Summer Day
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?
Copyright @ 1990 by Mary Oliver. First published in House of Light, Beacon Press. Reprinted in The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays, Beacon Press.
Julie Brooks-Barbour participated in a discussion on the 32 Poems Facebook page about favorite poems. This developed into a brief essay about Mary Oliver’s “Singapore” posted on the 32 Poems blog. Here’s an excerpt.
“Though the title is important in defining place and how we, as readers, might visualize the woman in the poem, I think that is where its significance ends. Since the woman we meet through the speaker never utters a word, acting as a silent movie character, she could very well be any woman cleaning any airport anywhere in the world. What is most significant is the way in which the speaker argues against how the larger culture has taught her to treat a janitor or anyone working a job that would make her cringe, and how she accepts this woman as part of the world, as a human among humans, in the only way she knows how: through a poem.” Read the rest.
From Maria Shriver’s Blip.TV channel: a video of Mary reading “Mornings at Blackwater.”
Last fall, Mary Oliver read at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference. A clip of her reading “The Journey” at the conference was featured on Nightline the other night, and we wanted to share with you the full video of the event. She also reads “Wild Geese,” “Percy (One),” “The Summer Day,” and “Mornings at Blackwater.” She is, as always, positively a delight to watch.
“The Journey,” “Wild Geese,” and “The Summer Day” may all be found in New and Selected Poems, Volume One. “Mornings at Blackwater” may be found in Red Bird. Thirteen Percy poems, including the one she reads here, may be found in The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays, which also reprints “The Summer Day.”
Mary Oliver’s poems are favorites of Garrison Keillor. Did you know that you can search his Writer’s Almanac website by poem or poet? Here is a list of the many times Keillor has featured Mary Oliver’s poems, complete with links to the shows.
Last fall, while wrapping up her duties as First Lady of California, Maria Shriver flew cross-country to Florida’s Atlantic Coast to interview Mary Oliver, one of her favorite poets, for a revealing Q&A. The interview appeared in O’s Poetry Month issue, and is delightful, but it is a special joy to see Mary Oliver giggle on video.
Maria Shriver is guest editor of O Magazine‘s April Issue, a special Poetry Month edition of the magazine, which features a rare interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver. Shriver has long admired Oliver’s work, and writes, “I was overjoyed when—after politely declining my invitations for six straight years—Mary finally agreed to read at my annual Women’s Conference in California last fall, joining speakers like Michelle Obama and Eve Ensler.”
In the interview, Oliver talks about writing, reading, the loss of her life partner Molly Malone Cook, and finding the courage to speak about personal trauma. Here’s a short excerpt from this revealing and delightful discussion:
Maria Shriver: One line of yours I often quote is, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”* What do you think you have done with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver: I used up a lot of pencils.
Maria Shriver: [Laughs.]
Mary Oliver: What I have done is learn to love and learn to be loved. That didn’t come easy. And I learned to consider my life an amazing gift. Those are the things.
Maria Shriver: You have lived a very unique life, a life really individual and fearless.
Mary Oliver: Well, it was never a temptation to be swayed from what I wanted to do and how I wanted to live. Even when Molly got ill, I knew what to do. They wanted to take her off to a nursing home, and I said, “Absolutely not.” I took her home. That kind of thing is not easy. I used to go out at night with a flashlight and sit on a little bench right outside the house to scribble poems, because I was too busy taking care of her during the day to walk in the woods.
* The poem referenced here is “Wild Geese,” which can be found in New and Selected Poems, Volume One.
By half-past 5 on a morning in early May, the sun rising over Blackwater Pond had already brightened the pine woods. I stood in a wide natural path, carpeted with brown-red needles, that rises up the forested dune from the southwest side of the pond. In the high branches of the pines and beeches and honeysuckles, the birds were carrying on their racket — warblers, goldfinches, woodpeckers, doves and chickadees. But on the sandy ground among the trunks, nothing moved. Perfect stillness. Could this have been where Mary Oliver had seen the deer?
Read the rest of “The Land and Words of Mary Oliver, the Bard of Provincetown,” by Mary Duenwald, New York Times, July 5, 2009.
Vice President Joe Biden read Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” during the 9/11 remembrance at Ground Zero on September 11, 2009. Watch it here.
Provincetown is blessed with two linked national treasures: the Provincelands and their best interpreter, the poet Mary Oliver. Oliver and Provincetown are intertwined to an unusual degree—the landscape, plants, animals, and people here have long been inspiration for her, and are the subjects of many of her best-known works. She’s lived here for forty years, becoming a fixture of the community long before she became so well-known. But Provincetown has a curious way of making national figures out of friendly neighbors, and sometimes vice versa.
Read more of “A Permanent Enrichment”: An Interview with Mary Oliver, by Oona Patrick, Provincetown Arts Magazine, July 2009 (PDF).
Edna St. Vincent Millay died on October 19, 1950; she was 58. It was a too short, turbulent, diligent life—a life of life, a life of work. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She was the chosen representative figure of the ’20s, beautiful, flamboyant, honorable to the spirits of love and of art, yet, in those early years, mischievous, even racy. In book after book, she wrote more deeply, more quietly, with a lyrical finery, a feminist stance, an affinity with the natural world, an understanding of the necessity in the world for kindness, for participation.
The critics, with the exception of Edmund Wilson, have mostly hashed her work, making it smaller by emphasis on the early poems. Who remembers her libretto for Deems Taylor’s opera The King’s Henchman, or the plays, or the many elegant sonnets and poems in later books such as Buck in the Snow; Huntsman, What Quarry; and the posthumous Mine the Harvest?
Read more of “Edna St. Vincent Millay,” by Mary Oliver, on Beacon Broadside, October 19, 2007.
Several weeks ago, in the midst of National Poetry Month, I made an impulsive decision to drive out from Boston to Syracuse, New York, for a poetry reading. Mary Oliver was scheduled to fly from Logan for that reading, but I thought if I offered to intercept her on the connection from Provincetown and drive, it would give us some precious hours to talk and allow me the rare treat of hearing Mary read—an opportunity one should never pass up. Mary graciously accepted the offer of a ride and, as luck almost never has it, it was a beautiful early spring day when we set out for our five hour road trip.
As we approached the border of New York State, Mary interrupted our conversation to point out that we were coming up to the road to Austerlitz, a road she had driven so many times on her way to Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay for 25 years and then of her sister, Norma Millay Ellis. I knew that Mary had lived there too, on and off for more than half-a-dozen years after she finished high school and while she attended Vassar. The day was fine and we were making very good time, so I turned to her to ask if we should stop, and she instantly replied Yes!
Read more of “On the Road with Mary Oliver,” by Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press, on Beacon Broadside, May 14, 2008.
“One of the astonishing aspects of Oliver’s work is the consistency of tone over this long period [of her career]. What changes is an increased focus on nature and an increased precision with language that has made her one of our very best poets . . . There is no complaint in Ms. Oliver’s poetry, no whining, but neither is there the sense that life is in any way easy . . . These poems sustain us rather than divert us. Although few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver, it is ironic that few poets also go so far to help us forward.”
—Stephen Dobyns, New York Times Book Review