April is for Mary (Oliver)

After so much success with my experiment of reading Emily Dickinson for the month of March, I’ve decided to spend April with Mary Oliver. Like last month, I’m not sure what this will turn into. For now, the goal is to read a different Oliver poem every day and to supplement my understanding of it with a few other sources.

note: I did not start the month intending to study Mary Oliver poems, but on April 2nd, I encountered one of her poems displayed on someone’s front window and decided that it was a sign.

The Poems

  1. Work from The Leaf and the Cloud
  2. Hum
  3. April
  4. I Worried and Don’t Hesitate
  5. Softest of Mornings from Long Life
  6. Two Kinds of Deliverance
  7. Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer
  8. Wind in the Pines and Bird in the Pepper Tree/ Swan
  10. 4 Sonnets from Swan and Evidence from Evidence
  11. Stars from West Wind
  12. Yellow, Then the Bluebird Sang, The Poet Always Carries a Notebook from Evidence
  13. Deep Summer, I Want to Write Something So Simple
  14. Dogfish, Trilliums (from Dreams)
  15. Luke, The Summer Day
  16. Everything
  17. parts of The Leaf and the Cloud
  18. Sunrise
  19. from “Flare” and “Work” in The Leaf and the Cloud
  20. “From the Book of Time” in The Leaf and the Cloud
  21. “From the Book of Time” in The Leaf and the Cloud
  22. from “Riprap” and “Gravel” in The Leaf and the Cloud
  23. The Trees, Answers
  24. Such Singing in the Wild Branches from Owls and Other Fantasies
  25. more From the Book of Time, from Sometimes

I got a little lost this month reading so much of Mary Oliver, becoming stuck in theoretical knots over what work, love, human, and nature mean in her poems. Over whether or not MO was a Romantic poet who wrote too simply. Over the relationship between words, the world, and the work of noticing and which should be valued as more meaningful.

I also got a little lost in her beautiful descriptions and her endless invitations—in Upstream, she writes about how poetry opens thousands of doors; hers did for me, and, sometimes, that was too many doors! Sometimes it was overwhelming, sometimes stimulating. In honor of the many doors she opened, here’s a list of a few possible Mary Oliver-inspired exercises to try:

A Few Things to Do with a Mary Oliver Poem Other Than Just Exclaiming “Yes!”


I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to

Hum/ Mary Oliver

Okay, I confess to wanting to make a literature of praise.

4 Sonnets/ Mary Oliver

Practice admiration. Be astonished. Surprised. In wonder. Develop and demonstrate an appreciation for everything you encounter. Replace annoyance and judgment with delight. Create an admiration journal and add a new entry for every run (or walk) you take beside the gorge. Or, write a poem of praise using MO’s formula (see (April 12th): 1. Detailed description of something–swan, fox, poppies, 2. a question or moment of wonder, 3. a revelation or reminder of something already known but forgotten.


Softest of mornings, hello.
And what will you do today, I wonder,
to my heart?

Softest of Mornings/ Mary Oliver

Greet the morning or the trees, then ask of them this question. Write down their answers, or yours.


How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out

Yes! No! The

swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.

Yes! No!/ Mary Oliver

Practice saying “Yes!” and “No!” during your day in ways that enable you to do “your endless and proper work.” Yes! to the birds. No! to the expectation that you should always be doing something “productive”. Yes! to the bee. No! to bullshit busy work. Yes! to outside by the river. No! to inside at a desk. Yes! to stopping and staring. No! to hurrying and doing. Yes! to turkeys. No! to clocks. Yes! geese. No! news.


Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives? 

Listen, everyone has a chance. 
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you, 
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then—open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

Such Singing in the Wild Branches/ Mary Oliver

In her poems, MO often does 3 things. She invites, admonishes, and commands the reader (You). Pick a few of her poems and sort out her invitations, admonishments, and commands in a list. Then, accept one or two of her invitations.


Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods and in the early morning at the end of a walk and—it was the most casual of moments—as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the growing sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle towards it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity—the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women (34).

Long Life/ Mary Oliver

I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s-breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs upon their bodies. My parents were downstream, not far away, then farther away because I was walking the wrong way, upstream instead of downstream. Finally I was advertised on the hotline of help, and yet there I was, slopping along happily in the stream’s coolness. So maybe it was the right way after all. If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats: pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. The sense of going toward the source. …May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

Upstream/ Mary Oliver

The first passage is MO’s description of being found, the second of being lost. When have you been found? lost? Write about it. Do you prefer one over the other? Think about lost and found in relation to running and the runner’s high. Does it feel like being lost or being found?


…it’s tempting to be blinded by the more immediately visible parts of speech: the monolithic nouns, the dynamic verbs, the charismatic adjectives. Mousier ones—pronouns, prepositions, particles—go ignored.

Mary Oliver and the Nature-esque

Focus on MO’s “mousier” words, like “meanwhile,” “anyway,” and “sometimes.” Reflect on her pronouns–when she uses I or You or We. Why does she use these words? What impact do they have on the meaning in her poems?


Instructions for Living a Life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Sometimes/ Mary Oliver

Often, paying attention means stopping, standing still, staring, taking notes, then returning to a desk to write. What if you didn’t stop? What if you observed while moving (while running?) Took notes while moving? Wrote while moving? Experiment with different ways of noticing while moving, taking notes while moving, composing praise poems while moving.


But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deep affinity between your eyes and the world.

Terns/ Mary Oliver

Frequently what is seen in MO’s poems is fine details and colors—things you can see using your central vision. Read through some MO poems and find evidence of noticing with peripheral vision—motion, the overall landscape, the feeling of forms. Write your own description of peripheral vision noticing.

Some More Reading: