Mary Oliver’s Poetry

Las night I went to hear the legendary poet Mary Oliver read. It warmed my heart to see the hall packed for this white-haired woman whose philosophy after all is so simple – kindness and attention to beauty are its main principles.

When asked about her daily practice, Oliver said she wakes every morning to witness (my word) the dawn and give thanks for another day, then she eats breakfast, takes a walk with her dog Percy, and works for 3-4 hours, at which point she is tired. Hers sounds pretty much like a perfect life to me.

Mary Oliver is one of those old-fashioned wordsmiths who doesn’t use a computer – she writes her drafts and revises them on a notepad before transcribing the finished work on a series of old typewriters (if they stop working she lets them rest under her chair for a few weeks, when, she says, they are almost always miraculously healed and ready to go again).

From her latest volume, Red Bird, "Invitation":

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude–
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

The red bird motif runs through this sweet book of love like a red thread of inspiration, ending finally with the poem Red Bird Explains Himself.


  1. Amy,
    How sorry I am we didn’t meet in person last night. It was a beautiful time, wasn’t it?
    She is so gentle and real. Her presence was sweet and vibrant.

  2. Thank you Amy for your sharing this experience, I have always loved Mary Oliver’s writing, but have never heard her, so appreciated what you wrote, gives a beautiful glimpse of the person behind the words. & I didn’t know of her new book, thanks for the wonderful taste, and inspiration on this morning!

    best, Laurie

  3. Perhaps somebody knows of upcoming schedules when Mary Oliver be in San Francisco in 2008 again this coming Summer, Fall or Winter?

  4. Susan,

    I don’t know of any other bay area appearances, but Mary Oliver will be at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on December 3rd, 2008, as part of the City Arts & Lectures series. Here’s a link to buy tickets.

    Warm Wishes,


Leave a Reply