"Song of the Lark" by Jules Breton. Via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Oliver: To Pay Attention, this is Our Endless and Proper Work

In light of the death of Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Mary Oliver, we revisit the essence of her work which re-orients the heart towards a reality pregnant with meaning.
Claire Vouk

This past Thursday, January 17, Mary Oliver, Pulitzer-Prize and National Book Award winning poet, passed away in her Florida home at the age of 83. Oliver was beloved by many for her straightforward and accessible poetry, often centered upon observations of the natural world.

I remember the very first time I read a poem by Oliver. I was a nineteen, a Sophomore at Benedictine College, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English. I stumbled across one of Oliver’s most beloved poems, “The Summer Day,” scrolling through my phone while sitting on my dorm-room bunk bed after class one day. The last (most famous) lines of the poem were familiar to me: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?

However, it wasn’t this oft-quoted question that struck me that day. Instead, it was a phrase that comes earlier in the poem: “I don't know exactly what a prayer is / I do know how to pay attention.” The rest of the poem is essentially a testament to the truth of this statement. The speaker wonders about who created the natural world around her, including the grasshopper-- but not just any 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.

“The Summer Day” wasn’t the first poem to ever touch me (I was an English major after all); however, it was the first one to truly move me, to make me want to change something about my life. After reading Oliver’s line about prayer and attention, and seeing the way she could describe that particular grasshopper, I couldn’t help but be curious if I could look at the world in the same way. While walking to meet a friend across campus, I looked around at the sky, the grass, the trees and begged to be able to regard reality with the same wonder and respect that Mary Oliver possessed.

Many of Oliver’s poems focus on the same detailed observations of the natural world that are present in “The Summer Day.” However, it’s not as if Oliver used the objects and events of the natural world to her own poetic benefit--she never manipulated them into metaphors in order to express her own ideas or beliefs. Instead, Oliver’s poetry indicates that to her, spending time in nature held the possibility of encounter or even education, if one can only pay attention. As she says in her poem, “Yes! No!”: “To pay attention / this is our endless and proper work.”

In the days since Oliver’s death, a multitude of articles have paid tribute to this quality of hers, this extreme attentiveness. While reading through the pieces about her and reflecting on my own affection for the poet, I recognized that, yes, Oliver’s poetry can educate her readers to attentiveness, however, it also does something more. Her poems are not just detailed descriptions of the natural world. Instead they quite regularly include a question or provocative statement that seems to well up inside the speaker upon observing some phenomenon. Take her piece, “The Swan,” for example, in which a beautiful, imagery-laden description of a swan taking off into flight ends with following lines:

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

It seems to me that Oliver is not a proponent of living in the present moment simply for the sake of “being present.” Instead Oliver’s poetry indicates a reason to stay present, in that she recognizes a profound connection between the natural world and the questions and difficulties of her own heart. As she says in her piece, “Morning Poem”:

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted—
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

For me, Oliver’s death was an occasion to re-encounter her words, and to pray to be re-oriented into a position towards reality more similar to hers: filled with wonder, humble attentiveness, and a certainty that reality is filled with promise.