by Mary Oliver

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
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?

© Mary Oliver. From The Paris Review # 124, Fall, 1992.

Mary Oliver’s poetry is grounded in memories of Ohio and her adopted home of New England. Influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, she is known for her clear and poignant observances of the natural world. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Maxine Kumin calls Oliver “a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms” and “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and interior monologues. Her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release. Oliver is also known for her unadorned language and accessible themes.

The author of more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, Oliver’s first collection of poems, Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963. She has since published numerous books, including Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006); Why I Wake Early (2004); Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (2003); Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999); West Wind (1997); and White Pine (1994). In 1992, her volume, New and Selected Poems (1992), won the National Book award. She won the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for her piece House of Light (1990). Her volume American Primitive (1983) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. The first and second parts of her The Leaf and the Cloud were selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 1999 and The Best American Poetry 2000, respectively. (Annotated biography of Mary Oliver courtesy of, with edits.)

Editor’s Note: A decade ago, when I set out to study poetry, I sat down with my professor and he asked me who I read. The only poet I read at that time was Mary Oliver. My professor taught me how truly important reading is to the act of writing, and in my time with him my library significantly grew. But Mary Oliver was my first, and her poetry is as accessible and timeless to me today as it was ten years ago.

When I recently began taking music lessons, my new music teacher was so excited to hear that I am a poet and poetry editor. “I read poetry nearly every day!” She exclaimed. When I asked who is among her favorite poets she replied, “Mary Oliver.” And so my study of poetry has come full circle.

I dedicate today’s post to the poetry professor who changed my life ten years ago, and to my new music teacher who I believe will do the same. For my readers, I hope you will be inspired by Oliver’s message: “And have you changed your life?”

Want to read more by and about Mary Oliver?
The Poetry Foundation
Modern American Poetry

About Sivan Butler-Rotholz

Sivan is the Managing Editor of the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be and holds an MFA from Brooklyn College. She is a professor, writer, editor, comic artist, and attorney emerita. She is also the founder of Reviving Herstory. Sivan welcomes feedback, poetry submissions, and solicitations of her writing via email at sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com.
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  1. Ross Woodbridge says:

    The official link listed for Mary Oliver – – is not for the nature poet Mary Oliver. It is for a performer in the United Kingdom. I made the same mistake when I was looking for current information on Mary Oliver.

  2. Maya Elashi says:

    my (suite) g-d/d-ss, I weep with the words of this exquisite (peace) … I, too, have loved MO since I was first introduced to her flying home with the wild geese … did you know she worked as a waitress for years for the sake of her poetry? Blessed Be(e) …

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