Poems, Prayers, and Mary Oliver

For LoraKim, who rose with Mary for a year, and then more than a year, and then ever afterward,
and shows me every day that my work is loving the world.

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
Who made this 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?

On the eleventh Sunday of the season, we dedicate our chalice to the fourth source of the living tradition we share: Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. These chalice lighting words are from Mary Oliver:
“Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields… Watch now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.”
We celebrate today the poetry of Mary Oliver and commemorate her birthday. Mary will turn 80 in a week and a half, on Sep 10.

She is far and away America’s best-selling poet. In a country where most people find poetry intimidating – convoluted and confusing – where poetry is regarded as a nice idea but not something one would want to spend much time with – Mary Oliver stands alone as a poet with a mass readership. With unadorned language and accessible themes, her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release.

Three of her poems are in the back of our hymnal, including the responsive reading we’ll have today, and in the years since our hymnal was published in 1993 she has only grown in popularity among Unitarian Universalists. So often is she read from in Unitarian Universalist worship, that then-President of the UUA, Rev. William Sinkford, called Mary Oliver “one of our most important liturgists.”

Mary Oliver was born in the depression in a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Her first poetry collection was published in 1963 when she was 28. Since then, 21 more books of poems, plus six books of prose have followed.

Her poems draw inspiration from nature. Her practice has been to go on long early-morning walks through the wetlands and forests around her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the tip end of Cape Cod. She simply walks and pays attention – stopping occasionally to jot down a note. She has written: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Mary’s “Instructions for living a life” are:
  • Pay attention. 
  • Be astonished. 
  • Tell about it.
And this is what she modeled. On her walks she paid attention and was astonished, and in her poems, she told us about it. She says:
"When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."
In the late 1950s, Mary met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who would become her partner for over forty years. Mary later wrote: "I took one look and fell, hook and tumble." Until Molly died in 2005, the two lived together in Provincetown, and Molly was Mary’s literary agent.

Mary commented in a rare interview:
"When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That's a successful walk!"
She says that she once found herself walking in the woods with no pen and later hid pencils in the trees so she would not be stuck in that place again. She might forget to bring a pen or pencil, but she always had her 3-by-5-inch hand-sewn notebook for recording impressions and phrases.

The Harvard Review describes her work as an antidote to
"inattention and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives. She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making."
Critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Mary among America's finest poets:
"visionary as Emerson [... she is] among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey."
Seven poems by Mary Oliver

“In Blackwater Woods”

Look, the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light,
are giving off the rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment,
the long tapers of cattails are bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders of the ponds,
and every pond, no matter what its name is, is nameless now.
Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss whose other side is salvation,
whose meaning none of us will ever know.
To live in this world you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.


Somewhere a black bear has just risen from sleep and is staring down the mountain.
All night in the brisk and shallow restlessness of early spring.
I think of her, her four black fists flicking the gravel,
her tongue like a red fire touching the grass, the cold water.
There is only one question: how to love this world.
I think of her rising like a bland and leafy ledge to sharpen her claws against
the silence of the trees.
Whatever else my life is with its poems and its music and its glass cities,
it is also this dazzling darkness coming down the mountain breathing and tasting;
all day I think of her – her white teeth, her wordlessness, her perfect love.

“When Death Comes”

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me,
and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes like the measle-pox
when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world

“One or Two Things”

Don't bother me.
I've just been born.
The butterfly's loping flight carries it through the country of the leaves
delicately, and well enough to get it
where it wants to go, wherever that is, stopping
here and there to fuzzle the damp throats
of flowers and the black mud; up
and down it swings, frenzied and aimless; and sometimes
for long delicious moments it is perfectly
lazy, riding motionless in the breeze on the soft stalk
of some ordinary flower.
The god of dirt came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay on the grass listening
to his dog voice, crow voice, frog voice; now,
he said, and now, and never once mentioned forever,
which has nevertheless always been, like a sharp iron hoof, at the center of my mind.
One or two things are all you need to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff flowers of lightning—some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting knowledge of pain.
But to lift the hoof !
For that you need an idea.

“The Notebook”

“Six a.m. –
the small, pond turtle lifts its head into the air like a green toe.
It looks around.
What it sees is the whole world swirling back from darkness:
a red sun rising over the water, over the pines,
and the wind lifting, and the water-striders heading out,
and the white lilies opening their happy bodies.
The turtle doesn’t have a word for any of it –
The silky water or the enormous blue morning, or the curious affair of his own body.
On the shore I’m so busy scribbling and crossing out
I almost miss seeing him paddle away through the wet, black forest.
More and more the moments come to me: how much can the right word do?
Now a few of the lilies are a faint flamingo inside their white hearts
and there is still time to let the last roses of the sunrise float down into my uplifted eyes.”


Every day I see or hear something that more or less
kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle
in the haystack of light. It was what I was born for - to look, to listen,
to lose myself inside this soft world - to instruct myself over and over
in joy, and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant - but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations. Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help
but grow wise with such teachings as these - the untrimmable light
of the world, the ocean's shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?

“Another Everyday Poem”

Every day I consider the lilies -- how they are dressed –
and the ravens -- how they are fed -- and how each of these is a miracle
of Lord-love and of sorrow -- for the lilies in their bright dresses
cannot last but wrinkle fast and fall, and the little ravens
in their windy nest rise up in such pleasure at the sight
of fresh meat that makes their lives sweet -- and what a puzzle it is that such brevity –
The lavish clothes, the ruddy food -- makes the world so full, so good.

“It doesn’t have to be the blue iris. It could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones. Just pay attention. Then patch a few words together – and don’t try to make them elaborate. This isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” (Mary Oliver, "Praying")
God of dirt, from which and for which we live:
Grow in us the faith to trust in your care even in the midst of pain. We are never alone, ever in your midst, and yet so often we seem astray and estranged.

We mourn this week and hold in our hearts:
The deaths of 15 from suicide bombers in Lahore, Pakistan, outside two Christian churches.
The destruction by ISIS of the 2000-year-old temple in Palmyra, Syria.
The chemical attack in Syria affecting dozens of civilians.
That continued use of rape as a weapon of war in many places throughout the world, where women are devalued and seen only as property;
Wildfires burning across five western stated.
The extreme volatility of stock markets worldwide.
The continuing flood of refugees largely from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Eritrea and Syria struggling through hardship and danger to seek a new life in Western European countries.

Where our hearts are fearful and constricted, may we find courage and hope.
Where our minds are infected by anxiety, may we find peace and reassurance.
Where our vision can see no possibility, may we find imagination and resistance.
Where our spirits are daunted and distrustful, may we find connection and strength.

We celebrate:
The work of “Doctors Without Borders” whose members are treating the all victims of that chemical attack in Syria.
The firefighters laboring at risk against those wildfires – they have come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
The one surviving panda cub born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
The diplomatic agreement between North and South Korea, which will result in the reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
The courage and faith of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter dealing with his diagnosis of advanced cancer.
The resilience and courage of the people of New Orleans, ten years after Hurricane Katrina.

God of dirt, grow in us the resolve and capacity to be agents of healing love and liberating justice.

Singing the Living Tradition, #536: “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver.

Every morning the world is created.
Under the orange sticks of the sun the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again
And fasten themselves to the high branches— and the ponds appear like black cloth on which are painted islands of summer lilies.
If it is your nature to be happy you will swim away along the soft trails for hours, your imagination alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than lead— if it's all you can do to keep on trudging—
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 lavishly, every morning,
Whether or not you have ever dared to be happy, whether or not you have ever dared to pray.
Our Unitarian Universal General Assembly happens every year in June. One of the highlights is always the Ware lecture. Cornel West gave the Ware lecture last June when General Assembly was in Portland. I was there in person, and it was an electrifying experience. Cornel West was rousing and impassioned. I hope you’ve had a chance to see the video of that – we had a showing here last month, and it’s online at uua.org.

Nine years earlier, at the 2006 General Assembly in St. Louis, I was in attendance for a very different Ware lecture. The speaker was Mary Oliver. The Rev. William G. Sinkford, then-President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, introduced Mary, and he said that while Unitarian Universalist worship draws from many sources, congregations use "none more effectively or more frequently than the work of Mary Oliver." Sinkford did call her "one of our most important liturgists." He also noted that she probably didn't plan that to happen.

Mary came on and read to us from her poems for about an hour. The 2006 Ware Lecture was a poetry reading. It was as moving and powerful in its way as Cornel West’s was in a very different way. Three thousand other Unitarian Universalists were with me sharing that experience of Mary simply reading her poems, and from the feeling in the room when it was over, it seemed that three thousand Unitarian Universalist hearts were overflowing with peacefulness and a gratitude for this Earth and this life.

About half-way through, after reading a lot of her more recent material, she said, “Here’s an old, old poem everybody wants me to read. So I’ll do it.” As she started into it, I found myself mouthing the words along with her because I know it by heart. It’s called “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
We are surrounded by life of so many different kinds. Our lives are embedded in the rich network of life – your thread and mine woven into the fabric of this planet along with dogs and cats and hamsters, along with squirrels and chipmunks and deer, along with robins and nuthatches and goldfinches, along with cicadas and ants and mosquitos, along with trout and tadpoles and tuna -- along with geese. We’re woven together with all of them, and that’s our place – what we were made from and what we are made for.


We get lost. Over and over we find ourselves in the place Dante found himself in at the beginning of The Inferno:
“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”
We seem to have gone astray – find ourselves feeling separated from that fabric only within which we can realize our wholeness. And we tackle the problem with the tool we have: this enormous brain of ours, bigger in proportion to our body size than any other animal’s. We deploy the elaborate structures of moral judgment and strategizing intellect and go to work figuring out to how to be better, figuring out where that right road was and how to get back to it, figuring out how to be good.

Then along comes this little poem. The first line says: You know what? You do not have to be good. You really don’t. You can put that burden down. You can stop beating yourself up, stop punishing yourself in the hope that such ritual acts of self-inflicted repentance will transform you. You do not have to be good.

"Really? I don’t? How could that be? Where’s the argument, the reasoning for this claim that I don’t have to be good? On what evidence?"

The first evidence the poet mentions is your despair. “Tell me about despair, yours,” she says, inviting you to make her argument for her. This is the fruit of all that trying to be good: it just leads to despair.

The second evidence is life going on. Sun and rain, falling in those clear pebbles, keep moving, moving across the landscape, prairie, trees, mountains, rivers. The earth, full of wide and intricate vistas, just keeps turning -- and it will keep turning, not caring whether you are good.

The third evidence, the real clincher, is those geese. They don’t have to be good. They can just be geese. Just being who they are, they belong. And that means you do, too. The bald fact that they exist -- that they flap their wings and honk and fly together in their goosey formations – they feed, and molt, and produce goslings – all the things that merely manifest their goosehood – thereby also proclaims that they belong on this Earth, this Earth that they bring forth even as it brings them forth.

That’s how they announce their own and therefore also your place in the family of things – that’s how they announce it over and over.

You have the undeniable and unimpeachable authority of geese vouching for your belonging, documenting your citizenship in this world, revealing that the family of all things has a place for you, telling you exactly what that place is. Because you have their guarantee, you don’t have to earn it. You really don’t have to be good. You just have to be you. Love what you love. That is all that is asked.

My UU minister colleague Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern argues that Mary Oliver’s poems are mediocre. Rev. Morgenstern finds Ms. Oliver’s poems too obvious. She says the lovely images inevitably draw to the predictable conclusion, where the poem tells you what the moral is, the lesson taught by the natural world. A lot of people who are serious about their poetry don’t want morals or lessons tacked on – at least not simple obvious ones. They want their poems to be difficult.

Rev. Morgenstern mentions Rainer Maria Rilke as an example of a better poet because she has to read Rilke’s poems
“many times before I dig out their deeper meanings, and when I hold one of those meanings in my hand I know it’s the first of many, that that poem will keep revealing more to me the more times I read it.”
My colleague has a point. I also read Rilke, and it is an experience of poetry at a rather different level. There is a pleasure, too, in plunging into difficulty, laboring through layers of complexity.

Rev. Morgenstern then goes on to say that the very failings of Mary Oliver’s poems make them excellent liturgy:
“In a worship service, just as the hymns must be fairly simple to sing, the readings have to convey their meaning the first time, to listeners who don’t have another chance to go back and read them again or hear them again . . . They have to be very accessible. . . . Oliver’s poems are good liturgy for the same reason they are mediocre poetry. They deliver a poignant thought or a morsel of good advice for living, they do it with graceful language, they offer up images the mind can easily hold, and they have very little in them to distract the listener with ‘Wait, I didn’t get that bit.’ They lead one with silken inexorability to a conclusion. That’s not what I look for in a poem, but it’s perfect for a worship service.”
Or, as others have said, Mary’s poems are prayers more than they are the high art that highbrow critics relish. And when making prayers, as Mary herself says,
“don’t try to make them elaborate. This isn’t a contest.”
I don’t think I would attempt a sermon on Rilke. But Mary Oliver conveys, with simplicity and beauty, the sort of message that our shared Sunday morning experience, at its best, is all about.
Mary’s questions are religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability?
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
she asks in “The Summer Day.” In “Spring,” she answers:
“There is only one question: How to love this world.”
In “In Blackwater Woods” the related answer is:
“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: To love what is mortal; To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; And when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
In “One or Two Things,” Mary’s god is the “god of dirt,” and god’s voice is the voice of dog and crow and frog. This is a god of here and now who “never once mentioned forever.”

Her poems describe communion – a raw and earthy and sensual communion with nature that calls us back from detached lives increasingly spent indoors staring at screens. Screens. “Screen” is one of those words that means its own opposite. To “screen” a movie, for instance, means to present it to view. But “screen” also means to block from view. Prophet Mary speaks to us of the need to have unscreened experiences. Amidst our lives of fragmented multitasking, she speaks of unifying attention.

In an essay in Winter Hours, Mary writes:
“Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the recognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude.”
Paying attention is Mary’s form of prayer within the realm of this god of dirt from whom we come and for whom we live. “Just pay attention,” she says.
“Then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate. This isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
Every tree and blade of grass; every mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, and fish; every insect and cephalopod; every rock and every breeze -- has a message for us. Praying means paying attention. In this Mary is echoing the Psalmist, for Psalm 19 says:
“The heavens are telling the glory of god; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words. Their voice is not heard, yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Ps 19: 1-4, NRSV)
The place of connection and wholeness is in the silence, beyond words. “The turtle,” as Mary says,
“doesn’t have a word for any of it—the silky water or the enormous blue morning, or the curious affair of his own body.”
And though we often miss – fail to notice -- the silent glory of this dirt-god’s realm, forgiveness consists in this:
“There is still time to let the last rose of the sunrise float down into my uplifted eyes.”
There is still time.

Mary says plainly,
“My work is loving the world.”
That is all our work. Our job is to love: ourselves, other people, other creatures, every moment of life in this dirt-god’s world. You do not have to be good, but you do have to take up this assignment of loving the world. In page after page, poem after poem, through her long career of writing in her 80 years of life, Mary Oliver models how to do the human job. May we join her in that work.

“I tell you this to break your heart –
By which I mean only:
that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Go in peace.

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