Never take life for granted

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken a mortal wound — that he will never get over it.

Robert Frost


There should be a national day of mourning when our best and most loved poets die. But most of those poets probably wouldn't want that. Mary Oliver, who died on Jan. 17, was one of them. But she would probably approve of a national day of reading poetry in her honor, so let's make that day today.

Oliver never took life for granted. She celebrated the daily discipline of paying attention to the world around us, which is essential to conscious living.

 For our national day of reading Mary Oliver, I've collected some of my favorite passages. 

I dedicate them to Joanne Cella-Easton, friend and kindred spirit, who died much too young on Jan. 9.


I go down to the shore in the morning / and depending on the hour the waves / are rolling in or moving out, / and I say, oh, I am miserable, / what shall — / what shall I do? And the sea says / in its lovely voice: / Excuse me, I have work to do.

"I Go Down to the Shore"

A Thousand Mornings


Mary Oliver was very good at asking challenging questions in her poems, such as this one from "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?"

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?


One of her most popular poems focuses on discerning where we stand in relation to 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.

from "Wild Geese"

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1


This is from my favorite Oliver poem — and the most meaningful at a crucial point in my own journey:

But little by little, / as you left their voices behind, / the stars began to burn / through the sheets of clouds, / and there was a new voice / which you slowly / recognized as your own, / that kept you company / as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do — / determined to save / the only life you could save.

from "The Journey"

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1


I quoted the following lines in my mother's eulogy in 2015:

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.

from "In Blackwater Woods"

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1 


She let go of the love of her life, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. Here is Oliver's prose poem on falling in love: 

Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart's little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks — when you hear that unmistakable pounding — when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming — then row, row for your life toward it.

from "West Wind #2"

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2


More challenging questions to keep you awake at night:

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?

from "The Summer Day"

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1


Mary Oliver considered the end with some frequency in her work. When she died last week at the age of 83, I hope she realized she had, indeed, made something of her life.

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.

from "When Death Comes"

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1


And she certainly did more than visit the world:

The little sparrow / with the pink beak / calls out, over and over, so simply — not to me / but to the whole world. All afternoon / I grow wiser, listening to him, / soft, small, nameless fellow at the top of some weed, / enjoying his life. If you can sing, do it. If not, / even silence can feel, to the world, like happiness, / like praise, / from the pool of shade you have found beside the everlasting.

from "Just Lying on the Grass at Blackwater"

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2


"Poetry," Mary Oliver wrote in A Poetry Handbook, "is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed."


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