August 6, 2007

The Thirst of Mary Oliver

An evening of poetry with some friends this past week sent me looking into the poems of Mary Oliver again.

In Oliver's newest book, Thirst, there are 43 new poems. You'd expect to find poems about nature, and readers familiar with her work might also expect a kind of spirituality. As several reviewers have written, you will also find her exploring in this book grief and faith.

I returned to reading Oliver's poems after my friend, Leon, talked about how approaching her poems recently had been a kind of spiritual reading. Oliver recently lost her long time companion, and in this book she writes through and with her grief into a place that seems overtly spiritual, perhaps even religious.

Some of the poems sound like prayers-

Oh Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am
not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.
and in the poem, "Praying" she offers:

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 can speak.

Patching a few words together into a prayer, or into a poem (I have long believed that almost all poems touch upon the writing of poetry) is, as she writes early in the book, her doing her life's work - "loving the world."

And the poems are still full of place: ponds, ocean and marsh full of "salt brightness," grass, fields and cattails occupied by herons, ravens, dogs, bees, hawks, snakes, turtles, and bears.

My other poetic companion last week, Susan, might call these Oliver's signature tropes (as Susan is currently deep into a thesis on the topic). That's not a bad path into the poems either, but I might have to walk down several definition roads to see tropes linguistically, as in music, philosophy or in the most obvious literary meaning.

As she spends a "Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond," Oliver writes:

Every day I walk out into the world
to be dazzled, then to be reflective
For me, these poems are a kind of natural praying. They are natural in the sense of nature, full of wonder and admiration for the majesty of what surrounds us, and they are natural in their inherent sense of right and wrong and their higher qualities of human nature.

Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned—
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

For August, we ask for our new writing prompt that you try to write a natural prayer. You may use any definition of natural, any form of prayer, whether that be overtly religious or spiritual without any religious attachments. This term, "natural prayer," is not my own invention - Celan said: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul," so there are precedents for this type of poem.

If you have examples of poets who have written poems of this type, post a link in the comments below for others to follow.

Information on this writing prompt and poem submission is at


  1. You might want to look at "Prayer to Shadows on My Wall"
    by Mark McMorris at

  2. Mary Oliver Saved My Life - link to article

  3. Thanks for the link, Greg. The ideas on healing and poetry would make a good prompt in itself - perhaps that can be another thread to use in this month's prompt.

  4. What is "natural prayer"? Celan said: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." Mary Oliver's poems all seem to be about a deep attentiveness and a "thirst" for the holy in the natural world. Isn't a prayer always an invocation of the supernatural? Isn't all nature a miracle and supernatural? Mary's poem in THIRST, "More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord," suggests that all life is a miracle and that the supernatural is the driving energy (an energy of love and beauty perhaps?)behind it all. In her poem, the idea of the supernatural or God is still something beyond the natural world...thus the paradox, the Great Koan. If we look at the experience of Jesus of Nazareth, even He, though one with God, never made himself equal to God. In the poem, the narrator says that God is "wiping the stars away," which suggests that God is the natural world yet He/She is still something beyond it. For me, God is that longing in the heart that whispers through each breath I take. He/She is that longing that waits in between each breath and thought, always there, always ready to comfort us in our pain, but not fully revealed. One with us but beyond us. The Holy Spirit at work.

  5. Your comments go beyond what I assume most readers will take as a definition.

    I think a poet's approach to natural prayer could be as simple as seeing it as natural as in "nature" and/or natural as opposed to the kind of formal "taught" prayers of formal religion.

    I don't think that poets need to address prayer as a purely religious exercise in this case.

  6. a poem I would recommend is by the late Stanley Kunitz - it is called BENEDICTION (link provided at my name) which contains these favorite lines of mine-

    God give you tears, but leave
    you secrecy to grieve,

    And islands for your pride,
    And love to nest in your side

    I enjoy your site and blog very much and appreciate your willingness to publish interesting and well written poetry from the world.

  7. Why Dont you guys use s/w to save poems. try :


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