10 Vintage Mary Oliver Poems to Soothe Your Soul

By Helen LinLast Updated Apr 27, 2021 5:46:22 PM ET
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Mary Oliver is one of the most beloved poets in American history. For more than 50 years, the poet wrote, read, and fueled the literary scene, all while winning nearly every major literary award there is over the course of her career. In fact, Mary Oliver’s poems have earned her the Pulitzer prize, the National Book Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, honorary doctorates, and a Goodreads Choice Award.

The poet has a very "now and then" vibe. She was born during World War II and passed in 2019. The technological advancements and social reforms that happened during her time are immense. Living through so many important decades, Oliver’s insightful poems wish for a better world and, in some ways, by reading her work today, we can see that the world responded positively in some ways. A lot of the ethical questions that Oliver brought up in terms of war, womanhood, and sexuality have been heard and in some cases, answered.

On the other hand, Oliver’s environmental concerns haven’t quite reached the hearts of many companies and politicians. Mary Oliver has a lot in common with writers from the 19th and 20th centuries: in her poems, there’s a lot of nature, a lot of walking. Yet, Oliver’s pleas for humanity and equality created a modern spirit that lasted well into her later career.

The Dream Work Era

The 1980s were a challenging time. Amid the Reagan era, the AIDS crisis, the Cold War, and other unsettling occasions of the decade, Mary Oliver found a way to use her art to put words that articulated what people of the time were feeling. But the poems in Dream Work are also timeless enough that people can still get a lot of mileage out of them today.

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Wild Geese: The sentiment in this poem was so strong that Mary Oliver eventually came out with a book that used this poem as its title piece. "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves," was a downright revolutionary line to have in this 1986 collection. A Pride-adjacent poem, "Wild Geese" probably helped a lot of queer readers during the dark times of the 1980s and, likely, continues to do so today.

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Robert Schumann: in this Mary Oliver poem, the speaker sympathizes with the Romantic composer. Schumann suffered from depressive episodes and never received adequate treatment for them. Mental illness was still pretty taboo at the time, even more so than it is today. This poem follows the Mental Health Systems Act of 1981 that defunded mental healthcare for thousands of people.

Banyan: A banyan is an Indian fig tree. The growth of the tree’s seed is quintessential Mary Oliver and a spot-on nature poem.

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Members of the Tribe: This poem grapples with life, depressive ideations, the desire to hurt one’s self, and the ultimate decision not to do so. Oliver names other poets and artists, here, and explains the complex nature of going to art for advice even if it makes you sad.

The Blue Pastures Era

Published in 1995, Blue Pastures is such a great book because it’s about the creative process and yet still gives that natural, poetic excellence Mary Oliver’s poems are known for delivering. Some may call these short works "essays," but why put a label on them? Reading these shorts out loud, one might feel they are at an open mic in a coffeehouse while simultaneously delivering a keynote address at a commencement.

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My Friend Walt Whitman: Was this the best collab of the 20th century? No matter your take on prose poems, Oliver’s rumination on Whitman makes one want to double fist one poetry collection from each writer and read them both at the same time. This is, as the youths say, "legends supporting legends."

Of Power and Time: This poem is particularly wonderful for creative individuals that work nine-to-five "day jobs." Mary Oliver grapples with the monotony of day-to-day life and being at a desk, providing the reader with a resiliency — one that might drive them to create art despite less than ideal conditions.

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Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air: in this poem, Mary Oliver takes on poetry as a whole. Oliver calls out capitalism as the main reason why there aren’t more poets and audiences for poetry. This spirit, still radical for today, was way ahead of its time.

The Why I Wake Early Era

George W. Bush. Two wars. The 9/11 terrorist attack. When Mary Oliver published her 2004 collection, there was a lot going on. With growing uncertainty at every turn, Oliver stuck to nature, but her aesthetic in Why I Wake Early continued to "wow" readers.

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Why I Wake Early: The title poem is a great place to start. I get the feeling that this poem does not take place on a Monday morning because the speaker seems delighted and happy to be up early. An ode to the sun, this poem shows that even when we’re feeling miserable, the sun still gives light.

Freshen The Flowers, She Said: Only Mary Oliver could make floral arrangement seem like the most soothing thing on earth. Her speaker tells the reader that the activity took 15 minutes and that the activity itself was music even though nothing was playing.

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Bone: This grapples with the physical and the intangible. What is a soul and where can one find it on the body? The question is rhetorical, and yet, Oliver’s poem feels like the answer to that question.

With all that was going on around Oliver on a macro scale, the writer found subjects in what was around her. In Oliver’s poems, a beetle is often not just a beetle and a flower is not just a flower. Her writing ultimately goes back to living and dying. Thus, Mary Oliver poems are ultimately about survival.

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As an artist, Oliver was ahead of the curve on a lot of issues, and readers benefit from that insight to this day when reading her work in the 2020s. Thanks to her keen figurative language, authentic voice, and astute literary citizenship, Mary Oliver’s poems will continue to sing and sing and sing.