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Doubt:  A Film Discussion Guide

(USA, 2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep put in great performances in the new film Doubt, based on a play of the same title written by John Patrick Shanley. Shanley wrote the screenplay for and directed the film. Here are some discussion questions for the film. (These are based on an assignment I’ve developed for my course Faith, Film and Philosophy.)

  1. Why is Doubt a suitable title for this film? There may be several reasons.
  2. This film is an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt. Have you read the play? Have you seen the play performed? If you’ve read or seen the play, what is your evaluation of the film as an adaptation?
  3. What is the opening scene of the film? Having seen the whole film, what makes this a fitting start?
  4. Where does Father Flynn get his ideas for his sermons? What is the theme of his first sermon? His second sermon? His farewell sermon? What is the source of each of these sermons?
  5. Sister James asks Father Flynn if the sermon about gossip was directed at anyone in particular? He replies with a question, “What do you think?” Neither question is answered directly. So, what do you think?
  6. doubt-hoffmanWhat do you think of Father Flynn’s description of gossip and his method of illustrating this vice? Is it effective? Does it give you greater insight into the nature of this common but malicious practice? Have you ever been the victim of gossip? Did it have an unfair effect on your reputation? How did you respond? Did you do something about it? What should a person do when someone with influence has spread rumors about him or her to others?
  7. What does Sister Aloysius think Father Flynn has done wrong? Does she have a specific allegation of wrongdoing? What is it? If Sister Aloysius candidly agrees that she has no evidence and cannot prove her allegations against Father Flynn, why is she so certain that he has done something wrong? Is it true that she has no evidence? Are there moments when you suspect that Sister Aloysius is right to suspect Father Flynn? If so, when, during the film, do you feel this way?
  8. Sister Aloysius walks with Mrs. Miller in the cold weather toward the place where Mrs. Miller works as a cleaning lady. What do we learn about Mrs. Miller’s son, James, from their conversation? What effect does this have on the Sister’s suspicions about Father Flynn?
  9. Immediately following the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller, there’s a gust of wind that vehemently lifts and swirls the fall leaves around the Sister. There is something unnatural about this. Perhaps it is symbolic. Can you relate this occurrence to any other features of the film that explain it significance?
  10. While coaching the boys in basketball, Father Flynn notices that some of the boys have dirty fingernails. He stresses the importance of having clean nails and shows them his own, saying, “I like mine a little long.” What’s significant about this moment in the film? Recall that Sister Aloysius later orders Father Flynn to cut his nails. What does this business about Father Flynn’s nails have to do with the themes of the film?
  11. Father Flynn thinks things should be a little more relaxed and friendly at the school. You might suspect that his theological views are also more lax and progressive. Is this accurate? Are there indications that Father Flynn’s theological beliefs are traditional or more progressive (i.e., liberal)?
  12. Ultimately, Father Flynn leaves the parish to become pastor of another congregation. Why does he leave? Does his departure mean that he is guilty of wrongdoing? Sister Aloysius remarks that his resignation is proof of his guilt. Do you think she might be right? Suppose Father Flynn has done nothing wrong in his relationship with the boy named James. And suppose he’s done nothing wrong with other boys at other parishes.
  13. How does Sister Aloysius justify her lie about speaking with a nun about Father Flynn’s behavior at his previous parish? Could a lie of this sort ever be justified for a person in her position? Why hasn’t Sister Aloysius made the phone call she claims she has made?
  14. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “innuendo” as “an oblique hint, indirect suggestion; an allusive remark concerning a person or thing, especially one of a depreciatory kind.” Consider the role of innuendo in this film. The accusations of Sister Aloysius are indirect and yet pointed and insistent. Father Flynn’s response is often diffident and cautious. Sister James is coy. Why are the themes of the film handled in this way, rather than more directly?
  15. How does the film end? Are you surprised by the confession made by Sister Aloysius? Is this a satisfying ending? Is there any sense in which Sister Aloysius, stern as she is, is a sympathetic character? Explain.
  16. What does this film say about doubt? What else is this film about? What lessons does this film have for the viewer?
  17. Are there people you know who would enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would enjoy it? Are there people you know who would not enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would not enjoy it?
  18. doubt-streepList other films you’ve seen starring Meryl Streep in a lead role. Compare Streep’s performance in Doubt with her performance in these other films. On a scale of 1 to 100, how would you rate her performance in Doubt in comparison with her performance in other films? Alternatively, rank her performance in this and other films by placing them in order, starting with the best and working down the scale.
  19. Do the same for Philip Seymour Hoffman that you did for Streep in the previous question.

Yesterday three friends helped me completely refresh my front yard flower beds and landscaping areas. Large evergreens and bushes were dug up and discarded.  It was a long-awaited but much needed change.

New dirt and several new bushes, plants and vines were added while early blooming miniature and other varieties of narcissus were transferred to new locations. A small English boxwood was also replanted to a new spot near another boxwood.

I was especially relieved to take out nine overgrown Barberries.  Despite their ruby-leafed beauty, they were painful to the touch, ouch plants.

Ornamental grasses were trimmed and organic boundaries were retrenched.  River rocks we have collected over the years were dug up and reset into the edges of the beds.

The mulch and the annuals for the spring and summer season are still to come as we make our final selections over the next few weeks.

While we were digging and working my cat AnnMarie came to the door and watched.  A couple of times I noticed her wonder timidly into the landscaping area but quickly retreat back indoors. We were making lots of loud noise so I was not surprised.

After we completed our work I relaxed on the front porch.  The afternoon turned misty and cloudy, and lots of neighbors came out to enjoy the warm spring air.  I like to watch as they walk their dogs and kids around our community circle.

One little girl was driving one of those self-propelled pink cars I love to watch. She drove down the hill in front of my house, across in front of the lake, and then returned and headed back up the hill, happily chatting with her mom and dad and starting and stopping her fancy creaking car for curiosity’s sake.  She brought back fond memories of my twin granddaughters on a Mothers Day many years ago when they similarly enjoyed taking their pink car on a sidewalk cul de sac adventure.   Happy, gleeful smiles.

As evening fell and the busy sidewalks quieted down I left the front door open and urged my cat to come outside.   However, she resisted and stayed on her cozy spot on the living room couch.  For her, this is a very unusual behavior.  And then I quickly began to think about how very disturbing all of this commotion and change of the day must have been for her. So I waited. And waited. And waited some more, hoping she would finally come out and give it a try.

Finally, I went inside and cuddled her as I picked her sleepy body up from the couch and carried her outside to join me on the front porch.  But she quickly retreated to the door sill where she sniffed and watched for a long time before she finally ventured gently out into the new flower beds and plantings. She did not take long, she did not hurry. But she did spend enough time to leave her scent and rub a few spots along the way.  She is unhappy.

What had I been thinking?–overgrown shrubs and trees had provided her cover, shading, places to hide and retreat and familiar smells, but now the landscaping is open and most of the familiar friendly plants are gone.   In all my eagerness to improve the landscape, I had forgotten how she would become stressed and feel less safe in our yard.

Because she is almost twenty years old and frail, I am always careful when I let her out. I try to limit her from wondering outside after dark because a red fox recently appeared late one evening near the front mailbox .  During the daytime hawks often spiral overhead. So I keep a look out and listen for their sounds.  As AnneMarie has become more delicate we have a kind of deal together.  I hang around close at hand while she has her adventures.

Her trek through the yard has settled into a familiar pattern.  She usually visits both ends of the driveway culvert. She sometimes visits two birdbaths, and she likes to cross the road and hang out near the lakefront for a while but is cautious when the cars are coming and going.   And she also likes a drink from the lake water near the spillway.

Occasionally there are places she goes and hides from me.

Her adventures take her at least fifteen or twenty minutes, occasionally and half hour and even longer, and I am becoming very patient with her about it. Being a cat lover (I assume you are, or you would not be reading this), you know what she does. Sometimes she comes right to the front door when I call, swish, swishes her tail and then turns right around and goes quickly off for another little retreat around the yard flower beds or to take a final drink at the culvert. It can get a little frustrating as nighttime approaches.

But AnnMarie has been with me a very long time and I love her very much and I figure it is my job to give her the time she needs.  My belief is that these walks and drinks add length and joy to her life and my guess is that the culvert water trough has the makings of all that a cat needs to complete her mineral, protein and vitamin store needs. I am sure the waters are alive with all kinds of tiny swimmers and algae.  One thing I do know is that the culvert water is her favorite. Frogs live there, so there are tiny tadpoles swimming around.

Now that I am awakened to the trauma I have unwittingly brought to her ordered life I am wondering if she will adapt and find her way safely around the new flower beds.  I have pangs of regret.  I reassure myself by remembering that we left a few of the large plantings and that the new larger shrubs and vines will offer some cover.   I hold my breath.

I am writing this on Monday morning, a day later, and I am happy to report that this morning AnnMarie did venture out the front door without urging and walked quite a distance into the landscaping areas, even once taking a few small steps around the corner of the house.  Progress.

I am hopeful. She has adapted to three new homes in her lifetime.

May God bless AnnMarie and keep her safe from goulies and ghosties and short and long-leggedy beasties, from hawks and owlies and things that go bump in the day and the night.

The work in progress:

arlo guthrie

Berkshire Beagle Story


February 5, 2015
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Mary Oliver is one of our greatest living poets, beloved and often quoted by people across ages and backgrounds. She rarely gives interviews or speaks about the life behind her writing. But she's with us, this hour.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MARY OLIVER: "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."
Lord knows when I started writing poetry, it was rotten.
MS. TIPPETT: The poetry was rotten?
MS. OLIVER: Sure. I was 10, 11, 12 years old, but I kept at it — with my pencil I've traveled to the moon and back. Probably a few times.
MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 and grew up in a small town in Ohio. she's won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among her many honors. she's published numerous collections of poetry and also some wonderful prose. She lived and wrote for five decades in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, and her poetry is vivid with a sense of place. After an illness and the death of her longtime partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, Mary Oliver has now moved to southern Florida. And That's where I visited her.
MS. TIPPETT: The question I always start with, whether I'm interviewing a physicist or a poet is — I"d like to hear whether there was a spiritual background to your childhood. However you would define that now.
MS. OLIVER: Well, I would define it now very differently from when I was a child. I was sent to Sunday School, as many kids are. And then I had trouble with the resurrection. So I would not join the church. But I was still probably more interested than many of the kids who did enter the church. It's been one of the most important interests of my life and continues to be. And it doesn't have to be Christianity. I'm very much taken with the poet Rumi.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. OLIVER: Who is Muslim, a Sufi poet — and read him every day, and have no answers but have some suggestions. [laughs] I know that a life is much richer with a spiritual part to it.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. OLIVER: And I also think nothing is more interesting. So I cling to it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And then you talk about growing up in a sad, depressed place, a difficult place. In another — you don't belabor this, I mean, and in other places — there's a place you talk about you were one of many thousands who've had insufficient childhoods.
MS. TIPPETT: But that you spent a lot of your time walking around the woods.
MS. OLIVER: I did. And I think it saved my life. I — to this day, I don't care for the enclosure of buildings.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. OLIVER: It was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household, not just myself I think. And I escaped it, barely. With years of trouble.
MS. OLIVER: But I did find the entire world in looking for something. But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And there's such a convergence of those things then...
MS. TIPPETT: It seems all the way through.
MS. TIPPETT: You — in your life as a poet.
MS. OLIVER: It is. It is a convergence. And I have a little difficulty now having lived for fifty years in a small town in the North. I'm trying very hard to love the mangroves. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I know.
MS. OLIVER: It takes a while.
MS. TIPPETT: And I have to say, you and your poetry, for me, are so closely identified with Provincetown and...
MS. TIPPETT: ...and that part of the world, and that kind of dramatic weather — that kind of shore.
MS. TIPPETT: And so when I had this amazing opportunity to come visit you — and I said, ‘Oh great, we’re going to Cape Cod.’ "No, we’re going to Florida." [laughs]
MS. OLIVER: Yes. Well, I just sold my condo to a very dear friend this summer. And I bought a little house down here, which is — needs very serious reconstruction. So, I'm not in it yet. But sometimes it's time for the change.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Though, for all those years, for decades of your writing, this picture was there of you. This pleasure of walking and writing and, I don't know, standing with your notebook.
MS. TIPPETT: And actually writing while you're walking. [laughs]
MS. OLIVER: Yes. That's how I did it.
MS. TIPPETT: And it is. And it seems like such a gift that you found that way. To be a writer and to have that daily — have a ritual of writing.
MS. OLIVER: Well, I don't — as I say I don't like buildings.
MS. OLIVER: So I was — the only record I broke and in school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot with books.
MS. OLIVER: Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as I — they came to me. And then worked them into poems later. And always I wanted the "I." Many of the poems are "I did this. I did this. I saw this." I wanted them — the "I" to be the possible reader.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. OLIVER: Rather than about myself. It was about an experience that happened to be mine but could well have been anybody else’s. And that was my feeling about the "I." I have been criticized by one editor who felt that "I" would be felt as ego. And I thought, no, well, I'm going to risk it and see. And I think it worked. It enjoined the reader into the experience of the poem. I became the kind of person who did the walking and the scribbling but shared it.
MS. OLIVER: If they wanted it. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And you also use this word — there's this place where you're talking about writing while walking, you know, listening deeply. And I love this, listening, "listening convivially."
MS. OLIVER: [laughs] Yes. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And listening, really, to the world.
MS. OLIVER: Listening to the world. Well, I did that and I still do it.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. OLIVER: I still do it.
MS. TIPPETT: I was going to ask you if you thought you could have been a poet in an age when you probably would have grown up writing on computers.
MS. OLIVER: Oh. Oh, now? Oh, I very much advise writers not to use a computer.
MS. TIPPETT: But it seems to me that more than the computer being the problem, the sitting at a desk would be a problem.
MS. OLIVER: That's a problem. Lots of things are problems. I always — as I talk about it in the Poetry Handbook, discipline is very important.
MS. OLIVER: The habit — I think we're creative all day long. And if — we have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page. Because the creative part of us gets tired of waiting, or just gets tired. And It's helped a lot of students, young poets doing that. To have that meeting with that part of oneself because there are, of course, other parts of life. I used to say I gave my — when I had jobs, which wasn’t that often, but I’d say I give my very best second, second class to...
MS. TIPPETT: the job.
MS. OLIVER: ...labor to the — because I’d get up at five, and by nine I’d already had my say.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And also when you write about that — the discipline that creates space for something quite mysterious to happen. You talk about that "wild, silky part of ourselves." You talk about the “part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem—a heart of the star as opposed to the shape of the star, let us say—exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious.”
MS. OLIVER: Where? What is that from?
MS. TIPPETT: That's from the Poetry Handbook. [laughs]
MS. OLIVER: [laughs] It's been a while.
MS. TIPPETT: It's great. But you say — you promise — it learns quickly what sort of courtship It's going to be. you're saying that the writer has to be kind of in courtship with this...
MS. TIPPETT: ...elusive, essential, but elusive, cautious, as you say, cautious part. And that if you turn up every day, it will learn to trust you.
MS. OLIVER: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I remember that.
MS. TIPPETT: This is a very practical way about talking about something That's quite...
MS. OLIVER: That trust is very important.
MS. TIPPETT: And That's the creative process.
MS. OLIVER: That is the creative process. It's also true that I believe poetry — it is a convivial and kind of, I mean, It's very old. It's very sacred. It's very — wishes for a community. It's a community ritual, certainly. And That's why, when you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody.
MS. OLIVER: And you have to be ready to do that out of your single self. It's a giving. It's always — It's a gift. It's a gift to yourself but It's a gift to anybody who has a hunger for it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And I wonder if It's something about this process you describe where you've applied the will, but also the discipline, to reach and also make room for something That's very deep in us. Right? I mean, I love this language, "this wild, silky part of ourselves." I don't know, maybe the soul.
MS. OLIVER: It's become a nasty word lately.
MS. TIPPETT: I know it has.
MS. OLIVER: Because It's used — It's become a lazy word.
MS. OLIVER: It's too bad.
MS. TIPPETT: It's cliched.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. Overused.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, the silky part, let"s just call it that. But I mean, so if you — when you offer that, poetry does create a way to offer that in a condensed...
MS. TIPPETT: ...form, vivid form.
MS. OLIVER: And very often it — it was Blake who said, “I take dictation.”
MS. OLIVER: With that discipline and with that willingness and wish to communicate, very often things very slippery do come in that you weren’t planning on receiving them.
MS. OLIVER: But they do happen. It does — I have very rarely, maybe four or five times in my life, I've written a poem that I never changed. And I don't know where it came from. But it does happen. But it happens among hundreds of poems that you've struggled over. But It's poss...
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Do you know which — do you know what some of those are? Do you know what they are still?
MS. OLIVER: Well, the Percy one was one.
MS. OLIVER: “The First Time Percy Came Back.”
MS. OLIVER: I never changed a word of that. And there are others. I can't remember, but there are a few. Of course, there are also poems that I just write out and then I throw them out.
MS. OLIVER: Lots of those.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and also, when you talk about this life of waking up in the morning and being outside in this wild landscape with your notebook in your hand and walking. It's so enviable, right? But then I know, when you're in the Poetry Handbook, there's the discipline of being there, but there's also the hard work of rewriting. And, as you say, some things have to be thrown out.
MS. OLIVER: Oh many, many, many have to be thrown out. For sure.
MS. TIPPETT: There's an un-romantic part to the process as well.
MS. OLIVER: Well, That's an interesting word. Somebody once wrote about me and said I must have a private grant or something that all I seem to do is walk around the woods and write poems. But I was very, very poor.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. OLIVER: And I found — I ate lot of fish, I ate lot of clams.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And I realized that you actually — you weren"t just walking around the woods. You were gathering food...
MS. OLIVER: Yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: those early years: mussels and clams and mushrooms and berries. Although you gave voice to this kind of really lavish, even ornate beauty that you lived in that was your daily — that was really your mundane world.
MS. OLIVER: Yes, That's true.
MS. TIPPETT: So there's a question that you pose in many different ways, overtly and implicitly, you know, "How shall I live?" In Long Life you wrote, “What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? [laughs] What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?” Which really is a question of moral imagination.
MS. OLIVER: Yes. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And It's the ancient essential question. But I wonder how you think about how that question emerges and is addressed distinctively in poetry and through poetry. What does poetry do with a question like that that other forms of language don't?
MS. OLIVER: Well, I think I would disagree that other forms of language don't. But poetry has a different kind of attraction.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So what is that attraction in poetry?
MS. OLIVER: I think It's the way It's written. It's the fact that it has been communal for years and years and years and we’ve missed it. But I do think poetry has enticements of sound that are different from literature. Literature certainly has it too, or some literature, the best literature. And it has — It's easier for people to remember. People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it.
MS. OLIVER: And can speak it to themselves as you might a prayer — than they can remember a chapter and quote it. And That's very important because then it belongs to you. You have it when you need it. But poetry is certainly closer to singing than prose.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MS. OLIVER: And singing is something that we all love to do or wish we could do. [laughs] It...
MS. TIPPETT: And it goes all the way through you.
MS. OLIVER: Yes. It does indeed.
[music: “The Best Paper Airplane Ever” by Lullatone]
MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today in a rare conversation with the poet Mary Oliver.
[music: “The Best Paper Airplane Ever” by Lullatone]
MS. TIPPETT: I just wanted to read — I just love — I just want to read these. This is from Long Life also. “The world is: fun, and familiar, and healthful, and unbelievably refreshing, and lovely. And it is the theater of the spiritual; it is the multiform utterly obedient to a mystery.”
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. Well, you know, and it is. We all wonder, "Who is God? What"s going to happen when we die?" All that stuff. And I don't think it's — maybe — it's never nothing. I'm very fond of Lucretius.
MS. TIPPETT: Say some more.
MS. OLIVER: And Lucretius says just everything’s a little energy. You go back and you're these little bits of energy and pretty soon you're something else. Now That's a continuance. It's not the one we think of when we're talking about the golden streets and the angels with how many wings and whatever, the hierarchy of angels. Even angels have a hierarchy. But It's something quite wonderful.
The world is pretty much — everything is mortal. It dies. But its parts don't die. Its parts become something else. And we know that when we bury a dog in the garden. And with a rose bush on top of it. We know that there is replenishment. And That's pretty amazing.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MS. OLIVER: And what more there might be, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure pretty confident of that one.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] And, I mean, again do you think spending your life as a poet and working with words and responding to the world in the way you have as a poet gives you, I don't know, tools to work with? Because putting words around God, or what God is, or who God is, or, I don't know, heaven — It's always insufficient.
MS. OLIVER: It's always insufficient, but the question and the wonder is not unsatisfying. It's never totally satisfying. But It's intriguing. And also what one does end up believing, even if it shifts, has an effect upon life that you live, the life that you choose to live or try to live. So it’s an endless unanswerable quest. So I just — I find it endlessly fascinating. And I think also religion is very helpful in people not thinking that they themselves are sufficient. That there is something that has to do with all of us that is more than all of us are.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think that is what you do because of the particular vision that you have, what you pay attention to, what you attend to, which is that grandeur, that largeness of the natural world, which — you know, a couple of years ago when I was writing, and I picked up your book A Thousand Mornings. And here’s the first one, “I Go Down to the Shore”: "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 should I do? And the sea says / in its lovely voice: / Excuse me, I have work to do."
MS. OLIVER: I love that.
MS. TIPPETT: I love that. And I have to say also, to me, it was just — It's so perfect. It kind of was, like, what"s the point of writing 50,000, bringing 50,000 new words into the world? This says it all.
MS. OLIVER: Well, I have had a rash, which seems to be continuing, of writing shorter poems.
MS. TIPPETT: I noticed that in your more recent poems.
MS. OLIVER: And it probably is an influence from Rumi, whose poems are — many of them are quite short. But if you can say it in a few lines, you're just decorating for the rest of it. Unless you could — intent makes something more intense, but if you said what you want to say, you're not going to make it more intense. you're just going to repeat yourself. So I've got a poem that will start the next book. I think it goes like this: "Things take the time they take. don't worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?"
Same kind of thing. What else is there to say?
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] That's right.
MS. OLIVER: And That's four lines, and That's not a day’s work. But the poem is done.
MS. TIPPETT: And it speaks so completely perfectly to the "I" who's reading the poem. Even though it's — it's about St Augustine, but it's about all of us. Right?
MS. OLIVER: Yeah, and people do worry that they’re not wherever they want to go. And St. Augustine — I just read a biography of him. And he was all over the map before he settled down.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I’d like to talk about attention, which is another real theme that runs through your work — both the word and the practice. And I know people associate you with that word. But I was interested to read that you began to learn that attention without feeling is only a report. That there is more to attention than for it to matter in the way you want it to matter. Say something about that learning.
MS. OLIVER: You need empathy with it rather than just reporting. Reporting is for field guides. And they’re great. They’re helpful. But That's what they are. But they’re not thought provokers. And they don't go anywhere. And I say somewhere that attention is the beginning of devotion, which I do believe. But That's it. A lot of these things are said but can't be explained.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that your poem "A Summer Day" is maybe, is one of the best known.
MS. OLIVER: Yes it is. I would say that's true.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So, my daughter, who is now 21 and all grown up, but who then was about 12 was assigned to memorize "A Summer Day."
MS. OLIVER: "The Summer Day."
MS. TIPPETT: "The Summer Day," "The Summer Day" in sixth grade. And so she came home reciting this poem and I felt really embodying it. And we actually played it in the show. Anyway, I brought it because I wanted you to hear it. And so remember, she's not reading it, she'd learned it.
ALY TIPPETT: "The Summer Day": "Who made the 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?"
MS. OLIVER: That's a beautiful reading.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that fun for you to hear?
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. How old was she then?
MS. TIPPETT: She was about 12.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. Beautiful
MS. TIPPETT: But so many, so many young people, I mean, young and old, have learned that poem by heart. And it's become part of them.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. One thing about that poem, which I think is important, is that the grasshopper actually existed. And yet I was able to fit him into that poem. And the sugar he was eating was part of frosting from a Portuguese lady’s birthday cake, [laughs] which wasn’t important to the poem. But even seeing that little creature come to my plate. And say I’d like a little helping of that. It somehow fascinates me that — that's just personal for me that it was Mrs. Segura and probably her 90th birthday cake or something.
MS. TIPPETT: Did she ever read the poem? Did she ever know?
MS. OLIVER: No. She was past that. Her daughters may have, but I never advertised myself as a poet. And there was that wonderful thing about the town. And that is I was taken as somebody who worked like anybody else. And I’d go — there was one fellow who was the plumber. And we’d maybe meet in the hardware store in the morning.
MS. TIPPETT: You mean in Provincetown?
MS. OLIVER: And he'd say, "Oh, Hi Mary. How's your work going?" And I’d say, "Pretty good how was yours?" And it was the same thing. There was no sense of eliteness or difference, and that was very nice. It was just — in fact, it is a funny story. When I — the Pulitzer Prize was announced, which I didn't even know they"d turned the book in for, I was, at that time, as the whole town was doing, going out to the dump most mornings, which was a mess — that was before they cleaned up — to buy shingles. I was shingling the house or some kind of thing. And a friend of mine came by — a woman who's a painter. She said, "Ha, what are you doing looking for your old manuscripts?" [laughs] It was very funny.
MS. TIPPETT: And you didn't know? She'd heard the news?
MS. OLIVER: I knew. But my job in the morning was to go find some shingles. [laughs]
[music: “Causeway” by Ryan Teague]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Mary Oliver through our website, I'm Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Causeway” by Ryan Teague]
MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, the poet Mary Oliver has granted us the honor of a rare interview on the world and poetry — and the life behind her writing. she's won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize among her many honors, and is beloved by people across ages and backgrounds. At age 79, she's moved from Cape Cod to Florida, to be close to friends, and That's where we visited her.
MS. TIPPETT: I wanted to also name the fact that as you said before, you're not somebody who belabors what is dark, what has been hard. I think It's important and maybe helpful for people, because there's so much beauty and light in your poetry, also that you let in the fact that It's not all sweetness and light. And you did that a lot in the Dream Workbook.
MS. OLIVER: I did. I did.
MS. TIPPETT: And those poems are notably harder.
MS. OLIVER: And a lot of — you know, I didn't know at that time what I was writing about. I really had no understanding.
MS. TIPPETT: You mean, you didn't realize that they were so hard, or you literally didn't know what you were...
MS. OLIVER: No. there's a poem called "Rage."
MS. OLIVER: And I — it's a she.
MS. OLIVER: And that was — That's perfect biography. Unfortunately, or autobiography. But I couldn’t handle that material except in the three or four poems that I've done. Just couldn"t.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I mean, there's a line in "Rage": "in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and your dreams do not lie." And That's...
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. And and That's That's how I felt, but I didn't know I was — certainly, I didn't know I was talking about my father. Children forget. I mean they don't forget, but they forget the details. They just don't know why they have nightmares all the time. It's very difficult.
MS. TIPPETT: Isn't it incredible that we carry those things all our lives, decades and decades and decades?
MS. OLIVER: Well, we do carry it. But it is very helpful to figure out, as best you can, what happened and why these people were the way they were.
MS. OLIVER: It was a very dark and broken house that I came from.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean there's another — there's that poem in there "A Visitor", which mentions your father. And there's just, to me, this heartbreaking line, which also — I have my own story. We all do. "I saw what love might have done / had we loved in time..."
MS. OLIVER: ...had we loved in time. Yeah. Well, he never got any love out of me.
MS. OLIVER: Or deserved it. But mostly what makes you angry is the loss of the years of your life. Because it does leave damage. But there you are. You do what you can do.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think the — you have such a capacity for joy especially in the outdoors. Right? And you you transmit that. And It's that joy. If you're capable of that, having — but how much more — how much more of it would there have been?
MS. OLIVER: Well, I saved my own life by finding a place that wasn’t in that house. And that was my strength. But I wasn’t all strength. And it would have been a very different life. Whether I would have written poetry or not, who knows? Poetry is a pretty lonely pursuit. And, in many cases I used to think, I don't do it anymore, but that I'm talking to myself. there's nobody else that in that house that I was going to talk to. And it was a very difficult time, and a long time. And I don't understand some people"s behavior.
MS. TIPPETT: But I — and I guess what I'm saying, I think, is that it's a gift that you give to your readers to let that be clear. That this, you know, that your ability to love your wild, your "one wild and precious life" is hard won.
MS. TIPPETT: And, I mean — I feel like you also, for all the glorious language about God and around God that goes all the way through your poetry, you also acknowledge this perplexing thing. I mean, this was in Long Life: "What can we do about God, who makes and then breaks every god-forsaken, beautiful day?"
MS. OLIVER: [laughs] Well, we can go back and read Lucretius.
MS. TIPPETT: What does Lucretius do then?
MS. OLIVER: Lucretius just presents this marvelous and important idea that what we are made of will make something else. Which to me is very important. There is no nothingness. With these little atoms that run around too little for us to see, but put together they make something. And that to me is a miracle. Where it came from, I don't know, but it's a miracle. And I think it's enough to keep a person afloat.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Let’s talk about your last couple of books. Which also are an insight into you at this stage in your life. And then I’d love for you to read some poems.
MS. TIPPETT: You have said that you were so captivated. That you were — I don't know if you've said this that way, but it seems to me you've kind of written about being so captivated by the world of nature that you were less open to the world of humans.
MS. TIPPETT: And that as you've grown older, as you've gone through life, what did you say, you've entered more fully into the human world and embraced it. Is that a good? Is that a...?
MS. OLIVER: True. It's absolutely true.
MS. TIPPETT: And was it passage of time?
MS. OLIVER: It was a passage of time. It was a passage of understanding what happened to me and why I behaved in certain ways and didn't in other ways. So it was clarity.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You wrote really beautifully about the death of Molly, who you shared so much of your life with. And you wrote, I don't know, I'm finding my notes, "The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention."
MS. TIPPETT: I liked that line. And in some ways it, it feels to me when I read your poetry of the last couple of years that that's really this territory you're on, or at least part of it.
MS. OLIVER: Well, I should be.
MS. TIPPETT: And I don't mean — I don't mean you're at the end of life, but just paying attention to...
MS. OLIVER: Well, I've been better. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: But just a different — it's a different chapter.
MS. OLIVER: Well, it is. I mean, I had cancer a couple years ago.
MS. OLIVER: Lung cancer. And it feels that death has left his calling card. I'm fine. I get scanned, you know, as they do. I'm lucky. I'm very lucky. But all the same, you're kind of shocked. This doctor, that doctor. I was a bad smoker.
MS. TIPPETT: And you're still smoking.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. And last time the doctor said, "Your lungs are good." You get good fortune, take it. And you keep smoking.
MS. TIPPETT: There's that poem "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac" in the new book.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. How does that start? Which one is that? Oh, I — that's one of the poems about cancer.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, right. And you haven’t, I don't think — have you spoken much about your cancer? I don't...
MS. TIPPETT: People know that you were ill...
MS. OLIVER: People knew I was ill and they didn't know...
MS. TIPPETT: ...they didn't know what it was. In that poem, there's a very passing reference to it.
MS. OLIVER: Oh, yes there is. There are four poems. One is about the hunter in the woods that makes no sound. All the hunters.
MS. TIPPETT: It's a little bit long, but do you want to read it?
MS. OLIVER: Oh, where’d I put my glasses? There they are. Yeah. The fourth sign of the zodiac is, of course, cancer. Oh, That's what I meant. "Why should I have been surprised? / Hunters walk the forest / without a sound. / The hunter, strapped to his rifle, / the fox on his feet of silk, / the serpent on his empire of muscles— / all move in a stillness, / hungry, careful, intent. / Just as the cancer / entered the forest of my body, / without a sound."
Yeah. These four poems are about the cancer episode, shall we say? The cancer visit? Did you want me to go on to these others?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You want to go on? Is it too much?
MS. OLIVER: No. This is the second poem of these four: "The question is, / what will it be like / after the last day? / Will I float / into the sky / or will I fray / within the earth or a river— / remembering nothing? / How desperate I would be / if I couldn’t remember / the sun rising, if I couldn’t / remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t / even remember, beloved, / your beloved name.
3. / I know, you never intended to be in this world. / But you're in it all the same. / So why not get started immediately. / I mean, belonging to it. / There is so much to admire, to weep over. / And to write music or poems about. / Bless the feet that take you to and fro. / Bless the eyes and the listening ears. / Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste. / Bless touching. / You could live a hundred years, It's happened.
/ Or not. / I am speaking from the fortunate platform / of many years, / none of which, I think, I ever wasted. / Do you need a prod? / Do you need a little darkness to get you going? / Let me be as urgent as a knife, then, / and remind you of Keats, / so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, / he had a lifetime.
4. / Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat, / all the fragile blue flowers in bloom / in the shrubs in the yard next door had / tumbled from the shrubs and lay / wrinkled and faded on the grass. But / this morning the shrubs were full of / the blue flowers again. There wasn’t / a single one on the grass. How, I / wondered, did they roll or crawl back to / the shrubs and then back up to / the branches, that fiercely wanting, / as we all do, just a little more of / life?"
[music: “Breaking Down” by Clem Leek]
MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with the beloved poet Mary Oliver.
[music: “Breaking Down” by Clem Leek]
MS. TIPPETT: There are some of your poems, and I think "The Summer Day" is one and "Wild Geese" is another, that are just — that have just entered the lexicon.
MS. OLIVER: That — yes. That — three: "The Summer Day," "Wild Geese," there's one other. I can't remember, but I would say is the third one. But I don't remember it.
MS. TIPPETT: If you think of it, tell me. So "Wild Geese" is in Dream Work. Is that a poem — and I've heard people talk about that, "Wild Geese," as a poem that has saved lives. And I wonder if when you write something like that — I mean, when you wrote that poem, or when you published this book, would you have known that that was the poem that would speak so deeply to people?
MS. OLIVER: This is the magic of it. That poem was written as an exercise in end-stopped lines.
MS. TIPPETT: As an exercise in what?
MS. OLIVER: End-stopped lines. Period at the end of the line. I was working with a poet. I had her in a class.
MS. TIPPETT: So it was an exercise in technique. [laughs]
MS. OLIVER: Yes. Yes. And not every line is that way. I was trying to show the variation, but my mind was completely on that. At the same time, I will say that I heard the wild geese. I mean, I just started out to do this for this friend and show her the effect of the line end is — you've said something definite. It's very different from enjambment. And I love all that difference. And That's what I was doing.
MS. TIPPETT: To your point that the mystery is in that combination of discipline and the convivial listening.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. I was trying to do a certain kind of construction. Nevertheless, once I started writing the poem, it was the poem. And I knew the construction well enough that I didn't have to think about, just if I need an end-stopped line here or... It just worked itself out the way I wanted for the exercise.
MS. TIPPETT: Would you read that one?
MS. OLIVER: Sure. That's kind of a secret. But it's the truth. "Wild Geese." I actually thought it was — oh no, there it is. Fourteen. you're right. "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."
Well, it's a subject I knew a lot about. You know, so it...
MS. TIPPETT: It was just there in you.
MS. OLIVER: It what?
MS. TIPPETT: It was there in you to come out.
MS. OLIVER: It was there in me. Yes. Once I heard those geese, and said that line about anguish, and where that came from, I don't know.
MS. OLIVER: I’d say That's one of the poems that...
MS. TIPPETT: ...that just came.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. It wasn’t dictated, but — that's what Blake used to say.
MS. OLIVER: And that's just a way of saying you don't know where it comes from.
MS. OLIVER: But if you've done it — if you've done it lot — and lord knows when I started writing poetry, it was rotten.
MS. TIPPETT: The poetry was rotten?
MS. OLIVER: Sure. I was 10, 11, 12 years old, but I kept at it, kept at it, kept at it. I used to say I — with my pencil I've traveled to the moon and back. Probably a few times. I kept at it every day. And finally you learn things.
MS. TIPPETT: I'm conscious that I want to move towards a close. I’d like to hear a little bit more — you've mentioned Rumi a few times. In A Thousand Mornings you say, "If I were a Sufi for sure I would be one of the spinning kind." And That's clear. I mean, actually it makes so much sense from how you were always on the move even as a teenager. How do you think your spiritual sensibility — and here we are again with that tricky word. But how is your spiritual — I don't want to say how is your spiritual life. I mean, you've said somewhere you've become more spiritual as you've grown older. And, I mean, what do you mean when you say that? What’s the content of that?
MS. OLIVER: I've become kinder, more people-oriented, more willing to grow old. I always was investigative in terms of everlasting life, but a little more interested now. A little more content with my answers.
MS. TIPPETT: There's this poem. The second poem in A Thousand Mornings, which is your 2013 book, which also to me just kind of, like, says it all. What’s the point of the — "I Happen to Be Standing." Would you read that one?
MS. OLIVER: Oh. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: It's just, there it is.
MS. OLIVER: Yeah. "I don't know where prayers go, / or what they do. / Do cats pray, while they sleep / half-asleep in the sun? / Does the opossum pray as it / crosses the street? / The sunflowers? The old black oak / growing older every year? / I know I can walk through the world, / along the shore or under the trees, / with my mind filled with things / of little importance, in full / self-attendance. A condition I can't really / call being alive. / Is a prayer a gift, or a petition, / or does it matter? / The sunflowers blaze, maybe That's their way. / Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not. / While I was thinking this I happened to be standing / just outside my door, with my notebook open, / which is the way I begin every morning. / Then a wren in the privet began to sing. / He was positively drenched in enthusiasm, / I don't know why. And yet, why not. / I wouldn't persuade you from whatever you believe / or whatever you don't. That's your business. / But I thought, of the wren"s singing, what could this be / if it isn't a prayer? / So I just listened, my pen in the air."
Well, the poems keep coming.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] In the Poetry Handbook you wrote, "Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. 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." And I just wanted to read that back to you because I feel like you've given that to so many people. You’ve demonstrated that. And, you know, you also write in poetry about thinking of Schubert scribbling on a cafe napkin, "Thank you. Thank you."
MS. OLIVER: Yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And I feel like so many people when they read — when they imagine you standing outdoors with your notebook and pen in hand, you know, "Thank you, thank you."
MS. OLIVER: You’re welcome.
MS. TIPPETT: It's been a beautiful conversation.
MS. OLIVER: You’re much welcome. I'm free. I'm free. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yes. You are.
[music: “Morrison County” by Craig D"Andrea]
MS. TIPPETT: Mary Oliver has received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has published over 25 books of poetry and prose including Dream Work, A Thousand Mornings, the Poetry Handbook, and in 2014, Blue Horses. You may know that we usually post the unedited interview behind each week’s episode. This 90 minutes with Mary Oliver contains many lovely moments, including more of her ruminations on her move from the landscape of Cape Cod to that of Florida; and on her long love of the dogs in her life.
MS. TIPPETT: Have your dogs and your love of your dogs and life with dogs infused your theology? Or is that too lofty a question?
MS. OLIVER: Well, Rilke wrote a poem — some friend of mine did a painting of it, of just a picture of a dog. And the quote is "the soul for which there is no heaven." Well, no thank you. I mean, there are going to be trees in Paradise, as we're going to have fun imagining it, whether it exists or not. Dogs are certainly going to be there. Poor little burros and donkeys after all the work they’ve done in the world. Good heavens, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.
[music: “Cirrus” by Bonobo]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again or share this episode in many ways, including on your phone through our iPhone and Android apps, on the brand new On Being tablet app, or of course, as always, at There you can also hear Mary read all the poems you just heard and a few others she read for us. Find all this and much more at
[music: “Cirrus” by Bonobo]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, David Schimke, Nicki Oster, and Selena Carlson. Special thanks this week to Ann Godoff and Liz Calamari at Penguin Press and to Regula Noetzli at the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency.
Our major funding partners are: the Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide at The Fetzer Institute, fostering awareness of the power of love and forgiveness to transform Our World. Find them at Kalliopeia Foundation, contributing to organizations that weave reverence, reciprocity, and resilience into the fabric of modern life. And the Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

Mary Oliver

Mary OliverRachel Giese

Poet Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books,“particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” Kumin noted that Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” Oliver’s poetry has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.”

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College, but did not receive a degree from either institution. As a young poet, Oliver was deeply influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and briefly lived in Millay’s home, helping Norma Millay organize her sister’s papers. Oliver is notoriously reticent about her private life, but it was during this period that she met her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook. The couple moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the surrounding Cape Cod landscape has had a marked influence on Oliver’s work. Known for its clear and poignant observations and evocative use of the natural world, Oliver’s poetry is firmly rooted in place and the Romantic nature tradition. Her work received early critical attention; American Primitive (1983), her fifth book, won the Pulitzer Prize. According to Bruce Bennetin the New York Times Book Review, American Primitive, “insists on the primacy of the physical.” Bennet commended Oliver’s “distinctive voice and vision” and asserted that the “collection contains a number of powerful, substantial works.” Holly Prado of the Los Angeles Times Book Review also applauded Oliver’s original voice, writing that American Primitive “touches a vitality in the familiar that invests it with a fresh intensity.”

Dream Work (1986) continues Oliver’s search to “understand both the wonder and pain of nature” according to Prado in a later review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Ostriker considered Oliver “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.” For Ostriker, Dream Work is ultimately a volume in which Oliver moves “from the natural world and its desires, the ‘heaven of appetite’…into the world of historical and personal suffering…She confronts as well, steadily,” Ostriker continued, “what she cannot change.”

The transition from engaging the natural world to engaging more personal realms is also evident in New and Selected Poems (1992), which won the National Book Award.The volume contains poems from eight of Oliver’s previous volumes as well as previously unpublished, newer work. Susan Salter Reynolds, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, noticed that Oliver’s earliest poems are almost always oriented towards nature, but seldom examine the self and are almost never personal. In contrast, Oliver appears constantly in later works. But as Reynolds noted “this self-consciousness is a rich and graceful addition.” Just as the contributor for Publishers Weekly called particular attention to the pervasive tone of amazement with regard to things seen in Oliver’s work, Reynolds found Oliver’s writings to have a “Blake-eyed revelatory quality.” Oliver summed up her desire for amazement in her poem “When Death Comes” from New and Selected Poems: “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.”

Oliver continues her celebration of the natural world in later collections, includingWinter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999), Why I Wake Early (2004),New and Selected Poems, Volume 2 (2004), and Swan: Poems and Prose Poems(2010). Critics have compared Oliver to other great American lyric poets and celebrators of nature, including Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Muir, and Walt Whitman. “Oliver’s poetry,” wrote Poetry contributorRichard Tillinghast in a review of White Pine (1994) “floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling.”

A prolific writer of both poetry and prose, Oliver publishes a new collection every year or two. Her main themes continue to be the intersection between the human and the natural world, as well as the limits of human consciousness and language in articulating such a meeting. Jeanette McNew in Contemporary Literature described “Oliver’s visionary goal,” as “constructing a subjectivity that does not depend on separation from a world of objects. Instead, she respectfully confers subjecthood on nature, thereby modeling a kind of identity that does not depend on opposition for definition…At its most intense, her poetry aims to peer beneath the constructions of culture and reason that burden us with an alienated consciousness to celebrate the primitive, mystical visions that reveal ‘a mossy darkness – / a dream that would never breathe air / and was hinged to your wildest joy / like a shadow.’”

Mary Oliver held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College until 2001. In addition to such major awards as the Pulitzer and National Book Award, Oliver has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also won the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

[Updated 2010]


Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, chair of writing department, 1972-73, member of writing committee, 1984; Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, Mather Visiting Professor, 1980, 1982; Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, poet-in-residence, 1986; University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, Elliston Visiting Professor, 1986; Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA, Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, 1991-95; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching, 1996—2001.



  • No Voyage, and Other Poems, Dent (New York, NY), 1963, expanded edition, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1965.
  • The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972.
  • The Night Traveler, Bits Press, 1978.
  • Twelve Moons, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.
  • Sleeping in the Forest, Ohio Review Chapbook, 1979.
  • American Primitive, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983.
  • Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.
  • Provincetown, Appletree Alley, 1987.
  • House of Light, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1990.
  • New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1992.
  • White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.
  • Blue Pastures, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1995.
  • West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
  • Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
  • The Leaf and the Cloud, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
  • What Do We Know, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
  • Why I Wake Early, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.
  • Boston Iris: Poems and Essays, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.
  • New and Selected Poems, Volume Two, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.
  • Thirst: Poems, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2006.
  • Our World, (with photographer Molly Malone), Beacon (Boston, MA), 2007.
  • Red Bird, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2008.
  • Evidence, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2009.
  • Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2010.


  • (Author of introduction) Frank Gaspar, Holyoke, Northeastern University Press, 1988.
  • A Poetry Handbook, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.
  • Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
  • Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
  • (Audio CD) At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2006.
  • (Audio CD) Many Miles: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2010.


Contributor of poetry and essays to periodicals in England and the United States.



  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1981, Volume 98, 1998.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1984, Volume 34, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Oliver, Mary, New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, 1992.


  • America, January 13, 1996, David Sofield, review of White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems.
  • Booklist, July, 1994, Pat Monaghan, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 1916; November 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of White Pine, p. 574; June 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, p. 1648; June 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, p. 1708; March 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Winter Hours, p. 1279; September 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 58; March 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, p. 1259.
  • Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 23, 1986.
  • Library Journal, July, 1997, Ellen Kaufman, review of West Wind, p. 87; August, 1998, Lisa J. Cihlar, review ofRules for the Dance, p. 104; December, 2000, Louis McKee, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 145; December, 2003, Judy Clarence, review of Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, p. 125; May 1, 2004, Kim Harris, review of Long Life, p. 107.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 21, 1983, p. 9; February 22, 1987, p. 8; August 30, 1992, p. 6.
  • Nation, August 30, 1986, pp. 148-150.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1983, pp. 10, 22; November 25, 1990, p. 24; December 13, 1992, p. 12.
  • Poetry, May, 1987, p. 113; September, 1991, p. 342; July, 1993, David Barber, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 233; August, 1995, Richard Tillinghast, review of White Pine, p. 289; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of Rules for the Dance, p. 286.
  • Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1990, p. 62; August 10, 1992, p. 58; June 6, 1994, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 62; October 31, 1994, review of White Pine, p. 54; August 7, 1995, review of Blue Pastures, p. 457; June 30, 1997, review of West Wind, p. 73; March 29, 1999, review of Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems, p. 100; August 28, 2000, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 79; July 21, 2003, review of Owls and Other Fantasies, p. 188.
  • Washington Post Book World, February 1, 1987, p. 6.
  • Whole Earth Review, summer, 1995, Wade Fox, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 30.
  • Women’s Review of Books, April, 1993.

monthly archives


Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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January 2022



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory