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Poem of the Week: Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”

As I considered which Mary Oliver poem to focus on this week, I discovered that her most famous poem is “The Summer Day.” I was surprised.

Despite its cherry-picked commodification, the poem is responsible for pulling so many new readers into verse’s thralls, a difficult thing to do in an age of distraction. 

from Vanity Fair’s Obituary “How Mary Oliver’s ‘The Summer Day’ Became an American Sensation”

Maybe it’s because I have found many other Mary Oliver poems have resonated more with me. These poems have influenced me own poetry. I wrote two poems based on the structure and theme of “Rain.” Another one that I quoted in one of my poems is “Am I Not Among the Early Risers.” That doesn’t mean that “The Summer Day” doesn’t resonate with me. It does. But, it hasn’t influenced my own poetry. At least, not directly.

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.

from Mary Oliver’s biography on Poetry Foundation

It indeed may be impossible for me to choose one Mary Oliver poem as a personal favorite. It is easier for me to choose a favorite collection.

Or is it?

I have deep fondness for New and Selected Poems Volume One , which includes “The Summer Day.” But, this is a favorite because it is the first volume I purchased when I was in college. My copy of New and Selected Poems Volume Two is dog-eared on nearly every page. Speaking of dog’s ears, I would have to say that Dog Songs encouraged me as a poet since many of my poems focus on my former and current fur-babies. I do think that Thirst is Mary Oliver’s most moving collection and the one that encouraged me and continue writing poetry after my first collection of poetry was published in the same year.

“The Summer Day” is redolent of much of her work, tuned into the natural world as well as anything can be, and, often by extension, mortality.

from Vanity Fair’s Obituary “How Mary Oliver’s ‘The Summer Day’ Became an American Sensation”

I do think I have any idea about why this poem is a favorite for many who encounter it. Mary Oliver gives us a close up of her writing process. She starts with a generalized meaning-of-life question (“Who made the world?”), then begins considering a bird and an animal. Swans and bears are popular in poetry, so it makes sense that she would consider these two in specific. But, she doesn’t. She only mentions them. Instead she moves on to the grasshopper. She studies the grasshopper. So close is her observation that she analyzes the grasshopper’s movements. She creates a metaphor for prayer in her own actions of kneeling down in order to observe nature. In this moment, she considers the fleeting, tenuous nature of life itself. Then she invites us to answer the question that I think so many have memorized and continued to ask:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

from “The Summer Day”

This is the question–that if we dare to answer it directly or indirectly while considering our own life purpose and themes–makes us all poets.

Categories: poetry month

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