Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”

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?

—Mary Oliver

(Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver. From New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992); originally from House of Light.)

A quotation of the last two lines brought this poem to my attention. Oliver is one of my favorite poets, and this poem is timely for me. I have been thinking a lot about attention and prayer and wildness and preciousness and courage.

A rejoinder

I found a perfect rejoinder to my question of whether beauty is enough. It is a poem by Mary Oliver, from her 2005 collection Why I Wake Early.

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air—
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music—like the rain pelting the trees—like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds—
A white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

—Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early (2005)

And there is this quote from an interview with her: “I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us.”