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, ‘New and Selected Poems‘
With summer drawing to an end, I realized that I hadn’t posted any summer poems. The Poetry Foundation posted a handful of “end of summer” poems a week or so ago, which reminded me. This wasn’t in their collection but it is one of my favorite summer poems, of which there are many, many more that will find their way into posts, I promise.
Also, this poet has a birthday coming up this week, on the 10th of September.
Mary Oliver needs very little introduction, especially to American poetry lovers, having been a National Book Award winner as well as a Pulitzer winner. Her poems are mostly a celebration of nature, with influences of Whitman, Thoreau, Edna St Vincent Millay, and she is often compared to that other famous New Englander, Emily Dickinson.
This particular poem is about how the act of attention is like a prayer. And, the descriptions of animals in nature as well as herself, the poet, spending the day walking through fields, is a way of reminding us of how to be more attentive, more prayerful. The grasshopper, with its complete attentiveness to the act of eating and just being, is possibly an example to say: be fully attentive and focus on the things that you’re doing in the moment and enjoy them; what else are you going to do with your life? Indeed.
To state the obvious, with all the distractions we face in today’s super-connected world, this call to attentiveness is apt. As someone reminded me recently, there was a time when the word “distraction” actually meant “madness” (see Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2). And, as wonderful as new media are in terms of expanding our ways of communication, they have drastically reduced the quality of our concentration, as Rebecca Solnit says in her wonderful long read at the London Review of Books.
I grew more interested in Oliver’s work around 2005, when I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, her hometown, and lived, not too far from her birthplace in Maple Heights. She had also taught at nearby Case Western University for some time.
She is prolific and publishes poems at least every other year while giving only a handful of interviews throughout her long career. So, out of respect for her privacy, we will also let the poem speak for itself without any more personal details about the poet who wrote it.
Dream Work is her most popular collection, although her Pulitzer was won for the American Primitive collection. This particular poem is from a more personal collection from 1992, called New and Selected Poems. It was also selected by Billy Collins as #133 of the 180 poems in the Library of Congress Poetry 180 Project — poems for school kids for each of the 180 days of the school year.