Your One Wild and Precious Life


Spiritual Sunday

Although Mary Oliver is known as a nature poet, I’ve contended in a number of posts that she is just as much a spiritual poet. Her poem “The Summer Day” makes this particularly clear. A passage from a previous post about an Oliver poem applies to this one as well:

Oliver seems to be very much in the tradition of Emily Dickinson when it comes to spiritual experience. Dickinson may have talked more overtly about religion but she too looks for God in nature. (See my post here on her poem “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to the Church.”) Dickinson seems to fall within the Gnostic tradition that Harold Bloom says is foundational to American religion. Bloom says that most American worshippers see themselves as having a spirit that is in close relationship to God. As intellectual historian Henry May sums up Bloom’s formulation, this spirit is “an uncreated ‘spark of God,’ totally isolated from and older than the created world.” In this formulation, Bolom says (in May’s words) that “knowledge and experience of God can be achieved only through some sort of special revelation.”

I like the way that the grasshopper in “Summer Day” shows up for just a moment in Oliver’s life before vanishing. It’s like a glimpse of divine grace.

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver

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?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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