Poem for Coping with Depression

Audubon, "Little Blue Heron"

Audubon, “Little Blue Heron”

I’m near the end of my stay with my mother in Sewanee, Tennessee, and once again the weather has turned cold. Yesterday evening, while it was spitting snow, we were sitting by the woodstove, she reading an Anthony Trollope novel (the one I blogged on yesterday), I preparing for the courses that begin next week. As I was stoking the fire, I thought of Mary Oliver’s “Poem for the Blue Heron” where she describes herself tending her own fire.

Returning to the poem, I found it not as cozy as I remembered it. In fact, I now recall a student essay describing it as an account of someone coping with depression. The student, who struggles with depression himself, found three such poems in Oliver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American Primitive. “Cold Poem” and “Crossing the Swamp” were the other two. (I posted recently on “Cold Poem” here.)

When we are hunkered down in our misery, my student said, we need to tend to whatever little fire we have. In the poem, the blue heron is wading in “the cold ponds of November,” pecking around for meager gatherings with its gray hunched shoulders. It feels itself hardening, like the ice, in the cold. For some reason it has decided not to fly south, perhaps because a warmer and easier life seems a bit complicated, what with its swirling clouds.

Or at least, that’s how the south appears to one who has been conditioned to ratchet down expectations: “Not everything is possible; some things are impossible.”

But although one may only hunker down at the onslaught of winter, there’s something noble about the decision not to die. If the cold wind of depression “shoulder[s] against/the black, wet/bones of the trees,” we need to tend to what little fire we have. I sometimes find myself in awe of those students who suffer from depression (there seem to be an increasing number of them) and yet manage to hang tough.

In the poem, the poet gathers whatever comes to hand when she is in her black periods. Drawing inspiration from her fellow sufferer in the marsh, she has found a cave she can hide in and live. She lights fire after fire after fire.

One day at a time.

A Poem for the Blue Heron

By Mary Oliver


Now the blue heron
wades the cold ponds
of November.

In the gray light his hunched shoulders
are also gray.

He finds scant food–a few
numbed breathers under
a rind of mud.

When the water he walks in begins
turning to fire, clutching itself to itself
like dark flames, hardening,
he remembers.



I do not remember who first said to me, if anyone did:
Not every thing is possible:
some things are impossible,

and took my hand, kindly,
and led me back
from wherever I was.


Toward evening
the heron lifts his long wings
leisurely and rows forward

into flight. He
has made his decision: the south
is swirling with clouds, but somewhere,
fibrous with leaves and swamplands,
is a cave he can hide in
and live.


Now the woods are empty,
the ponds shine like blind eyes,
the wind is shouldering against
the black, wet
bones of the trees.

In a house down the road,
as though I had never seen these things–
leaves, the loose tons of water,
a bird with an eye like a full moon
deciding not to die, after all–
I sit out the long afternoons
drinking and talking;
I gather wood, kindling, paper; I make fire
after fire after fire.

Added note:

My brother Jonathan wrote saying that this poem reminded him of the following Stephen Mallarmé poem:

Virginal, vivid, beautiful, will this be
The day that shatters with a drunken wing
The lake beneath the frost, still mirroring
Flights that were never made, transparency?

A swan of old remembers that it is he,
Superb but helpless, for he would not sing
Of regions where life still was beckoning
When winter spread its sterile, cold ennui.

Jonathan said that this is generally interpreted as being about artistic sterility, but it certainly works for depression as well.

And one other note: we have a pond in the middle of our campus which is regularly stalked by a great blue heron. One year it became trapped in the ice. The students tried to save it but its leg was broken so of course it died.

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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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