Mary Oliver made a name for herself throughout her career for her thoughtful, direct, and highly memorable poetry. Her work is remembered for its contemplation of the natural world and humanity’s part in it. Below, readers can explore ten of her best poems, from ‘Flare’ to ‘Wild Geese.’
Mary Oliver’s Best Poems
‘Flare’ was included in Oliver’s 2001 book, The Lead, and the Cloud. It is a great representative of the poet’s best verse in that it engages with some of her most commonly used themes. These include the purpose of life and interconnectivity within nature. Through this specific poem, she encourages the reader to “rise” from their “stump of sorrow” and realize the joy of the present. Here are the final lines:
In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.
Live with the beetle, and the wind.
This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.
‘Good-bye Fox’ by Mary Oliver is a thoughtful poem that explores the meaning of life. It includes a conversation between a fox and a human being. The anthropomorphized fox is used to inspire readers to think more deeply about the natural world. The fox asks a woman about her opinion on fox-hunting, and the two discuss their differences. Here are the last lines:
Could anyone figure it out, to a finality? So
why spend so much time trying. You fuss, we live.
And he stood, slowly, for he was old now, and
This Oliver poem explores themes of anxiety and one’s capacity to overthink simple situations. She discusses the nature of worrying and how it can take one in endless circles within their mind. Eventually, the speaker learns to step outside of her life and embrace the world. The poem begins with:
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Within this well-loved poem, Oliver uses the dawn of a new day to speak about hope and new beginnings, offering an optimistic message. It was published in Oliver’s collection Dream Works in 1986. The new day, this poem says, is a place where “ashes…turn into leaves again.” She tries to inspire readers to see hopeful signs for the future throughout their lives, including chances to start over. The poem begins with:
Under the orange
Within ‘Peonies,’ the poet uses imagery to depict the well-known title flowers. She also explores the importance of relishing humanity’s connection to the natural world. Throughout, she uses wonderful examples of figurative language. The first lines read:
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
After reading ‘Peonies,’ readers may find themselves inspired to step outside and love the world, as Oliver suggests.
Sleeping in the Forest
This wonderful lyric poem is delivered from the perspective of a speaker who spent a night in the woods and felt as though her life was improved because of it. She lost herself, in a positive way, to the simple signs, sights, and experiences of the natural world. This experience is one that elevates her beyond her everyday life and her humanity. The poet writes:
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
Song of Autumn
‘Song of Autumn’ is a great example of one of Oliver’s best poems. It is only six sentences long, spread out over two stanzas. The poet personifies autumn, giving the leaves and their movements human qualities. She brings the poem to its end with descriptions of white snow and blue shadows. The poem concludes with the lines:
And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.
Song of the Builders
‘Song of the Builders’ is yet another Oliver poem that uses nature as a metaphor. It compares humanity and the everyday acts of human beings to the humble life of a cricket. The speaker observes a cricket moving one grain at a time from the hillside. The small creature was engaged in a monumental task that inspired the speaker to consider the best way for humanity to live. The poet wrote:
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.
Often cited as Mary Oliver’s best poem, ‘Wild Geese’ expresses what readers should do to live a good life. The poet uses an image of a flock of wild geese to speak about “you” and what you “don’t” have to do. For example:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
The poem concludes with the famous lines:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The Summer Day
‘The Summer Day’ is another very well-known Mary Oliver poem. It, like others on this list, focuses on the natural world, the purpose of life, and humanity’s role alongside non-human nature. It was published in New and Selected Poems in 1992. It features a memorable contemplation of who created the world and the vastly different creatures within it. The poem ends with:
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 has been criticized by some for the simplicity of much of her verse. She did not use overly elaborate language, complex metaphors, or intentionally hard-to-understand syntax. Instead, she believed “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear.”
In Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese,’ the geese symbolize community and caring. They also serve as a reminder for individuals to find their own way through life. One person’s path is not going to be right for everyone.
Some poets who are similar in style and subject matter to Mary Oliver include Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, Ross Gay, Joy Harjo, Robinson Jeffers, and Dorothy Parker.
Mary Oliver’s best poem is commonly considered to be ‘Wild Geese,’ a beautiful poem about the nature of life and happiness. Other well-loved poems include ‘The Summer Day,’ ‘The Journey,’ and ‘Flare.’
The poem, ‘The Summer Day,’ is about the meaning of life and the way that one approaches it. The poet contemplates God, mortality, and nature within the short lines of this piece as well.