‘Flare’ is a very powerful poem in which the poet talks directly to the reader. She skillfully manipulates her lines in an effort to share thoughts, images, and experiences with the reader. This poem was included in her 2001 book, The Lead and the Cloud. It fits in well with the rest of the volume, which spends its pages questing the nature of life and how everything on earth is connected. Through this piece, she encourages the reader to “rise up” from their “stump of sorrow” and realize the joy of the present.
Throughout the twelve parts of ‘Flare,’ Mary Oliver’s speaker, who is likely the poet herself, describes memories and images of the past. These are things which brought sorrow and pleasure. All of them are buried in a graveyard, one that she visited and then never went back to again. This is the proper way to deal with the past, she thinks. But it’s not the way her “mother” or “father” did. They experienced sorrow throughout their lives and lived far too much in their lost dreams and regrets. This isn’t how the poet, or, she thinks, the reader wants to live.
She encourages everyone to seek out beauty in the natural world, embrace it, and allow it to bring one joy when sorrow seems like the easiest emotion to live in. Life is far too short, she concludes, to live in darkness.
In ‘Flare,’ Mary Oliver engages with themes of the purpose of life, nature, and the past/memories. These three themes come together in a series of images that suggest the best way to live one’s life. She directly addresses the reader throughout the piece, asking them to consider what’s truly important in life and how they can leave their memories in the past where they belong. It’s only by shedding their own iron burden (like her mother was unable to) that they’ll live full, nourished lives. Nature, she thinks, provides anyone and everyone with a place of solace. It’s somewhere to turn when one is lost in their own mind. The tiniest life, a slightly unfamiliar smell or movement, is far more important than any past loss. In the end, the poet drives home her main point: the present is the only place worth living in, and one must find something to keep them there.
Structure and Form
‘Flare’ by Mary Oliver is a twelve-part poem that’s divided into sections that range from twenty-plus lines to only three or four. In some of the sections of ‘Flare,’ Oliver wrote in standard stanzas, while in others, the lines are separated, ranging greatly in length.
The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that the poem is written in free verse. Despite this, readers can find examples of rhyme and rhythm within the text. These can be seen through Oliver’s sporadic use of meter and her implementation of half-rhyme. An example of the latter can be found in the poem’s second and third lines with the endings “sunrise” and “rinse.”
Oliver makes use of several literary devices in ‘Flare.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, anaphora, imagery, and enjambment. The latter is a formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before a sentence or phrase’s natural conclusion. For example, the transitions between lines one and two of part two as well as lines three and four of part four. This is a common technique in ‘Flare’ that can be found numerous times. It helps to control the pace at which a reader moves through the text and, in some instances, creates suspense and adds to the impact of the content.
Imagery is another important literary device, one that the best poets use to their advantage. It refers to the scenes, experiences, or descriptions a poet creates that appeal to the reader’s senses. They should allow the reader to imagine sights, smells, sounds, and more. Some of the best lines in ‘Flare’ that use effective imagery are these from part II: “Wisps of hay covered the floor, / and some wasps sang at the windows, and maybe there was / a strange fluttering bird high above, disturbed, hoo-ing […]”
Alliteration is a kind of repetition that refers to using and reusing the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “red rinse” in the second stanza of part one and “so,” “space,” and “seemed” in line sixteen of Part II. Readers will also find another example of repetition in ‘Flare,’ which is anaphora. It is the use of the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. These are usually found one after another or at least within the same stanza.
Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.
It is not the sunrise,
which is a red rinse,
which is flaring all over the eastern sky;
it is not the rain falling out of the purse of God;
that are billowing and shining,
that are shaking in the wind.
In the first part of ‘Flare,’ the speaker begins by introducing the reader to the poem. This is quite an unusual way of starting a piece of poetry, but it’s the kind of directness that readers should expect from Mary Oliver. She tells the reader right away that this is going to be “the silly, comforting poem.” She set out with this in mind when she wrote it. Although, by the end, the poem seems far from “silly.”
The next lines are made up of a series of “it is not” statements that inform the reader what the poem isn’t. It’s not the “sunrise” or the “rain falling out of the purse of God,” she says. The word “flaring” in the fourth line connects back to the title, signaling that these images are important. She wants the reader to be aware that this point is not extravagant or divine. It doesn’t come from God’s possession, nor does it contain the magnificence of a sunrise. After the rain has passed, the poet uses the image of the “blue helmet of the sky afterward” as another thing the poem is “not.” It isn’t that which it describes, she’s hinting.
The same pattern continues into the next lines in which she mentions a mockingbird. Although there is no meter in these lines, the repetition goes words like “billowing” and “shining” to help create the feeling of one. They are filled with imagery, allowing the reader to experience these things but all the while making sure there is separation from the words and reality.
You still recall, sometimes, the old barn on your
great-grandfather’s farm, a place you visited once,
and went into, all alone, while the grownups sat and
Mostly, though, it smelled of milk, and the patience of
animals; the give-offs of the body were still in the air,
a vague ammonia, not unpleasant.
The second part of ‘Flare’ is one long stanza of twenty-one lines. It changes gears in the first line, addressing “you” and a tangible memory she suggests that “you” have. This section is clearer than the one before, leaving the reader with fewer questions. This memory might, in reality, belong to the poet, her manufactured speaker in this poem, or it might be a complete fiction she made for the poem. It was a place of exploration and solitude in the past. There, “you,” as a child, would explore while the adults talked.
In this place, which was much closer to nature than anywhere else, “you” heard the sounds of birds and experienced the patience of animals. These tiny details are what make Oliver’s poetry so popular. She spends time elaborating on the sights, sounds, and smells that mostly go unacknowledged.
Mostly, though, it was restful and secret, the roof high
up and arched, the boards unpainted and plain.
You could have stayed there forever, a small child in a corner,
on the shoulder for welcome, and there was your place at the table.
Although the barn was filled with the smell of animals, it was a peaceful and “secret” place. There, “you” could be alone, as if in some kind of church with a “roof high / up and arched.” Not until “you” got hungry did you return to the house for dinner. “Your” place at the table was always there waiting. These lines suggest that eventually, as with all things, the real world calls one back into the present. This could very well be an allegory for growing up and moving beyond the things one loved as a child.
I stood there once, on the green grass, scattering flowers.
The third part of ‘Flare’ is only four lines long. She starts off the phrase, “Nothing lasts.” This had a very clear connection to the previous stanza when she alluded to the passage of childhood and that peaceful moment in the barn. She describes a metaphorical graveyard, a place where she went once to look over all the things that did “last” go to die. It’s in the “green grass” with scattered flowers.
Nothing is so delicate or so finely hinged as the wings
of the green moth
against the lantern
Not in this world.
The poet changes the subject matter when she transitions to the fourth part of ‘Flare.’ She’s moved not o talking about moths, green ones, that run up against lanterns. It’s incredibly delicate and beautiful, despite the fact that bugs are often deemed as irritants. She uses anaphora in these lines when she repeats the word “against” at the start of line three, four, and five. It is going “against” several things at once. These are its obstacles, ones that it does not persevere against.
Despite the many ways it could face death, the moth has “not a drop / of self-pity.” It’s here that Oliver starts to get to the main point of ‘Flare.’ She ends the section with the phrase “Not in this world,” suggesting that the moth doesn’t want to linger over things that are lost, just as the speaker didn’t want to stay in the graveyard in the previous section.
was the blue wisteria,
In the first stanza of Part V, the speaker brings in her mother. She uses a series of images and metaphors to compare her mother to “blue wisteria,” a kind of blooming vine, and to a “mossy stream behind the house.” These peaceful natural images contrast with the description of her mother not “always” loving her life. Despite her struggles, she carried on. She took her life in her arms and moved it “from room to room.” This symbol of perseverance is “unforgettable” to the speaker.
I bury her
in a box
in the earth
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.
Now, the speaker’s mother is dead, and that weight of iron has been lifted. It appears that her father has also passed away, and she spends the next lines describing what his life was like. It, too, was not easy. He was “a poor, thin boy with bad luck” and frustrated dreams. He struggled, swaggered before God, trying to seem strong, and “followed God” as there was no one else. These were the confines of his life, and now, the speaker says, she buries it “in the earth.” Just as she left the graveyard, she sweeps up the house and leaves. She’s chosen not to let her parent’s lives define her.
Stanzas One and Two
I mention them now,
I will not mention them again.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.
In part six, the poet separated the lines into four stanzas. The first with two lines and the second has three. She tells the reader that she mentioned her parents in the previous stanza, and she’s not going to do it again. It’s not because she doesn’t love them, but because they carried burdens, she doesn’t wish for herself. She refuses to “carry” them.
Stanzas Three and Four
I give them–one, two, three, four–the kiss of courtesy,
of sweet thanks,
I will not give them the responsibility for my life.
The next stanza has four lines, while the fourth has two lines. She tells the reader that she wished her parents well in the next line, kissed them goodbye, and left them. Oliver’s speaker wants to maintain responsibility for her own life. She doesn’t want to live as her parents did or suffer as they did. By letting them go and setting their burdens to the side, she’s solidifying her own path.
Did you know that the ant has a tongue
Did you know that?
Suddenly, the subject matter changes once more. This time, again, back to a bug. She’s thinking about an ant and uses two questions in this stanza to convey information about it. The creature has this strange ability to gather sweetness with its tongue. This way of life contrasts with the way her family lived. It seemed that sorrow plagued them all, but with the introduction of this image, she’s suggesting that for her, things will be different. She’s excited by this idea, as is seen through the double question.
The poem is not the world.
It isn’t even the first page of the world.
But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
and less yourself than part of everything.
In the eighth section of ‘Flare,’ the poet brings back some of the ideas from the first lines. She addressed the nature of “The poem” once more. It’s “is not the world,” she says. It is not even “ the first page” of it. But, the poem has intentions that can’t be ignored. It wants to grow and flourish “like a flower.” It feels alive. It has agency and desire. “The poem” she speaks about broadly in these lines does for the reader what this particular poem, ‘Flare,’ should be doing. It should be a place to step inside and “be cooled and refreshed.” It’s a time to stop worrying so much about yourself as an individual and think more as “part of everything.”
The voice of the child crying out of the mouth of the
is a misery, and a terror.
The next part of the poem is six lines long. In this section, she brings back the image associated with her parents or anyone’s parents. She doesn’t want to dwell on the loss, such as that experienced in childhood and found in the graveyard of the previous section. She wants to face her life head-on and not end up as a child inside an adult’s body.
Therefore, tell me:
what will engage you?
What will open the dark fields of your mind,
at first touching?
The tenth part is directed towards the listener once again. She uses the second-person pronoun “you” to call the reader’s attention to these questions. The poet wants to know what “will engage you” and “open the dark fields of your mind?” There has to be something that opens one up to the complexities of life and removes them from their past. These are the reasons to live, to feel passionate, and determined to live a good and joyful life in the present.
No child in the barn.
No uncle no table no kitchen.
Only a long lovely field full of bobolinks.
The following stanza is another odd transitional section that should come as a surprise. She tells the reader that there was “was no barn,” as described in the second section, nor was there a child there. This is a way of reminding the reader that words are just words. They aren’t the embodiment of the things they represent. The only thing that really existed was a “field full of bobolinks.” (A bobolink is a small blackbird.) These birds filled the field, a symbol of nature’s prevalence and importance in life. In the end, she’s suggesting. There are only the world and its beauty and mystery.
Stanzas One to Four
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.
The final section of the poem is nine stanzas long. It is made up of couplets and tercets, or sets of two or three lines. The first of these starts to summarize the speaker’s intentions. She tells the reader to “consider the orderliness of the world” when “loneliness comes stalking.” The personification of loneliness makes it seem far more dangerous than if it was described as a simple emotion. She asks the reader to stave off sorrow by looking for “something you have never noticed before.” It’s these moments of discovery and pleasure that should release one from loneliness. The following images provide examples for the reader to consider.
Grief is a part of life, she adds. It has to be “your sister” because it’s going to follow you throughout life whether you accept it or not.
Stanzas Five to Nine
A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.
Life is too short, she adds, to spend it in depression. The world is filled with so much beauty that any wasted moment is a loss. Walk away from graves, she adds, and leave the past in the past. It’s there, where it belongs. The following lines give the reader more instruction. She asks the reader to “be modest” and live in the moment. “Live,” she says, “with the beetle, with the wind.”
These last lines are the central theme, the main point, and the life bread of existence. It is “dark bread,” the most nourishing and basic item on one’s plate.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Flare’ should also consider reading some of Mary Oliver’s other poems. For example, ‘When Death Comes,’ ‘Wild Geese,’ and ‘The Summer Day.’
The latter was published in New and Selected Poems in 1992. It focuses on nature and the purpose of life, as ‘Flare’ does. She emphasizes the value of individual moments throughout the text.
‘Wild Geese’ is one of her best-known poems. It informs the reader how to live a good life. It asks the reader not to worry about being good. Rather they should be true to nature and love the beauty to be found in it.
‘When Death Comes’ is a slightly darker poem that explores what happens after death. She lists out the ways death will decide it’s her turn to pass on and what she’ll experience when she gets there.