Mary Oliver

Why I Wake Early

“Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.”

The world is an emptier place without new words from American poet Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019). Though she’d demur: I’ve written enough. Read and enjoy.

“Just a minute” said a voice in the weeds,
So I stood still
in the day’s exquisite early morning light
and so I didn’t crush with my great feet
any small or unusual thing just happening to pass by
where I was passing by
on my way to the blueberry fields,
and maybe it was the toad,
and maybe it was the June beetle,
and maybe it was the pink and tender worm,
who does his work without limbs or eyes,
and does it well…

From ‘Just a minute,’ said a voice…”

Reeds next to River Arun. Featured in Mary Oliver's "Why I Wake Early" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Read and enjoy. In this bright, simple, and imminently approachable collection of hitherto unpublished poems, Why I Wake Early, Mary Oliver calls arranging flowers “fifteen minutes of music with nothing playing,” contemplates the unknowable divine and cherishes the earth in all its bits and parts.

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even,
the miserable and the crotchety.


Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

From “Why I Wake Early”

The collection dances betwixt certainty and question. Doubt and reason. Oliver brings us to the sea, the field, into the universe itself and peers into their darker, unanswered fragments.

Something fashioned
this yellow-white lace-mass
that the sea has brought to the shore and left.

like popcorn stuck to itself
or a string of lace rolled up tight
or a handful of fingerling shells pasted together
each with a tear where something

escaped into the sea. I brought it home
out of the uncombed morning and consulted
among my books. I do not know
what to call this sharpest desire.

From “Something”

Frothy yellow and white waves arrive ashore in Eastbourne, UK. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Something” is a word Henry David Thoreau used to explain the great thing that connects all. Oliver, who had a deep love and understanding for both Thoreau and Emerson, was in many ways a Transcendentalist. Looking for elsewhere, an eternal, a “music of the masters” to quote German poet Hermann Hesse.

The Soul at Last

The Lord’s terrifying kindness has come to me.

It was only a small silvery thing – say a piece of silver cloth, or a thousand spider webs woven together, or a small handful of aspen leaves, with their silver backs shimmering. And it came leaping out of the closed coffin; it flew into the air, it danced snappingly around the church rafters, it vanished through the ceiling.

I spoke there, briefly, of the loved one gone. I gazed at the people in the pews, some of them weeping. I knew I must, someday, write this down.

But while Oliver dips her toes in currents, strokes rocks and wonders what carries us forth, it is the art, the poetry, created by the act of wondering that is the miraculous pulse of this collection (and all of Oliver’s work).

“The Old Poets of China”

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

This rejected busyness is persistent, at times angry.1 But pushing that aside, Oliver shows a world is full of things that can “kill us with delight like a needle,” and that not paying attention to this “untrimmable light” would be unthinkable.

Look and notice.2 Wonder, like biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson did. Linger in happiness and, Oliver asks most of all, imagine a small stone, buried for thousands of years, finally being touched by a drop of rain. As we all long to be touched, affected.

Charlie Mackesy's illustrations for "the Boy, the mole, the fox and the House" featured in The Examined Life Library.
“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.


I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred –
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
and dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the
moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

Scatter yourself into nature with Oliver and others in my look at The Importance of Walking About or consider Oliver’s unknowable divine in A Singular Focus on the Eternal.

Like Oliver, who opened her day in kindness, American author George Saunders contemplated how to anchor himself in an abundance of kindness. Saunders found kindness is what remains when all else fails.

Mary Oliver illustration. © The Examined Life