Learning to be Astonished

I've recently taken up the poetry challenge - to read, thoroughly, a collection of poetry every month for a year. Normally I dip in and out of collections and anthologies in a lazy, pleasure-seeking kind of way. For this one I've got to be more thoughtful. And I have to seek out new voices I might not have read rather than being tempted by the poets whose work I know and love, so no Pablo Neruda or Yehuda Amichai. I also have to choose a wide geographical spread. So I've been trawling through bookshops and across the internet for new poetry - and that is how I found this poem, though I won't be adding the author to my list of twelve.

Mary Oliver lives in the USA and is one of its most distinguished older poets - influenced by Edna St Vincent Millay and Walt Whitman. Her work is intensely spiritual (too religious for me sometimes) and firmly anchored in the natural world. Too much of it cloys, because there's always a tussle going on inside me between the romantic girl and the sternly realistic woman. The former loves sunsets and cute kittens, the latter wants nature with tooth and claw. Mary Oliver's work is rather too cosy - I want something closer to the bone - but the Romantic Girl was attracted to the following extracts, in which Realistic Woman also found some truth. It's the same message as W.H. Davies 'What is life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare'.

"Every day I walk out into the world / to be dazzled, then to be reflective."

"My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
Keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

—from "Messenger" in Thirst (2006)

Image copyright Rachel Giese Brown


  1. Loved this post, Kathleen, not least because of its synchronicity. Yesterday, the Writer's Almanac daily poem - kindly delivered by email - was Mary Oliver's Self-Portrait (online here: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/09/10 ). This was the second time recently that I'd come across one of her poems by chance, so ordered a collection (the only one in stock) from the local library. I know what you mean about the inner tussle between Romantic Girl and Sternly Realistic Woman but have decided that, for the moment at least, I am going to be Romantic Old Woman. Now that I'm in my sixties, Self-Portrait resonates in a way that it probably would not have done when I was much younger. And I'm getting back into writing poetry too because sometimes, only a poem will do.

  2. By a strange coincidence, an American friend recommended Mary Oliver and I started trawling the internet for her work - Garrison Keiller's site was one of those that came up and I think probably the source of this quote. There's quite a lot of her work out there on the net. You're absolutely right to say that 'sometimes only a poem will do'.


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