Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
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?
Listen to Mary Oliver read this poem here.
Last week, I wondered if a daydream could be an intention; today, I wonder if a question can be a prayer. Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
To say this poem is my favorite would be both an understatement and an untruth. This poem saved my life, I might say instead. And I love so many poems… but this one is special, and I know I am not alone in my deep connection to both this poem and all of Mary Oliver’s work. In my graduate program, some of my peers scoffed at Oliver’s work: too easy, too feminine, too simple. I disagree. And anyone who pictures Oliver as some angelic saint floating through the fields with no problems and no flaws should listen to this interview with her from On Being. She smoked, for one thing. I was so happy when I learned that: she wasn’t perfect. She was one of us, her devoted readers: imperfect.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? The love of my life gave me my first book of poems by Mary Oliver when we were in college. I was a tragic poetess, or imagined myself as one, anyway, bewildered with sadness of the world, a Plath and Sexton devotee; he handed me hope in the form of a slim volume called The House of Light.
(All of Oliver’s books have beautiful titles: The House of Light, Dreamwork, Wild Geese, Blue Horses, A Thousand Mornings…)
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I had these words laid out in rainbow cutout letters on a long, wide strip of paper that my artist mother-in-law helped me decorate and laminate; I posted the strip up above the chalkboard in my very first high school classroom so my students had to see them all the time.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? The question settles on me, some mornings, right after I wake up, when I am sleepy and dread leaving my bed’s thick covers. We face so much, in a day, all of us do. This week I gave this slideshow to my students about how every choice involves suffering: they are studying moral dilemmas and I am listening to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck audiobook when I walk the dog (highly recommend). To say my life didn’t turn out how I imagined it might would be my second understatement of this post, and some mornings the weight of all the chores and choices is nearly suffocating.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? One of my best friends, another poet, remarked one day that this question is tongue-in-cheek. As in, yes, make your plans, and life will do what it will. I had never considered this possibility; it shocked me. But I like this reading, too. It makes me think of life an an animal itself, a swan, a black bear, a grasshopper. A black dog, maybe. What are you gonna do with this animal, this warm beast you didn’t wholly choose and can’t control?