Mary Oliver on the Measure of a Life Well Lived and How to Maximize Our Aliveness
“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?”
By Maria Popova
Few are those whose contribution to humanity — be it art, or music, or literature, or some other enchantment — fills the heart with uncontainable gratitude for their very existence. Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) — one of the greatest poets of all time, and perhaps the greatest of our time — is one such blessing of a writer. She, the patron saint of paying compassionate attention, has made a supreme art of bearing witness to our world — be it in her exquisite poems, or in the prose of that moving remembrance of her soul mate, or in her meditations on the craft of poetry itself.
In her immensely rewarding recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — triply magical because Oliver rarely gives interviews, and never ones this dimensional and revealing — she read several of her most beloved poems. While “Wild Geese” remains a favorite, I was especially taken with a four-part poem titled “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” found in Oliver’s sublime 2014 collection Blue Horses: Poems (public library). It is partly a bow to her recent triumph over cancer, and partly a score to the larger tango of life and death which we all, wittingly or not, are summoned to dance daily.
Like so much of her work, it is an uncommonly direct yet beguiling love letter to vitality itself, poured from the soul of someone utterly besotted with this world which we too are invited to embrace.
THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Complement the immeasurably wonderful Blue Horses with Oliver on what attention really means and what dogs teach us about the meaning of our human lives, then treat yourself to the full On Being conversation below and be sure to subscribe to Tippett’s consistently ennobling gift to the world.
Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?
Published February 9, 2015