To Live A Poem

By Annette Chittenden

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I found myself again at the edge of the ocean pouring out my aggravations and complaints to the water. Suddenly I realized I was living a poem Mary Oliver had already written! And I smiled. This time the water said to me, “Excuse me. I have work to do.” (from “I Go Down To The Shore” by Mary Oliver). And I felt better - lighter. The water had work to do, and I had work to do - enough already with the complaints - I had emptied my heart and now it was time for me to get back to work!

Mary Oliver is very much on my mind these days, as she passed away on Thursday, January 17, 2019. Her poems struck a chord within me. I, too, walk outside every chance I get. Nature speaks to me, too. Mary Oliver was able to put into words, directly and simply, what I could only feel in my meanderings.

The best way to honor her, to keep her alive, is to learn one of her poems by heart. And here I was, at the edge of the sea, living her poetry! Not only can we keep her alive inside of us, we will be soothed in times of pain, sorrow or simple aggravation - which visits me so frequently in winter!

In an interview with Krista Tippett from “On Being” in 2015, Mary Oliver says, “…for poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

So out of so many, which poem should I commit to? A quiet voice said, “The one about praying is the one that you carry in your heart most often.” And this was true.


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris. It could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.” from the book, “Thirst”

This is what Mary Oliver did for me - in simple and clear words - she got to the heart of whatever universe she was scrutinizing at the moment. Her deceptively simple poems make it possible for me to learn them by heart and pull them out at a moment’s notice.

Will you join me? Will you commit to heart one of Mary Oliver’s poems that has served your life well? May we keep her alive in our hearts as we live our “one wild and precious life.”

Annette Chittenden is a faithful volunteer in Mercy by the Sea’s bookstore, an artist, a Zentangle teacher, and a retired art educator.