Mary Oliver's Instructions for Living

The poet’s extraordinary work calls each of us to notice the natural world in all its stunning, perplexing detail.

Posted in , Jan 25, 2019

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s “instructions for living a life” were straightforward, if not simple. In one of her hallmark brief, stunning poems, she gave three directions: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died January 17 at age 83, can certainly be said to have lived a life. She spent more than 40 years in the small town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, on outer Cape Cod, which is rich in both fishermen and artists. She found solace in the wild natural habitats that surround the hamlet, and her treasure trove of accessible, vibrant poems call us to follow her into the mysterious outdoors, equipped with her instructions for living a life. 

Pay Attention
Oliver’s ability to notice the world around her with curiosity and awe is perhaps her most inspiring legacy. In her poem “Angels,” she writes:

“You might see an angel anytime 
and anywhere. Of course you have 
to open your eyes to a kind of 
second level, but it’s not really 

For her, it wasn’t hard, and she seemed to abide on a sort of “second level.” Her ease with and cultivation of the skill of paying attention can inspire each of us profoundly. And it is a skill. As she writes in “The Moths:”

“If you notice anything,
It leads you to notice 
and more.” 

Be Astonished
In her poem, “When Death Comes,” Oliver writes: 

“When it’s over, I want to say 
all my life 
I was a bride married to amazement.” 

From her youngest years, Oliver was awed by nature, never able to learn enough, observe enough or be sufficiently overcome by its unending cycles of birth, death and renewal. This sense of astonishment vibrates throughout her body of work, perhaps most famously in the final lines of “Wild Geese:”

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination, 
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting 
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.”  

Tell About It
In her hundreds of poems, Oliver brought us into her world and then sent us back into our own, tasked with noticing it in all its stunning, complex detail. One of her most oft-quoted lines, from the poem, “A Summer Day,” asks: 

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?” 

In her view, life was always awe-inspiring, but it was not always beautiful or easy. Nature often rescued her from her fears and anxieties—all of which she shared with us in her tellings. 

My favorite Mary Oliver poem is, “I Worried.” Mourning her loss these past days, I’ve been imagining its final stanza as a fitting and beautiful description of her exit from this life:

“Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.”

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