Black and white image of a person sitting in the grass directly

in the sun


As fall begins to drift in, I’m called back to these lines in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”:

“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?”

Perhaps the greatest joy of poetry is how you’re able to hold its wisdom in your palm, keep it in your back pocket, turn it over in your head. The final question of this poem — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” — crosses my mind as I sleep and wake and wander, brushing my teeth or when I realize that the magnolia tree looming over me has been growing quietly this whole time.

In this way, poetry is both a companion and a gift, as Mary Oliver told Krista in a 2015 interview that we’re revisiting this week. “It’s a gift to yourself but it’s a gift to anybody who has a hunger for it,” she said. The thought echoes something philosopher Simone Weil once said — that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

At a moment when the world can feel strange and difficult — or, at the very least, monotonous — Oliver’s poem draws our attention back to how our earthly existence may be just enough to get us through. She found inspiration in the works of the Roman poet Lucretius, whose Epicurean philosophy she sums up as: “What we are made of will make something else.”

“There is no nothingness — with these little atoms that run around too little for us to see. But, put together, they make something,” she said. “And that to me is a miracle. Where it came from, I don’t know. But it’s a miracle, and I think it’s enough to keep a person afloat.”

If we understand existence as a miracle, then maybe the generosity that Simone Weil speaks of is not what we extend to others, but instead what the world offers us — if only we’re lucky enough to look up and around in awe.

Kristin Lin
Editor, The On Being Project


This Week at The On Being Project

Our Latest Episode

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On Being with Krista Tippett
Mary Oliver
Listening to the World

Finding nourishment and redemption in the natural world, with one of the most beloved poets. 

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Recommended Reading & Listening

Recommended reading and listening image collage: image of Ross

Gay; image of geese flying; image of a bookshelf in golden hour

Listen | “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
The late poet reads one of her most beloved poems.

Listen | “Tending Joy and Practicing Delight” with Ross Gay
A conversation with the poet (and community gardener) on the practice of cultivating the beauty inherent in our surroundings.

Read | “Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Elegy for Her Soul Mate” by Maria Popova | Brain Pickings
The writer expands on a quote that Krista references in her conversation with Mary Oliver — that “attention without feeling … is only a report.”

Find more in our library on Poets & Poetry.

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