Rediscover: Mary Oliver

As July slips to August, and midsummer fades to late, Mary Oliver's musings in "The Summer Day" spring to mind. As the poet ponders a grasshopper in her hand, wider wonders surface: "Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear?" The grasshopper hops away, and its simple life subsumes the need for complex categorization: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass." At last, she reflects on the waning day spent in that field, in nature, and famously asks if it was time well spent: "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?"

Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day" was published in New and Selected Poems (1992), which won the National Book Award for Poetry. She also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with American Primitive (1983). Oliver's many collections have made her, as described by the New York Times, "far and away, this country's best-selling poet." Her most recent books include Upstream: Selected Essays (Penguin Press) and Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (Penguin Press, $30, 9780399563249), which highlights 200-plus poems from her 50-year career. --Tobias Mutter

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