Why I Sort Of Hate That Famous Poem

Why I Sort Of Hate That Famous Poem February 23, 2019


It isn’t the poem’s fault.

It isn’t the poet’s fault, either.

But the same way a verse from the Bible might drive us nuts because it’s been pulled out of context and slapped on a thousand tshirts and tote bags, these lines from this poem makes me roll my eyes so hard they hurt:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

The poem is “Summer Day” by Mary Oliver: a lovely poem by a deservedly popular poet. But I can’t read those lines without an inward shudder.


I’m thinking about “Summer Day” on this late-winter day because I woke to sunlight this morning. Or, at least, near enough. Truthfully, it’s a gray, cloudy day, so I suppose I mean to say that I woke to dull daylight rather than deep darkness. And while we might not celebrate that in a poem, it is a significant change. It tells me spring is well on its way.

Because I woke to light, rather than darkness, I woke with a sense that I was already a little behind. Did I sleep in? I wondered. A glance at the clock radio I keep in the bathroom told me I hadn’t.

Still, I felt that something precious had been wasted. After weeks of short, dim days and long, dark nights, how could I possibly keep my eyes closed while the sun was up?

And it was that worry, more than anything, that told me winter really was streaming into the past. Because if there’s one thing I never feel in winter, it’s that the day is urging me to hurry up and go. Winter days are always slow. Always asking us to rest, to curl up, to let go.


Which brings me back to “Summer Day.”

There is deep irony in the way those final two lines are celebrated in our culture (and if you’ve never read them before, just type them into the Pinterest search bar to see how ubiquitous they’ve become).

Their effect seems to be similar to the effect today’s early morning light had on me: they make us feel a sense of urgency. Oh no! Time is slipping away! You only live once! I better get moving! I better figure things out!

But that isn’t the point of this poem at all.

What does Mary Oliver suggest we should consider doing with our one wild and precious life?

She suggests close observation of the “wild” world of which we are a part (the world of grass and grasshoppers). She suggests idleness and strolling through the fields.

She suggests little more than going slow and paying attention.

Which sounds a whole lot like a winter day to me.


I’ve tried to pay attention this winter. I’ve tried to cultivate the gifts that winter gives, despite their sometimes sharp edges: darkness, illness, quietness, slowness, emptiness.

If Mary Oliver is right, the practices of winter will serve me well.

Even in summer.


Readers, my new book Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace releases on March 12! It’s a book that takes Mary Oliver’s advice seriously, a book about paying attention and opening our eyes to the wild world, especially the wild world of trees and forests.

I hope you’ll order your copy today.

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