Mary Oliver: “The Summer Day”

for Jim

Nine years ago this week, I and my groom, Jim, listened as our dear friend Jennifer Soule read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” We’d selected the poem for our wedding because the ending lines had spoken to us throughout our courtship: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” It’s a question that has moved many a reader of Oliver’s well-known poem, perhaps the most beloved of her poems.

The poem is quintessential Oliver. A lover of the natural world, Oliver writes of encountering a grasshopper on a summery day and spending time closely observing the insect – so closely, in fact, that she notices that it moves its jaws “back and forth instead of up and down” as it eats sugar out of her hand. As in many other of her poems, the close encounter with the natural world leads Oliver to reflect on her own life and, more largely, the human condition. Hence the question at the end of the poem. In her movement from the natural world to the spiritual world, Oliver more than a little resembles the Transcendentalists. She has often acknowledged her debt to writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

Oliver is not one to give many interviews or to offer commentary on her poems, but she did just that in a rare interview with Krista Tippett on her radio show, “On Being.” In her conversation with Tippett, Oliver notes that “the grasshopper actually existed.” Indeed, “the sugar he was eating was part of frosting from a Portuguese lady’s birthday cake.” Oliver says, “seeing that little creature come to my plate and say, I’d like a little helping of that. It somehow fascinates me that — that’s just personal for me that it was Mrs. Segura, probably her 90th birthday cake or something.” I love knowing that detail! From a seemingly insignificant moment with a grasshopper at a birthday party, Oliver is able to leap beyond this plane to worlds beyond. You can listen to the whole interview or read a transcript of it at the program’s website.

To learn more about Mary Oliver and her poetry, visit her official website. The New York Times describes her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” She has received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Book Award, and numerous other accolades.

If you’re ready to explore more of Oliver’s poems, you can find many of them online. The Poetry Foundation features thirty of them – and you can also find many, many volumes of her poetry for purchase. If you’re an aspiring poet, you’ll want to check out her book on the craft of poetry, A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry.

Jim and I know how we answered and still answer Oliver’s question: we intend to spend our wild and precious life loving each other and being together. But I can’t help but ask you: “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”