The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Mary Oliver

PoetryConcierge[The Poetry Concierge is an occasional feature here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses wherein I select a poem, poet, or book of poems for individual readers based on a short questionnaire. Come play along! Read the introductory post here, my first recommendation here, the reboot here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Audra at Unabridged Chick. 

1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?

Penelope Lively

2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)

Biographies of authors

3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?

Rebecca, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Kristin Lavransdatter, The Doomsday Book, and Good Omens

4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?

Kristin Lavransdatter, The Sparrow, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and some Norton edition that is ten thousand of those onion-paper thin pages of all Western lit or something.

5. What kinds of questions are most likely to keep you up at night? (death, the nature of love, politics, environmental issues, meaning of life, end of the world, justice and injustice, etc?)

The loss of my child, politics, women’s rights, community violence

6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?

Like Dylan Thomas and Sharon Olds, H.D. and Diane Wakoski. Diane Ackerman and Anna Akhmatova. Dislike old school guys or stuff with too many allusions that I can’t figure out.


(optional) Are you looking for a poem or poet to help you through a tough time, or to help you answer a question? If so, please explain.

Yes — I’m feeling so conflicted about work and creative endeavors — stressed and unhappy. I need advice, or a pep talk, or something. Centering, maybe.

Just like last week, there’s so much to work with here! Audra is into classics, sci-fi, some truly photo (60)great poetry (shout out to Anna Akhmatova!), a novelist I can’t believe I haven’t encountered before (putting Penelope Lively on my TBR immediately)–so many directions to choose from. I had Wislawa Szymborska, Margaret Atwood, and June Jordan in mind.

But it’s Audra’s answer to that last question that struck me as the most important, and one poet immediately leapt to mind: Mary Oliver*.

Chances are you’ve heard of Mary Oliver, since she’s one of the best-selling poets in the United States (though I confess I only started reading her work a few years ago). She’s the author of many collections and the recipient of many awards.

I recommend in particular House of Light (1990). Here’s a bit I wrote about the collection a few years ago:

A native of Northeast Ohio, Ms. Oliver now resides on Cape Cod (her poems celebrate its interior marshes more than its seashore), and since I grew up in Cleveland and now live in Boston (and married a man from Cape Cod), her poems often feel homey and familiar to me. I love the intimacy of her observations, the feeling, almost, of conversation. This feeling of casual grace is remarkable, because elsewhere Ms. Oliver has written that she revises most poems forty or fifty times!

I think this collection is right for Audra because of the contemplative feel and focus and nature often feel centering, while a few poems are galvanizing, like the famous “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

A huge question, but with this book in hand, one feels better prepared to face it.

Audra, I hope this recommendation is helpful! Thank you for writing in.

P.S. Audra, if you want some poetry with a sci-fi twist, you might also want to check out the panel “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand: Poetry and Science Fiction,” moderated by Heather Hughes, at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival later this month.



Would you like the Poetry Concierge to make a recommendation for you? Check out the introductory post, and send your answers to the questionnaire, along with the name and/or blog you’d like posted with the reply, to rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.

*No relation to yours truly.

12 thoughts on “The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Mary Oliver

  1. I was long aware of Oliver only because of that excellent “one wild life” quote. The first collection of hers I tried, Felicity, was a disappointment, but I’m determined to find a better introduction to her work. I have Dream Work out from the library and then I will look for House of Light.

  2. Mary Oliver! I love Mary Oliver, ever since the Poetry Concierge introduced me to her work. And, for occasional readers of this site, I’m the reader who doesn’t like poetry. Good call!

    • I know, right? And she (a) lives on Cape Cod, where my husband is from and (b) was born in Ohio and went to Ohio State (I lived in Ohio from 7-21 and went to Ohio State). Sigh. So close.

  3. First, thank you so much! This was such fun — I’m catching up on your other recs, but loved the survey and so appreciate getting some biblio-therapy. 🙂

    Second, ohemgee, I hope you love Lively. I’ve loved every book of hers.

    And third, YES. Oliver is such a fabulous selection — my wife owns a number of her collections, yet other than that one snippet you’ve shared, I’m unfamiliar with her work! Can’t wait to dive in this weekend.

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