12 Best Mary Oliver Poems You Should Read

Mary Oliver, an acclaimed American poet, is widely celebrated for her remarkable ability to capture the essence of nature and human emotion in her poems. With a gentle yet profound voice, Oliver explores themes like love, loss, self-discovery, and our connection to the natural world. Her work is characterized by deep reflections and vivid imagery that draw readers into a contemplative space, offering insights into life’s most essential questions.

Born in 1935 in Ohio, Oliver’s love for nature began in her early years, shaping her future as a poet. Her poetry often serves as a bridge between the human experience and the natural world, depicting ordinary scenes with an extraordinary lens. Through her keen observations, she presents the complexity of simple moments, imbuing them with universal truths and philosophical pondering.

Among Oliver’s extensive collection of poems, some stand out for their poignant depth and resonance. These selected poems aim to provide an overview of her creative brilliance, revealing how she connects with readers across generations. These pieces showcase her signature style and the diverse range of themes she has so masterfully woven into her work. Whether a seasoned reader of Oliver’s poems or new to her world, these poems offer a glimpse into the heart and soul of her literary legacy.

1. Wild Geese

Wild Geese” is one of Mary Oliver’s most famous poems, highlighting the idea that the world goes on without us and that we each have a unique place in it. The poem begins with an instructive tone, advising the reader to not be overly concerned with personal shortcomings.

The vivid imagery of landscapes, animals, and the natural world draws a beautiful picture, connecting humanity with the natural surroundings. It serves as a reminder that we are part of a vast universe, encouraging a sense of belonging and acceptance of one’s self.

2. The Summer Day

In “The Summer Day,” Oliver poses the poignant question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question encapsulates the essence of the poem, which contemplates the beauty and fleeting nature of life.

Through her observations of a grasshopper and her reflections on the natural world, Oliver encourages readers to be present, to observe, and to engage with the beauty of the moment. This poem is a call to mindfulness and a celebration of life’s simple pleasures.

3. When Death Comes

When Death Comes” addresses the inevitable end of life with a fearless acceptance and an acknowledgment of death’s universality. Oliver explores death without fear, imagining it as a visitor to be met with curiosity.

She contrasts death with the richness of life, emphasizing the importance of living fully and authentically. This poem’s contemplative tone invites readers to reflect on their own lives, inspiring a greater appreciation for each day.

4. The Journey

The Journey” is a metaphorical poem about the importance of self-discovery and following one’s own path. Oliver describes a journey through a metaphorical landscape that represents the challenges and obstacles of life.

With determination and resilience, the speaker in the poem chooses to forge her own path. The imagery and symbolism in “The Journey” inspire readers to take control of their own lives and find their unique direction.

5. Morning Poem

Morning Poem” celebrates the beauty of a new day, offering hope and rejuvenation. Oliver’s description of the dawn breaking and nature waking up serves as a metaphor for personal renewal and a fresh start.

Her choice of words and imagery creates a sense of peace and optimism, making “Morning Poem” a perfect reflection on the potential of each new day. It’s a gentle reminder of the continuous cycle of life and the opportunities it brings.

6. In Blackwater Woods

In Blackwater Woods” delves into the interconnectedness of life, love, and loss. Oliver reflects on nature’s cycles, drawing parallels between the natural world and human emotions.

The haunting beauty of the woods and the constant change within it symbolizes the impermanence of life and love. The poem’s conclusion is a meditation on acceptance and letting go, offering a profound insight into life’s constant ebb and flow.

7. The Uses of Sorrow

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Oliver’s “The Uses of Sorrow” is a short yet powerful poem that speaks to the human condition. It acknowledges sorrow as an inherent part of life and suggests that there is value in experiencing it.

The poem’s brevity and simplicity make the message more potent, allowing readers to reflect on their own experiences with sorrow. It serves as a reminder that pain can lead to understanding and growth.

8. The Swan

The Swan” is a poem filled with grace and elegance, embodying the beauty of its titular creature. Oliver describes the swan’s movements with such vivid detail that readers can almost see it gliding across the water.

The graceful imagery serves as a metaphor for a sense of purpose, clarity, and self-realization. This poem encourages readers to find beauty in the ordinary and to pursue their own path with grace and determination.

9. Starlings in Winter

Starlings in Winter” observes the resilience and adaptability of starlings during the cold winter months. Oliver’s careful description of the birds in a barren landscape illustrates the strength and persistence of life.

The poem serves as an allegory for human resilience, encouraging readers to find strength and grace even in the face of adversity. It is a reminder that even in the harshest conditions, there is beauty and hope.

10. Invitation

Invitation” is a celebratory poem that welcomes readers to join Oliver in her love for the natural world. With open arms, she invites us to observe, enjoy, and be part of the beauty around us.

Through her joyful tone and lively imagery, she encourages a connection with nature and a mindful appreciation of its wonders. It is an open invitation to be present and engaged with the world.

11. Don’t Hesitate

Don’t Hesitate” is a gentle reminder to embrace joy and beauty whenever they present themselves. Oliver encourages readers to accept happiness without hesitation or guilt.

With its positive and affirming tone, the poem invites readers to live fully and without reservation. It’s a celebration of life and a nudge to welcome joy with open arms.

12. Dogfish

Dogfish” explores the themes of scrutiny, self-reflection, and the quest for understanding. Through the observation of a dogfish, Oliver delves into deeper questions about existence and identity.

The imagery and symbolism in the poem resonate with the reader’s inner search for self. “Dogfish” serves as a contemplative and introspective piece, inviting reflection on life’s bigger questions.


Mary Oliver’s poetic exploration of life’s grand themes, painted against the backdrop of nature’s quiet beauty, offers readers a unique perspective on what it means to be human. The poems in this article represent the depth and breadth of her literary craft, each one a lens through which to view a different facet of existence. From the fearless contemplation of death in “When Death Comes” to the graceful acceptance in “The Swan,” Oliver’s words resonate with timeless wisdom.

Her poems serve as gentle reminders to observe, reflect, and engage with the world around us, inviting us to find joy, sorrow, beauty, and meaning in everyday moments. Her work continues to inspire and provide solace, making her one of the most beloved poets of our time. The legacy she leaves through her words is a testament to the power of poetry to connect, heal, and illuminate the human experience.

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