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Mary Oliver on Love and Its Necessary Wildness

In praise of the “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable.”

For more than half a century, beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) has been beckoning us to remember ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time, to contact both our creatureliness and our transcendence as we move through the shimmering world her poetry has mirrored back at us — an unremitting invitation to live with what she calls “a seizure of happiness.” Nowhere is this seizure more electrifying than in love — a subject Oliver’s poetry has tended to celebrate only obliquely, and one she addressed most directly in her piercing elegy for her soul mate.

But in her most recent collection, Felicity (public library), Oliver dedicates nearly half the poems to the scintillating seizure that is love. There is bittersweetness in her words — these are loves that have bloomed in the hindsight of eighty long, wide years. But there is also radiant redemption, reminding us — much as Patti Smith did in her sublime new memoir — that certain loves outlast loss.

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Here are four of my favorite love poems from the collection — please enjoy.


I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
against them.
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.


I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.


How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by

demonstration? Like
this, and
like this and

    no more words now


Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
  careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
unsuitable —
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.

Felicity is a luminous read in its slim and potent entirety. Complement it with Mary Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, what dogs teach us about the meaning of human life, and the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love.

If you haven’t already, feast your soul on the reclusive poet’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett and be sure to subscribe to this endlessly excellent show here.

Published October 20, 2015




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