Mary Oliver’s Poem, “The Uses of Sorrow’

Photograph by Molly Malone Cook for The New Yorker.

Do you ever encounter a poem you feel like you’ve read before even if you didn’t know you did? Because this one is so short, but so perfect, it feels like one of those ubiquitous poems or “quotes” that I picked up by osmosis, but never considered it more than that or certainty, who wrote it.

That poem is, “The Uses of Sorrow,” by the esteemed American poet Mary Oliver, who passed just last year. The poem comes from her 2007 collection, Thirst: Poems. She’s also a native Ohioan, so there’s something we have in common. Apparently, that brief, but tumultuous experience in Ohio would influence a lot of her nature-based poetry.

And that’s something I’m intrigued about is that if you read anything about her, her poetry is largely an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” as the Poetry Foundation puts it. She was someone whose poetry centered on the “quiet occurrences of nature.” And yet, the poem in question is a biting reflection of something very human.

Here is the poem in full since it’s so short:

(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.

For one, I had to double and triple check that the parenthetical was part of the poem and not something the blog I found the poem on was adding to it as commentary or something. That’s an interesting tidbit for Oliver to include at the top of the poem. I don’t think there’s anything deeper to it. Some of our best ideas come in that semi-conscious dream state (or the shower!).

Since I’ve been in a post-break up fugue state, Oliver’s poem here particularly resonates, and does so with a potent punch with that 11-word stanza at the beginning, but then it turns out that the punch was really a blossoming flower with the next 12-word stanza.

That’s the duality of a break-up, ain’t it? Ideally? That, at first, it does feel like a heck of a gut punch. A priority delivery of a box full of darkness. But that, over time, we come to realize that it “wasn’t meant to be,” as people are fond of saying, and that the life we made post-break-up is for the best, and was conversely, “meant to be.” It’s just, traveling from that first stanza to the second stanza state of being is like a fugue state. Because you are swimming in that box of darkness and it’s not yet possible to recognize it as a “gift.” It’s another way of saying time heals all wounds. Years, though. I hope it doesn’t take years, but it sure seems that way at the moment.

But that’s what humans do. We learn from darkness and pain and brokenness. Eventually. Hopefully. Ideally. Or put another way, we make uses of sorrow. I mean, the biggest cliche among artists of any stripes is how often they make uses of sorrow. I know I’m one of those cliches manifest.

Some of the best poems I will always remember are these short ones (which helps with the whole memorization part) because of how much power they pack with so few words. Efficacious efficiency!

What do you make of this poem?

Photo by Photo by Rachel Giese Brown.

5 thoughts

  1. Great poem, thanks for sharing! It’s a short poem but packed with truth and a hopeful message that we can find light even in darkness. There’s even a transition in the way she first names it as a mere “box of darkness” and then finally “a gift.” Although it takes the speaker years to understand this, it shows a gained wisdom that happens with age and experience, which is a big part of life that makes me actually look forward to getting old sometimes, knowing that we gain wisdom and learn from the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting, and well-said, Tirza. That’s counter-conventional — our culture seems to shudder at the prospect of getting older — but you’re so right. With time comes perspective, and that’s what I hope to gain. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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