Mary Oliver’s Poem, ‘Praying’

Quite the Mary Oliver “section” at a local coffee shop/bookstore in Kentucky.

It has been a while since I’ve done one of these, where I share a poem and explore my own reaction to the poem. In fact, I haven’t been reading poems as often as I was a year or so ago, except for the odd ones that floats into my timeline on Twitter. Mary Oliver, the esteemed American poet, has been top of mind lately. Partly that is due to the fact that I visited the cutest coffee shop and bookstore last weekend in Kentucky — which, I must emphasize, the combination of coffee and books is lovely and brilliant — and they had a number of her collections. I was tempted to get a few, but I ended up going with a graphic novel (more on that soon after I read it!).

And part of it, I think, is the approachability of Oliver’s work? One of the best compliments you can give a writer, in my estimation, is to tell them how approachable, and in a sense, easy-to-read, their work is. Because in most cases, the easier it is to approach and how accessible it is, reflects the hard work that went in to making it that way. But also, there is virtue in conveying your message simply. That isn’t a call for “dumbing” things down, or whatever, but to strip away that which isn’t necessary to tell your story. To tell your poem. Oliver achieves that to the highest level.

(I previously reviewed Oliver’s poem, “The Uses of Sorrow,” here, which I loved.)

Her poem, “Praying,” is an example of what I am talking about, and may even be taken as a clarion call of sorts to that approach to writing. The poem comes from her collection, Thirst: Poems, which was one of the ones I saw at the bookstore.

The coffee side.

It is a short poem, which you can read in full here, but I will show an excerpt:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

Oliver is telling us to stop and pay attention. That is the job of the writer. To stop time itself, and look around at the details. To hone in on those details, and then to patch them together, albeit, she advises against being “elaborate,” noting that this isn’t a contest “but the doorway.”

The doorway to thanks, and to silence, in which “another voice may speak.” That other voice is the voice waiting to be heard once we silence everything else, primarily our own egos that demand to be seen and heard constantly.

Something I’ve always tried to do with my writing, and I don’t always succeed, to be sure, is to slow down in this way, to notice. To be an observer of what is around me, even if what is around my own involves mining my own memories for sensory details. That makes the best writing and the best storytelling. Because it is those little things, like the “weeds in a vacant lot,” that most resonates with people. Because, again, it is approachable and accessible. Everyone understands it, and connects to it. The blue iris, maybe not so much, even if it represents a beautiful image.

Also, even beyond writing (although writers like to think our brains are always thinking to the next story), I try to take this approach with life. For example, when I take my dog out for his last bathroom break prior to bed, I always make a note of the moon, and give thanks, as it were. Because the moon is incredible! And fascinating! And holy crap, can you believe we exist?

As for the title itself, my first inclination, without researching Oliver’s viewpoint, is that prayer has a secular quality to it. In the sense that, praying is meditative, right? We’re slowing down, as Oliver advises, and we’re looking outward and inward simultaneously. Prayer is the name for that action. Prayer means attuning ourselves to that which we normally wouldn’t.

But that’s just my interpretation.

What do you take away from this poem?

"this isn't / a contest but the doorway / into thanks"
The book side.

3 thoughts

  1. This is one of my favorite Oliver poems. Nature is her church so, yes, her perspective might be considered secular. For her (and me) praying is connecting or attuning with something beyond Ego, so looking “outward and inward simultaneously” is an apt description. Love your nightly moon noticing. I think “holy crap, can you believe we exist” is a terrific prayer. Thanks for writing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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