The Mary Oliver Poem I Read Each Year to My Graduating Seniors

Rest in Poetry, Mary. 

News of poet Mary Oliver’s death hit me hard. I’ve read her work for decades after being exposed to her work in a high school English class. Most recently, I read her collection of literary criticism essays, which are glorious models of what criticism can be. Her style erases any truth in the distinction between poetry and prose. Reflecting on her writing also stirred up memories of one of her poems, which I read to my own graduating high school seniors for many years when I myself taught high school English. It’s called The Journey.


One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.

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