The Summer Day

Continuing our series of summer poetry, today an extremely well-known poem by a very popular American poet:

The Summer day, by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

So much here that it’s hard to know where to start. For me, much of the power of the poem lies in the juxtaposition of minutely-rendered details (like the description of this particular grasshopper) with Big Questions like “who made the world?” The poem begins with three questions and ends with three questions. In between, the persona claims she doesn’t know what a prayer is, but the poem is in fact a prayer: it is a prayer of gratitude, a prayer acknowledging our limited time on this beautiful earth, a prayer meditating upon the Creator, he who made the world (the first three questions remind me of William Blake’s The Tyger: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”).

Any poem prominently featuring grass (note how often the word is repeated) will always remind me of lines from Psalm 103:

Our days on the earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows and we are gone–as though we had never been here.
But the love of the Lord remains forever . . . .

Everything dies, and too soon, so learn how to be idle and blessed, how to live deliberately, how to pay attention to creation. Like Mary kneeling at the feet of Jesus, the persona kneels in the grass and then asks “what else should I have done?” How could I have possibly spent my time any better than this, and oh, by the way, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

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