Long Life

Essays and Other Writings


By Mary Oliver

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"The gift of Oliver's poetry is that she communicates the beauty she finds in the world and makes it unforgettable" ( Miami Herald ). This has never been truer than in Long Life, a luminous collection of seventeen essays and ten poems.

With the grace and precision that are the hallmarks of her work, Oliver shows us how writing "is a way of offering praise to the world" and suggests we see her poems as "little alleluias." Whether describing a goosefish stranded at low tide, the feeling of being baptized by the mist from a whale's blowhole, or the "connection between soul and landscape," Oliver invites readers to find themselves and their experiences at the center of her world. In Long Life she also speaks of poets and writers: Wordsworth's "whirlwind" of "beauty and strangeness"; Hawthorne's "sweet-tempered" side; and Emerson's belief that "a man's inclination, once awakened to it, would be to turn all the heavy sails of his life to a moral purpose."

With consummate craftsmanship, Mary Oliver has created a breathtaking volume sure to add to her reputation as "one of our very best poets" (New York Times Book Review ).


Other Books by Mary Oliver
No Voyage and Other Poems
The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems
Twelve Moons
American Primitive
Dream Work
House of Light
New and Selected Poems
White Pine
West Wind
The Leaf and the Cloud
What Do We Know
Owls and Other Fantasies
The Night Traveler
Sleeping in the Forest
A Poetry Handbook
Blue Pastures
Rules for the Dance
Winter Hours


I would rather write poems than prose, any day, any place. Yet each has its force. Prose flows forward bravely and, often, serenely, only slowly exposing emotion. Every character, every idea piques our interest, until the complexity of it is its asset; we begin to feel a whole culture under and behind it. Poems are less cautious, and the voice of the poem remains somehow solitary. And it is a flesh and bone voice, that slips and slides and leaps over the bank and out onto any river it meets, landing, with sharp blades, on the smallest piece of ice. Working on prose and working on poems elicit different paces from the heartbeat. One is nicer to feel than the other, guess which one. When I have spent a long time with prose I feel the weight of the work. But when I work at poems, the word is in error; it isn't like any other labor. Poems either do not succeed, or they feel as much delivered as created.
Still, the endeavors of narrative, or the amble of description toward thought, have their enchantments. And there are so many moods of prose—the explanation, the exhortation, the moral instruction, the comedy. And do not forget the fantastical story made buoyant with glitter and the shadows of glitter, too small and sweet, perhaps, for any other use.
We talk about poems turning the line—that magical device—but of course prose turns, too, where the paper is about to run out. Such steadiness! But the prose-horse is in harness, a good, sturdy and comfortable harness, while the horse of poetry has wings. And I would rather fly than plow.
I have written two books about writing poetry, and this is not another one. I hoped to shun that subject altogether. I have failed, but only very briefly and I hope in a sporting manner. In time I will keep silence altogether. Poets must read and study, but also they must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, or we might just as well copy the old books. But, no, that would never do, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. "Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?" This book is my comment.
One more thing I want to mention before the pages actually begin. Writing poems, for me but not necessarily for others, is a way of offering praise to the world. In this book you will find, set among the prose pieces, a few poems. Think of them that way, as little alleluias. They're not trying to explain anything, as the prose does. They just sit there on the page, and breathe. A few lilies, or wrens, or trout among the mysterious shadows, the cold water, and the somber oaks.


WE LIVE, M. and I, about ten feet from the water. When there is a storm and the wind pushes toward us from the southeast we live about a foot from the water. It sings all day long and all night as well, never the same music. Wind, temperature, where the tide is, how the moon is tugging or shoving—each of these makes a difference. The tide going out sounds harsher than the voice of its rising, what seems like a disinclination to leave growls in it, with the sound of dark, thick-stringed instruments. Coming in, it is more playful. Every day my early morning walk along the water grants me a second waking. My feet are nimble, now my ears wake, and give thanks for the ocean's song.
This enormity, this cauldron of changing greens and blues, is the great palace of the earth. Everything is in it—monsters, devils, jewels, swimming angels, soft-eyed mammals that unhesitatingly exchange looks with us as we stand on the shore; also, sunk with some ship or during off-loading, artifacts of past decades or centuries; also the outpourings of fire under water, the lava trails; and kelp fields, coral shelves, and so many other secrets—the remembered and faithfully repeated recitations of the whales, the language of dolphins—and the multitude itself, the numbers and the kinds of shark, seal, worm, vegetations, and fish: cod, haddock, swordfish, hake, also the lavender sculpin, the chisel-mouth, the goldeye, the puffer, the tripletail, the stargazing minnow. How can we not know that, already, we live in paradise?
But even paradise must have rules. I do not know whether or not these rules were engendered in the beginning by divine deftness or by chance. I rather think chance was the origin—though perhaps the chance was offered divinely—for the rules are neither nice nor neat; simply workable, and therefore, in the quest for life rather than no-life, sublime. Every vitality must have a mechanism that recommends it to existence—what seems like ornamentation or phantasm is pure utility. It comes from an engine of mist and electricity that may be playful, and must be assertive. And also, against the odds of endurance in the great-shouldered sea, prolific.
On a July morning, after a moon tide, I walk along the water's edge. In the night, thousands of small fish have been caught on the sand. Some, in the morning light, are already hot and have lost the body's capacity to move; others are still flickering, or grinding into the wet sand, or trying, with snapping motions, to move back down the swash. But it is their last hour. It is as if the ocean were spraying forth, purging itself, which certainly it is not. The fish have simply been stranded, by their proximity to shore and the unusually high tide. The sand lance has neither length nor heft, most are no more than three or four inches long. Others, not too many, are perhaps six or seven inches from face to tail. Now, in their slippery huddle, they compose an unbroken rope at the edge of the water. At places this rope is half a foot high.
Each fish has an olive-green, silvery, daintily freckled body; what is known as a superior mouth, with the lower jaw extending past the upper jaw; a pale belly; a caudal fin. The eyes are the phantasms, with their glare and their circularity. In death the jaw hangs open. The tongue is pink in the pinch of the mouth, the throat is a narrow, translucent chute. As the hour grows warmer, blood-color gathers at the gills, the skin stiffens. And still there are some shimmying and bucking a few inches toward the receding water. But none gets back. The mischief of the tides has them.
Now, a young man coming down the beach fills a plastic bag with the lances, for bait. He gathers both the trembling and the inert. Even dead this pretty little fish can catch another fish—maybe a big fish.
The next morning I go back; the beach is pale, shining, and absolutely clean.
But even as the multitude attracts our attention, so does the single creature and moment. I am walking with my dogs along the beach at a low and still lowering tide, when a thrashing in the shallows catches my eye. I wade to it; in the water that is little more than ankle deep, there is a stranded goosefish. Such a grotesque body, such a funeral of a mouth, the widest gate to darkness, for the size of the whole fish, that you could ever imagine! Most of the goosefish, in fact, is mouth. But also how glorious a color is each green eye—more vitally green than emeralds, than wet moss, than the leaves of violets, and shining, very much alive. I did not know what to do. One could not pick up that spiny and toothy body. Then a man came walking along with two children. They waded out and looked at the unhappy fish. He asked me for my dog's leash, which was hanging around my shoulders, and he looped it lightly under the heavy body and with the slightest tug drew the fish up, just inches, and slowly, as with a fantastic, footless dog, he led it into deeper water. Hurrah for that man's inventive mind and good heart! The fish, with the great mouth gaping, and the green eyes opening and closing, wallowed along until it could set itself down into the water entirely. Then it slipped neatly from the loop of the leash, and was gone.
Now it's March, the bluebirds are skating the air. Now it's April, and the whales have come home. The finbacks and the humpbacks and the rare right whales, arriving along the coast, coming into the bay, sometimes into the harbor, their massive length and weight churning and breaching as though they, like us, know playfulness. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot, he maketh a path to shine after him, said Job, who, I fear, could not know that there is also a reasoning and a gentleness in these mountains of flesh. Once a whale tangled in line came into the harbor with another swimming just alongside, a companion that would not leave the roped animal but lingered, while brave men went out in little boats and were able to cut the entangling line away. The eye of the humpback is like all the darkness and hope and pain one sees in the eye of the elephant, in whose brain, it is avowed by those who know, nothing is ever forgotten. It is an eye deeper than the deepest well. Once on a late spring day M. and I were standing on a boat deck when a humpback breached—leaped out of the water beside us—and trumpeted. Mist fountained from the blowhole, light flung a rainbow through the moisture; softly the mist rose and rained down onto the deck and baptized all of us.


  • "A rigorous mind combined with a capacity for devotion; a desire to find the exact, economical, shining phrase; a wish to witness, and a wish to share."—Chicago Tribune
  • "Oliver writes exquisitely lucid prose. Here, in her most generously personal essays to date, she articulates the beliefs, observations, and inspirations that feed her poetry. Essential...radiant."—Booklist
  • Praise for Mary Oliver
  • "A master of spare and evocative imagery."—Poetry
  • "What good company Mary Oliver is!"—Los Angeles Times
  • "A great poet....She is amazed but not blinded."—Boston Globe
  • "The gift of Oliver's poetry is that she communicates the beauty she finds in the world and makes is unforgettable."—Miami Herald
  • "Oliver's poems are thoroughly convincing as genuine, moving, and implausible as the first caressing breeze of spring."—The New York Times
  • "Oliver might be accused of an untransformed and reactionary romanticism. One would think that poems about self, nature, death, and ecstasy had run their course in English. Think again."—Chicago Tribune
  • "Who wouldn't want to be part of Mary Oliver's world?"—Appalachian Review

On Sale
Mar 2, 2005
Page Count
120 pages
Da Capo Press

Mary Oliver

About the Author

Born in a small town in Ohio, Mary Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of 28. Over the course of her long career, she received numerous awards. Her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She led workshops and held residencies at various colleges and universities, including Bennington College, where she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching. She was the author of more than twenty books, including The Leaf and the Cloud and Long Life. Her many accolades include the National Book Award. She died in 2019.

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