Visit our new site at

Monday, November 26, 2007

RevGalBookPals: Thirst, by Mary Oliver

Dear Revgals and pals:

For many reasons, my palms are sweating as I type this entry, my very first on the "Revgals" blog. We've never done a book discussion of a book of poetry before, although Mompriest and I have led a few spirited discussions of particular poems. I'm not really sure how one goes about discussing a book of poetry, but for Mary Oliver, I'm willing to give it a try.

I first heard Mary Oliver's name a few years ago, when I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, and heard Barbara Brown Taylor speak. She recommended, to writers and preachers, a little book by Mary Oliver called A Poetry Handbook. I ran right out and purchased a copy. Such was the power of her recommendation. Later, I discovered her famous poem, "The Summer Day", which ends, "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is it that you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?" And this summer I heard that she spoke to a sold-out audience here in Minneapolis. She is poetry's equivalent to a Rock Star.

But the reason we are discussing her today is her latest book of poems, "Thirst," where she honestly deals with such topics such as faith and doubt, grieving and going on, and the vocation of a poet: which I think, in some ways has some things in common with the vocation of a preacher (we both deal with words, for example). With that in mind, here are some questions and other discussion starters for our conversation today:

1. Choose a favorite poem in this collection, or one you think is representative of this book. What is it that speaks to you in this poem? What questions do you have about it?

2. Choose one of the recurring themes in the book, and write about this theme. What is Oliver saying about grief, about faith, about her love for the natural world? How is she saying it?

3. Why do you think she chose the title, "Thirst"? What do you think she is thirsty for? What poems speak about this thirst?

4. As a preacher (for those of us who are), what do you appreciate about her work? Does she preach? If so, how, and when?

5. Finally, I have always been captivated by a passage at the end of her book, A Poetry Handbook. There Oliver writes, "Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision, a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed." (p. 122) Do these words ring true for you? About poetry? About Oliver's poetry? Which poems are "ropes let down to the lost" for you? How do they accomplish this role? And may we who preach the gospel also claim this vocation, that our words are also "as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry"?

Looking forward to the conversation!

Here are links to 2 of the poems in the books:


Making the House Ready for the Lord


  1. I'd like to start the conversation by naming the first poem in her collection, Messenger, as among my favorites, especially with its first line, "My work is loving the world" -- such a clear expression of vocation.

  2. Oh, I wish I had the book! I wrote about Mary Oliver early this morning, and then suddenly wondered if the book discussion was beginning today, and whether it was about Thirst, and came over -- and found not the sightest evidence that there was any discussion planned at all! Nothing even in the sidebar, so I cncluded I must have dreamed it at sme point. All to say I am very glad to find the conversation beginning, and will stop back later to read about poems I will look forward to enjoying.

  3. I think you will enjoy the book very much, gannet girl...

  4. i'm new at revgals and am not in the rhythm of the 4th monday book club yet, si i just ordered the book. thank you for your questions and the link to her poems. i love the first line in 'messenger'

  5. I fixed the link to the second poem too. I love the line "under the sink, for example, is an/uproar of mice" -- great image for the chaos, but also the creation...and such (to me) a good allusion to Matthew 25 -- the least of these being, in this case, the animals.

  6. Diane, thank you for the thoughtful questions!
    1. You linked to what is my favorite poem, "Making the House Ready for the Lord," which jumped out at me when I first bought the book last year. I gave that copy away and have a new one and am enjoying it again.
    What I love about the poem is the sense that we have no real control over how things unfold, an idea she uses the animals to represent, and yet we try to be ready anyway.
    I used part of "Messenger" in my sermon last week. It's funny how a poem goes right by you one year and goes straight to your center in another year.
    4. I think she preaches, but with a caution. I sat and listened to a beloved pastor for many years who really enjoyed reading poetry from the pulpit, and there comes a point where it is too much. So I am careful not to include poetry all the time. As a person who "hears" better by reading the text herself, I appreciate the frustration of those who cannot read along. So the caution is not about Mary Oliver but about reading poetry from the pulpit in general, although I think she (along with David Whyte) is used a great deal.
    5. My first experience with Mary Oliver, or rather the first of her poems I remember hearing, was "Wild Geese." It broke my world open in a way poetry never had before. It was indeed a rope let down to someone lost, giving me permission to be imperfect, which I certainly am. I still need help with that, and I still turn to her for it.

    I'm sorry today's discussion was not in the sidebar. I'll try to get it updated today.

  7. yes, songbird, I am careful about using poetry in the pulpit as well, for the same reason. But I do think certain poets can give us inspiration ... not only by their message, but by the way they use words.

    and also, so important in poetry both the way the poem sounds and the way it looks.

  8. All that said, I do believe she does preach!

  9. I have been looking forward to this discussion for a long time...woohoo!

    I first heard of Oliver when I was given a copy of her poem, The Journey...

    In the poem The Messanger I am struck, in addition to that opening line, by, "Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

    I love how she can say the most simple thing in such a profound way. I think my life's work is about standing still and learning to be astonished...and then helping others experience the same.

    A recurring theme in the poems of this book..."love". being loved, losing one we love, loving others, life, God...

    or perhaps longing...

    I think of Psalm 42, As a deer longs for flowing streams so my soul longs you, O God. My soul thirsts for God...

  10. When I have used poetry in my sermons, and I guess I do it often enough that people anticipate it, I see people close their eyes as if to absorb the words more fully. It's kinda cool. But I agree with SB, we have to use poetry carefully, so it can be heard. Occasionally I feel like my entire sermon becomes a poem. I don't intend it that way, but when I am saying the words and nuancing the phrasing, the sermon becomes poetic....I guess that would be the Holy Spirit...

  11. I'll be posting on this later...I don't have the book with me. But I bought it for the discussion; it was the first of her work I had read and I loved it.

    The discussion is listed in "coming attractions" in the moving widget on the side.

  12. sorry I don't have the book but I will look at the two poems you linked to.

    Discussing poetry makes me feel a bit inadequate though (English major!) silly really but there you go.

    Thanks for the good questions and thoughts

  13. I am sorry I have not been back here yet today but ended up going to urgent care with a terrible migraine.

    I'm back now... and will be in and out for the evening.

    I think many people feel inadequate to discuss poetry...

    it's ok to start with an image, or a line that grabs you.

    I have found too that at least some of Mary Oliver's poems resonate with people who usually don't "get" poetry.

    Her short one about prayer in this volume, for example.

    I posted it on my blog this summer.

    I'm glad for your experience in your church, Mompriest. Your congregation sounds very open.

    The sounds of poetry are so hearing it aloud can be a treat.

    I too like the line you quoted from Messenger... gets me thinking about "what is most important", and how all of us are easily distracted...

    I'm going to take a nap, and be back in an hour!

  14. I love her poem about praying:

    "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

    a few words together and don't try
    to make them elaborate, this isn't
    a contest but the doorway

    into thanks, and a silence in which
    another voice may speak."

    really a lovely poem about praying...and just trusting that the words we use will be enough, what ever they are....

    I'm sorry diane, that you had such a bad headache and had to go to the emergency care center...sigh...I do hope you feel better!

  15. My favorite line in "Messenger" is

    ...which is my work,

    which is mostly standing still and learning to be

    truly, this is some of the hardest work I have to learn and practice and do every day.

    Poor Diane, with the headache! Thank you for choosing the book and hosting the discussion. I am so grateful. I haven't read poetry regularly for years and this book satisfied something so deep in me.

    I also appreciated the thoughts about how poetry fits into preaching, or not. I have not heard it much lately...sadly. But just Sunday I found myself wishing for a script of the sermon...because our rector is a little hard to understand, especially if I don't have on my distance glasses (with which to see his face, from way back in the loft). i do better with words I can see.

    Poetry is words I can hear, that give me a real picture of what to see.

  16. Diane,
    Thank you so much for leading in the disucssion - I am sooo sorry you have had a migraine - hoping by now you are feeling relief.

    I was remiss in not updating the sidebar and I apologize. Thank you, Songbird, for updating it!

    I have not read this book, but fully intend on doing it.

  17. mompriest, thank you for posting the words to Praying...I have been carrying the book around me for weeks, and even today, but not tonight when I was posting!

    The very last poem in the book is a prose poem called "thirst"... talks about the conversation in her heart between God and the created world.. I think that's at the heart of the thirst...

  18. diane, I think you are correct. The thirst is for God...even as she speaks so poignantly about love and is really about the place where her love in this world meets with the love of/for God....a love known, often, in what she loves in this world...does that make sense?

  19. Messenger: I love the juxtaposition of the title -- with its intimation of the utterly ordinary -- against what the message is: loving the world and learning to be astonished.

    I do a lot of my praying when I walk. Yesterday was looking at the mallards in the Little Lakes -- the most ordinary of ducks; the hooded mergs are gone -- and I thought, God, I am grateful right now for that exact duck there, that one right to the left, with its meticulously designed and arranged and waterproof feathers and its glorious green head and its capacity to be here today and somewhere further south as soon as it freezes. I am so having Mary Oliver moments these days -- and it's those moments that come to mind when she reminds us to learn to be astonished. Ducks ARE astonishing.

  20. thanks for coming back, GG, I love your insight on Messenger.

  21. Diane and Mompriest,
    I also liked the poem on praying! I actually thought it would be great to share with church members. I have encoutnered some who fear praying aloud because they don't have the deep language, but I find the most meanigful prayers to be those that are heartfelt and earnest conversation.
    The poems on grief were tought oread, but b/c they were so on target. I think maybe tough because i felt some of the words ring true for me and some of my own griefs in life.
    I have not used peoms that much, but my sermons will become poems. i am intentional about word usage and rhyme, or the use of alliteration and word pairings. I love to play with words until they feel right. Part of why I stick with manuscript due to the careful writing and need to be precise.
    Sorry about the headache, D. We are kindred spirits in that regard.
    Great book discussion and great book to discuss!
    Thanks so much!!!!

  22. I will have to add this book to my collection. Thanks for all the comments. I was checking out some online poems (google finds many) - did not realize that her partner had died in 2005 - story here -- I wonder how much that loss influenced these poems. Her poems on death speak with power to me. White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field is my current favorite.
    re: using poetry in sermons -- my homiletics professor warned against it unless it is your poetry - lest you lose your "own voice" - YMMV


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.