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Analysis of the Poem "Mindful" by Mary Oliver

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver and Mindful

Mindful is one of Mary Oliver's most popular modern poems and focuses on the wonder of everyday natural things. The reader is invited in to share the delight the speaker finds simply by being alive and perceptive.

  • The poem is a typical Mary Oliver poem in the sense that it is a series of quietly spoken deliberations, and reflected thoughts, almost as if the speaker were being interviewed and answering questions posed by a reader.
  • Conversely, there is no specific event, action, or detail in this poem, no creature singled out for special attention, which often is the case in her poems. Only at the very end is there mention of 'grass', a distant echo perhaps from that pioneer of American poetry, Walt Whitman, with his groundbreaking book Leaves of Grass.

Mary Oliver follows a long line of romantic poets who sensed a potent power at work in the natural world. She sums up her approach to nature in relatively straightforward terms:

'I see something and look at it and look at it. I see myself going closer and closer just to see it better, as though to see its meaning out of its physical form. And then, I take something emblematic from it and then it transcends the actual.'

Transcend is the operative word. Mary Oliver uses her powers of description and examination, drawing out the essences of the natural world before then attempting a philosophical or spiritual abstraction.

Many of her poems seem to be simply inspired, born of delight and amazement, intuitively formed yet shaped with care and attention. Some think her gentle approach borders on the sentimental, that some of her phrases are cloying.

In the main, they're accessible, and have an open door and a welcoming tone, though metaphor and simile and other devices bring twists and turns.

As a poet, she knows that 'figurative language can give shape to the difficult and the painful. It can make visible and "felt" that which is invisible and "unfeelable"'

Mindful is the result of a lifetime of walking outdoors, of a close study of the natural world, always with an open mind and heart. It holds a kind of folk philosophy within its simple language. Since its publication, it has become a sort of talisman for self-help groups and for those individuals seeking solace.




Analysis of "Mindful"

"Mindful," a single-sentence poem arranged in a series of indented short stanzas, has as its theme the dissolution of the self in nature, a theme common to many of Mary Oliver's poems.

This dissolution, this becoming one with the natural world, is achieved simply through the use of the senses and being aware of the extraordinary in the ordinary everyday things that make up life.

Throughout, the tone is conversational, never assertive, the speaker stating that she is here on earth to get lost in this 'soft world' - this is her raison d'etre, her reason to exist.

She is constantly reminding herself of the need to learn lessons - it's as if she is two people, her psyche split: a part of her in the ordinary tangible world, another part in the intangible.

Perhaps the second stanza holds a clue, for is she not saying that the something she experiences 'kills me' - kills the part of her that lives in the tangible world? Isn't there a longing for complete dissolution, which, ultimately, only death could bring?

That phrase 'kills me' though also means that she's knocked out, aghast, overwhelmed with the things she sees and hears. It's a common enough phrase, yet in this poem, the word is in stark contrast to the life she so wants to lose herself in.

  • There is an undercurrent of humility, the kind that grows between pupil and teacher, that runs through this poem, a mindset that says, If I stay here long enough immersed in the natural world, I will learn something profound.

This humility has an eastern tinge - perhaps a Buddhist tinge - a Zen influence. The speaker wishes to grow wise simply by observation of light, and of the ocean. By accepting the ordinary, even drab things in the natural world, and discovering joy in them, she will perhaps be able to connect with the divine?

And in the final stanza, the figurative language comes to the fore, the grass becoming prayer, the prayer a silent plea for help, an affirmation of life.

It is fitting that at the end of the poem comes a question mark, reflecting uncertainty and further exploration. Requiring an answer?

Further Analysis of Mindful

Mindful is a free verse poem, without rhyme or regular meter, nine stanzas making up 36 short lines.


First impression of this poem as it sits on the page is one of order and neatness. This looks like a sequence of thoughts designed to purposeful effect.

  • In technical terms, the lines are indented, which in poetic technical language is eisthesis - where lines are shifted inwards away from the usual reference point of the left margin.

So this then is a conscious move on behalf of the poet because it slows the reader down as they scan the page and progress down through the staggered lines. There is a lot of white space surrounding these stanzas.


There is an unusual simile introduced in the second stanza and finished off in the third:

that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.

The familiar 'needle in a haystack' means that something is virtually impossible to find, that there is something tiny and lost in something much bigger.

So, this simile fine-tunes the feelings of the speaker, who is lost in so much light that no one could ever find them. There's irony too, because how could someone feel lost in the light?

© 2018 Andrew Spacey


Robin Carretti from Hightstown on February 15, 2018:

Very compelling how the mind works my first published book I did about the mind in a spiritual existence One Single Thought circuit waves going through our mind which vibrate they are all around us this reminded me so much of that very interesting read