Doesn’t Everything Die?

September 17, 2009

I have never been a big fan of poetry, which is ironic, given that when I do read it, I tend to love it. How can I not embrace the imagery and the way those lean, clever words make me ponder? Last night at Back to School Night, my daughter’s freshman English teacher read Mary Oliver ‘s The Summer Day ( poets/mary_oliver) to the assembled parents. As a biologist and lover of literature, I cannot believe that I had never heard of this writer. She and I are kindred spirits, yet she unfolds the natural world in a way I have never experienced.

This learned woman who teaches high school English was not a wanna-be biology teacher. She read this poem to us parents, just as she had guided our children through the verses on the first day of school, because of the message in this beautifully written poem. Each stanza draws you in and leaves the reader with a simple reminder: We only get one shot at life. On this night, with a room filled with mothers and fathers, this English instructor closed her book and issued a challenge: Pause and ask yourself a question, not just at weddings or funerals or when you ship your children off to college, ask yourself today this concluding line of Mary Oliver’s poem: Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?

After ten meager minutes, I left the room wishing that I could spend a portion of my “wild and precious life” sitting in this woman’s English class. Since that isn’t possible, I vowed to search down and read more Mary Oliver poetry in the hopes that it will make me a better writer. Perhaps, some day as I practice the craft of writing, I too will capture the power of words that will make someone realize that death is inevitable, that every day is a gift, that each moment is an opportunity to reflect on the direction of one’s life. Until then, I offer the best alternative I can think of, which is to pass along Mary Oliver’s poignant phrase: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?