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'Invitation' by Mary Oliver

A Reflection

by Carol O'Connor


Oh do you have time

to linger

for just a little while

out of your busy

and very important day

for the goldfinches

that have gathered

in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,

to see who can sing

the highest note,

or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,

or the most tender?

Their strong, blunt beaks

drink the air

as they strive


not for your sake

and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude -

believe us, they say,

it is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in this broken world.

I beg of you,

do not walk by

without pausing

to attend to this

rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.

It could mean everything.

It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:

You must change your life.

(from Red Bird, 2008)

In her poem Invitation, Mary Oliver asks us to ‘linger’ a while and listen to the goldfinches ‘in a musical battle.’ Not a battle to win but one ‘for sheer delight and gratitude,’ directing our attention towards what it means to hear a display of low notes and high notes, notes ‘of expressive mirth’ or ‘the most tender.’ The tone of the poem is light, the words are buoyant, gently moving us along with short elegant lines which seem to float in sea-space over the page. There’s a simplicity and ease in this invitation.

Or so it seems, until we are told - though once more in soothing, gentle tones - that ‘just to be alive’ is ‘a serious thing.’ That stops us ‘just’ short of becoming lost in joyful cacophony of musical sound. There’s a message here. We are ‘invited’ to be alive not only to ‘this fresh morning’ but reminded it’s also a morning ‘in this broken world.’ The invitation becomes more urgent as the poet now ‘beg(s)’ us to listen. But still, she softens the plea with gentle ironic humour, it’s after all ‘rather ridiculous performance.’ But the possibility of serious message being given when we ‘linger’ is very real. As weighty as the intensely visionary poet Rilke in his exhortation: ‘you must change your life.’

What we initially thought was an invitation to a musical performance of high and low notes, becomes the possibility for some crucial inner transformation. Mary Oliver has the striking ability in her poetry to gently woo the reader. And shake us inwardly as we are going along.

For Mary Oliver, to be human means giving time to the act of lingering. ‘Linger’ is to stay longer in a place because of a reluctance to leave. It’s connected to the German: 'längen', make longer. Comes from the Middle English: to dwell, abide. And so here it means to see the beauty, but also the brokenness. But how could this goldfinch chorus ever resonate with Rilke’s request for us ‘to change our life’? What is this invitation all about? Lingering now doesn’t feel quite so lying down in a bed of melody and gratitude.

In an interview with Anita Shriver in 2011, Mary Oliver said:

I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we're animals, that we need the Earth. And that can be devastating. Wendell Berry is a wonderful poet, and he talks about this coming devastation a great deal. I just happen to think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I try to do more of the "Have you noticed this wonderful thing? Do you remember this?"

Wendell Berry and Rainer Maria Rilke are both serious thinkers to draw on: one, an early 20th century Austrian poet, existentially intense and capable of crying out among the Angelic Order, hearing the ‘unbroken message’ from the silence of God’s breath. Reminding us that what we see each day is potentially an expansion of the heart, he adjures, ‘Begin, always as new, the unattainable praising’ (from Duino Elegies, 1). Wendell Berry is a contemporary poet - writer, environmental activist, who advocates sustainable agriculture, understands our interconnectedness with one another as well as to the land itself. His Sabbath poems bare testament to what it means to ‘live thoughtfully’ in one place.

Mary Oliver’s poem is rich and generous in its invitation. As ever in her work, also poised and courteous. Hers is a request to hear the wild, untamed beauty of the world, but also nature’s distress. We need the earth, and the earth needs us. If we don’t take time to abide in the chorus of natural life around us, there will be devastation We are in danger of losing the earth as Wendell Berry knows full well. Rilke’s urging for us to change our lives is to recognise that Angelic Orders are already amongst us both in praise and capacity for change. Mary Oliver’s invitation is to dwell a little longer in this world’s beauty and harness that potential for transformation.

Red Bird by Mary Oliver

Beacon Press, 2009

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