'The Summer Day' by Mary Oliver

A Reflection by Carol O'Connor

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

by Mary Oliver, from: House of Light Beacon Press,1990

During an interview with Mary Oliver in 2015, Krista Tippett in a slip of the tongue, inadvertently changed the article in the title of this poem to ‘A’ rather than ‘The Summer’s Day.’ Oliver was quick to correct her, but subsequently made nothing of it. However, as she talked it became clear why this change is so necessary.

This is one of Mary Oliver’s most famous poems. The final couplet, a question, often appears on social media. Oliver is particularly fond of asking questions in her writing and this one is meant to challenge the reader. It’s also an invitation. To describe human life as ‘wild’ and ‘precious’ presses upon the boundaries of our imagination.

When I was young, sometimes school reports would include the sentiment: ‘Carol has potential.’ Throughout my life I have pondered these words. Many years ago, I spent a brief time teaching in a secondary school, and I too would write on some hapless students’ reports: she or he has potential. As if, in some undefinable way, something was yet to be achieved. It was an audacious statement, meant to be encouraging, yet bore the mark of my own smouldering. What exactly had my teachers seen in me that had ‘potential’? Does potential ever ripen into fulfilment? After 50 years I still ask: have I yet arrived at their undefined forecaste destination? In other words, am I trapped in living for something only future and illusory?

There are six questions asked of the reader in this poem - three at the beginning, and three at the end. They work like bookends. By reference to a ‘Who’ the first three question ask us to name the creator of existence. The poem becomes an invitation to pay attention: in this instance to the physical features of a grasshopper held in the poet’s hand. The poet’s own day spent being ‘idle’ and ‘fall(ing) down / into the grass,’ is her surrender to and joy of life itself. To ‘stroll through fields’ is an act akin to being in prayer. For here is affirmation about what it means to be alive. To be human is to know such placement in natural space. And to know also that we are placed in time. The fields and the grass will die. Life will perish before we are ready to let go.

A large section of the poem centres on the fine bodily structure and delicate joint movements of the grasshopper. Our focus shifts from subject to object. No longer ’Who made the world?’ but one small fragile feature in the created world itself, the grasshopper. Description of this minuscule insect takes up seven lines - eight if you include the initial question about who is its maker. This is nearly half the poem.

And here’s the nub of the matter. In her 2015 interview with Tippett, Oliver remembers the existence of this very grasshopper: ‘….the sugar he was eating was part of frosting from a Portugese lady’s birthday cake…(that) little creature came to my plate and (said): ‘I’d like a helping of that’…..…Mrs Segura, probably her 90th birthday cake….’ There is relationship here, there is empathy, watchful attentiveness, presence. This grasshopper at this moment pressing on Oliver’s hand really meant something. To be human is hold yourself back in watchfulness. Aware that you are present, yet not wholly participatory. It’s called wonder.

Mary Oliver’s famous final couplet asks a question of us and subverts it at the same time. It forecasts a future that is already happening. Potential is always alive and ripening in the now. It’s always acting through subject and object in a particular relationship. For this to be ‘A Summer’s Day’ could mean any day during the season. But it’s ‘The Summer’s Day’ precisely because it is the day this grasshopper flung itself into her hand. It happened. It is still happening in memory. Potential is not who we will be in 20 or 50 years time, not measured by what we have or are known for, but how we carry our being today. How we relate to each being in the created world. Our ‘one’ life, ‘wild’ and ‘precious’ is happening in present and passing time. To experience this is to have the capacity to wonder at what may be sitting on our own hand, who too may be ‘gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.’

Carol O’Connor

For Kirista Tippett Interview: