Mary Oliver Reads Her Poem "I Happened to be Standing"

Saturday, February 7, 2015 - 7:35am

Mary Oliver Reads Her Poem "I Happened to be Standing"

The poems of Mary Oliver are prayers that anyone can pray. They are spacious and simple, expansive and ordinary. They don't require us to believe in anything in particular, but they do ask us to pay attention to that fleeting and particular space of a moment.

When asked about the spiritual life of her childhood, Mary Oliver told Krista Tippett:

"Well I would define it now very differently from when I was a child. I was sent to Sunday School, as many kids are. And then I had trouble with the Resurrection. So I would not join the church. But I was still probably more interested than many of the kids who did enter into the church. It’s been one of the most important interests of my life. And continues to be.

And it doesn’t have to be Christianity, or Islam. I’m very much taken with the poet Rumi. Who is a Muslim, a Sufi poet. I read him every day. I have no answers, but I have some suggestions. I know that a life is much richer with a spiritual part to it.

Oliver has said that when she talks about prayer she's thinking of that oft-quoted line of Rumi's: "There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

Her poem "I Happened to Be Standing" embodies that line. And it's something quite special to hear it in the poet's own voice.

I don't know where prayers go,
     or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
     half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
     crosses the street?
The sunflowers? The old black oak
     growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
     along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
     of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can't really
     call being alive
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
     or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that's their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don't know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn't persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don't. That's your business.
But I thought, of the wren's singing, what could this be
     if it isn't a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

"I Happened to Be Standing" from A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver, published by The Penguin Press, New York, Copyright © Mary Oliver, 2012, reprinted by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency.

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Mariah Helgeson

is a digital editor at On Being. She earned a degree in International Affairs with concentrations in the Middle East and Conflict Resolution from George Washington University. She grew up in Minnesota and was a program associate at the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. When she’s not submerged in a good book she might be found laughing with her teenage sisters or playing chamber music.

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Sunday morning 6 am walk the dog. Then a cup of coffee in my kitchen with the Washington Post and your program on the favorite time of the week

These sweet words ease the tart grief I feel for the murdered Jordanian pilot and his family. Mary Oliver writes, "I wouldn't persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don't. That your business." Those are the words killers who hide behind religion will never understand.

Beautiful prayer. I've read two other books by Mary Oliver and I'm so inspired to reflection as I absorb her writings and now narration. Thanks Mary for your gifts.

Beautiful. Thank you.

When you and I can hear the prayer sung by wren, whale, willow or wind, then are not we prayer too?

The heart can carry a secret, quiet prayer, but the acts of singing that prayer out and hearing it sung, happening together are an ancient collaboration that I believe both honor grace and compel us to persevere sometimes through a prayerless place and time.

It's Sunday morning 6 AM, I set my clock alarm just to listen to this inspiring program. I love to listen and learn from the guest and Krita Tippett, today, it was poetry.

Mary Oliver is ever an inspiration and a wonder. My own poetry writing is enriched by knowing hers.
In Trees

Within their crowded grove
I find a lack of thoughts

a time for only air and wood

without those who tamper
with my self

a place
to be lifted

Here I glory
in uneven limbs
reaching and leaning

some even dead

black marks across
the air

drawn ink strokes of meaning
which I don’t know
or need to

A Sunday "ritual"! Thoroughly enjoyed this mornings interview with Mary Oliver.
Time to order some books! Thank you Krista!

mary oliver writes a crystalized vulnerable open hearted wise gift to all like me who have trouble articulating important feelings it's very helpful

On most Sunday mornings, I drive to meet my daughter for a long run on the Northern Central Railroad Trail; which is our form of spirituality. On the way to the trail, I listen to 'On Being'. Then Rebecca and I often discuss what I heard as we run for the next few hours. This poem, as much as any of the thought-provoking topics covered, got my day off to a very good start.

Losing connection with the natural world may be one of the saddest events of recent humankind. I do however have hope for the future, with today's youth helping drive us away from fossil fuels and towards the sun - the source of all existence.

Sunday morning at 9 am, I head out to feed and water the horses, while listening to you. This morning I cut my horse's mane while Mary Oliver spoke. My horse was very happy for the company and attention. Thank you for this interview, for the soul filling you do every Sunday morning.

On Sunday mornings, I awake to your show. This Sunday was special as you interviewed one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. As humans we are by nature spiritual. Spirituality means more than a church: a tree is spiritual and so is a snow storm. We are connected with all being--with the universe.

Hearing Mary Oliver reading on Sunday morning was like listening to an old friend on who's shoulder I needed to rest a hand.

I am so glad she did not try to change the little wren from singing. Poetry is such a gift. As someone has said "a poet can put into words the feelings the rest of us have but cannot express".

I couldn't believe it when I saw that Mary Oliver had agreed to an interview with you. I have hungered to hear one and have actually emailed you about it. She is the person who has had the greatest effect on my spiritual life, and thus my whole life. Your interview with her was a prayer itself. Thank you Mary - and thank you Krista

I have thirteen books by Mary Oliver and all I can say is I love you Mary. I'm thankful your poems are there for me.

Rumi is one of my most favorite philosophers too !


She who comes
with silent steps
spreads her blanket
thick and white --
It offers no warmth
yet deep solitude to
fill the empty spaces --
Erases all doubt
that she is here
to stay a
while longer.

Feb. 21, 2015
M. E. Gibson

Brings tears to ones eyes to hear this....
Truly a window to the Divine...

Brings tears to ones eyes to hear this....
Truly a window to the Divine...

Dear Mary, I am Annabelle Baker's mother. Does that mean anything to you? I couldn't help thinking that your voice and your words came to me today through Belle, and touched my heart. If I'm wrong, it really doesn't matter. She would have appreciated your poetry. I shared so many beautiful things with her. I always will. Thank you for your words. -- Olga Neal in Nova Scotia

For a man who has come to believe less in the spirit and more in experience, Mary Oliver's poems never the less give me a way I can be attentive to the world, not only the present, but the past from which it came, and a tiny speculation on the future toward which it moves, a way of praying without needing to believe in anything beyond this life. Truly good for the soul, whatever that is.

Mary Oliver is unfailingly genuine.At the end of her read poems, I cannot keep from smiling.

maybe a celebration!

Listened to this program again, second time, with Mary Oliver. We sat in bed, listening, commenting. What a way to start the day, the week. Thank you!
I thought of one of my best friends, a fellow Quaker the

Listened to this program again, second time, with Mary Oliver. We sat in bed, listening, commenting. What a way to start the day, the week. Thank you!
I thought of one of my best friends, a fellow Quaker the

What a gift it was to catch the last of Ms. Tippett's interview with Ms. Oliver! I was on my way to work. I'm a Chaplain at one of our state prisons. Talk about revisiting one's spirituality over and over again! After 60 years on this earth I've had quite a journey but these last couple of years at the women's prison - let's just say - the journey has had moments where all the past work was affirmed and solidified. Then there are moments - maybe millenia of moments - where everything gets shaken, tossed, left in the air to dangle only to remain like a confused cloud, not sure if it is one to percipitate or remain suspended. The brief moments of Ms. Tippett's interview with Ms. Oliver was a soothing rain to this particular weary soul. Thank you!