Apr 05 2013

Mary Oliver – Yes! No!

Published by at 9:32 am under Poetry

Yes! No!
by Mary Oliver

How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out

Yes! No! The

swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.

— from White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems, by Mary Oliver

/ Photo by David Paul Ohmer /

There is so much I like about this poem.

I’m not so certain myself how necessary it is to have opinions. Perhaps Mary Oliver’s opinions and her Yesses and Noes are really about being present, making a choice to be there, to be aware.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out

Yes! No!

And that’s what I really like about the poem, the sense that the supreme act of a conscious being is to be aware, and to be here, alive and quiet in the undefined moment.


swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond.

The “nameless pond.” To that, I definitely say, Yes! That single phrase nails me to the spot each time I read it. The thinking mind reflexively wants to name everything it sees, and in naming it, claiming it, defining it. Labeling a thing or place, we then think we have seen it, and so ignore it in order to move on to the next thing to be named. Naming is a way of protecting ourselves from direct encounter.

What is it like to encounter a pond with no name? Not even called “pond”? A landscape without labels is a wide open, mysterious, magical realm. The swan glides through that world every day and needs no names to make it real. In some sense, naming the pond diminishes it, even for the swan, since it has then been claimed as human territory. This is why we need those wild places, unnamed spaces, where the swan can float and the thrush can dance in the unfenced mystery. Where we, wild seekers, can wander in wordless witness.

To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.

Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Mary Oliver

US (1935 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Mary Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935.

As a young writer, Mary Oliver was influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and, in fact, as a teenager briefly lived in the home of the recently deceased Millay, helping to organize Millay’s papers.

Mary Oliver attended college at Ohio State University, and later at Vassar College.

Mary Oliver’s poetry is deeply aware of the natural world, particularly the birds and trees and ponds of her adopted state of Massachusetts.

Her collection of poetry “American Primitive” won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.

More poetry by Mary Oliver

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9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Mary Oliver – Yes! No!”

  1. lisaon 05 Apr 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Ivan I love you! Love your insights & comments.

  2. Louiseon 05 Apr 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Ivan, I really appreciate your comments on this wonderful poem. The namelessness is key for me, too – and I would even go further … Aren’t we, as human beings, also too keen to give ourselves and others titles, labels, categories? It would be so freeing to have nothing of that in our lives, so that everyone could live and breathe and feel they had the right to do so, without somehow having to flash credentials in order to qualify for the next encounter. We – for all our ‘higher intelligence’ – are probably the only species that’s bothered to bits about what everyone else thinks of us.

    How good it would be to achieve the indifference of the swan in this poem. Instead of being cut to the quick if someone says they’ve never heard of our home town, school, university, we might in time manage to achieve the swan’s utter detachment and inner freedom.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Philemonon 05 Apr 2013 at 5:07 pm

    This reminds me of a line from Bishop Berkeley’s notebooks that stuck in my head a ways back: “Few men think, but all will have opinions”. Perhaps we try to think too much and we should rather watch the opinions flit by, with amusement.

  4. Sobhanaon 05 Apr 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Hi Ivan,

    How are you?

    Beautiful poem, but your comments are on it out of the world

    Thank you very much

  5. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 06 Apr 2013 at 6:59 am

    I just came in from a walk in the field around our property and was exulted by the flock of of geese flying away to somewhere. When I told my friend at breakfast about it she asked me if they were seagulls I saw. Inwardly I thought–
    I don’t know–all I know was that my heart
    almost exploded with the sight. Naming things, as you said Ivan, can distance one from being present to the feeling.
    It’s a beautiful poem you’ve given to us, Ivan. I want so much to be present to all that life offers us…. Thanks for this morning meditation.

  6. kathyon 06 Apr 2013 at 8:14 am

    Re: Mary Oliver. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Re: Ivan. A thousand more!

  7. Pushparajahon 07 Apr 2013 at 12:09 am

    life, yes!

    love yes!!

    living things are which I use and love,

    I love my neighbors dog:
    i love life for i find it difficult to hurt.

  8. Carolineon 09 Apr 2013 at 11:23 am

    Hi Ivan,
    Such thoughtful comments! Yes! “To pay attention (be present), this is our proper and endless work.” Love the truth in Mary Oliver’s work.

    Thank you.

  9. rena navonon 30 Apr 2013 at 4:00 am

    I’m coming in late on this one–a broken computer takes the blame. Mary goes on forever, and who knows how she has done the impossible to have really made the poem her constant work?
    As a poet myself I would guess that that unappetizing line you rightly criticize was a tool to get her going writing. We all have our bad days, particularly poets. Mary takes a challenge another wouldn’t…. her spunk impresses me enormously while I won’t add “in my opinion”.

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