Mary Oliver’s Gift of Stumbling Stones


Last fall, our family took a morning to hike up the craggy paths of the North Georgia mountains. We knew our end: a precipice overlooking the tops of the newly bronzed and coppered trees. But there was a long path between us and that view, and it was not a level one.

We couldn’t walk in our normal, easy stride with our heads up. Our bodies would take quick, forward lurches as toes came into contact with inlaid stones. Our ankles would tangle with roots. The ground begged that we take notice of it. The rocks stubbed our toes and asked us to consider them.

Poetry is like that.

In our instant-everything world, our hearts and minds and eyes are trained to get to the end quickly. “Get to the point,” we say. “Give me 140 characters and a picture, in case I don’t have time for even your brevity.”

But poems will have none of that. Poetry won’t let us breeze ahead with our heads up. Every word, laboriously gathered and sorted by the poet, is a stone to bump up against. A call to pause and consider. Lines break right in the middle of a sentence—“The nerve!” we think. “Can’t we just move along?” we huff. Our ankles get tangled up in the syntax and we have to sit and spend time unknotting. “The world is rushing by!” we cry, “I don’t have time to wonder at the mystery of it all!” And yet, I’m thinking that maybe what our world needs most right now is a little more poetry.

My husband, Andrew, has declared this to be year of poetry in the Harwell home, and among many of the musty anthologies he first carried home from the library was a selection of poems by Mary Oliver. I hadn’t even considered if she was alive or dead as I devoured her poems on my couch at night after my kids were tucked away. How bizarre, magical even, that I was reading her poem, “When Death Comes,” when she was walking through her own words and “step[ping] through the door full of curiosity, wondering; what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”

Poetry won't let us breeze ahead with our heads up. Every word, laboriously gathered and sorted by the poet, is a stone to bump up against.

Elizabeth Harwell

Her poems, and others, have been nourishment for me this past month: words bumping up against the forward! onward! hum of my mind and asking me to sit when the rest of the world is imploring me to keep up the frantic pace. Oliver’s poems ask us to gawk at poppies, to think about the fields in which the rice on our plate grew, to wonder at what the bear dreams. She bids that we do the hard work of standing still in the present moment to give God the great honor of seeing what He’s done.

How can we be thankful without considering? How can we worship without seeing?

When our family reached the precipice, we celebrated and smiled and yelled out the colors of the tree tops. And as we took the obligatory pictures (to be included with our captions of brevity), I thought about those roots and stones under the rolling blanket of color. I knew those paths under the tree tops; I had been knocked about by them. The branches had scratched against my jacket. The oak leaves had surprised me, slamming into my face and leaving dew drops that tickled down my nose. There was a depth of beauty in that crescendo of the view, because it was a world considered.

I had not voluntarily considered those stones and branches; they grabbed at me to do so. And I wonder if we need to let ourselves be arrested in this way by poetry. Can’t it only do us good to stumble over the words and thoughts of another? If only to give us practice in considering, if only to train our eyes (and minds and hearts) to fix themselves on something, one thing—and be amazed.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

—excerpt from “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver

Click here to read more of Elizabeth Harwell’s writing at her blog.


  1. I.J. Henry


    great article! I love they way Elizabeth used how hiking through nature and getting caught up is like the way poetry catches us and stops to make you think in life.

  2. Sara

    I love this post on so many levels! Mary Oliver will always be a favorite of mine, but I also love the acknowledgment you give poetry. It’s such a beautiful art that deserves to be recognized. Thank you for sharing. <3

  3. Becca Jansen

    Oh my….this is SO beautifully constructed. I was really struck by this. It seems so opposite our individualistic, harried, digital insta-culture. I am a wife, mother of twin boys, and aspiring writer….and I’m so painfully aware that connecting with my family and writing anything of value depends on adopting this anti-cultural way of seeing and being.
    May I link to this article in my next blog post?

  4. Bailey McGee


    This is just lovely! I am just starting to get into reading poetry again. I love the way you explain this, giving meaning and importance to the time spent working through a good volume. I admit I have never read much of Mary Oliver’s work, but have added her to my list!

  5. gllen

    Ahh! Poetry! Yes!!
    Words of poetry are one of the staples for me in feeding my soul in a world so chaotic and noisy, so disorganized and harried.
    At lunchtime today I read a beautiful one titled “Attending” in Luci Shaw’s latest book “Eye of the Beholder,” which I highly recommend.
    I agree that “maybe what our world needs most right now is a little more poetry…”
    Words that arise out of stillness, and feed our hearts, minds, and souls with beauty, grace, and renewing perspective – that give us places to breathe silence and wonder once again…

  6. Elizabeth Harwell


    Hi, K. Rose! As I admitted in this piece, I’m a new reader of Mary Oliver. Others may have more input, but I started with “New and Selected Poems, Volume One” which is a collection of her poems that span her life/career. I found them to be beautiful, of course, but also very accessible. I think that’s why she’s such a beloved poet— deep waters, but easy entries for even those who are afraid to read poetry.

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