Devotions with Mary Oliver: That Little Beast, the Poem

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Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry” and Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” both address the wonder of reading and interacting with poetry. They are probably my two go-to poems for introducing others to the simple joy good poetry can bring to any life. But Mary Oliver’s “That Little Beast” has clawed its way into the poetic fray, coming from the Felicity section of poems included in the Devotions collection.

As a poet and songwriter, I completely understand the frustration of trying to tame poetic thought, sitting down with every intention to write one thing, and coming away with either nothing but a page of scribbled-out words and fragmented thoughts, or something completely unlike what I initially imagined. Don’t get me wrong: some of my favorite works have come from such sessions, and all of those scribbled-out pages are the necessary greasing of the poetic wheels. Eventually, they will hum in perfect pitch and smoothly drive the vehicle down the road.

Here, then, is Oliver’s playful and loving look at “That pretty little beast, a poem.” May you too discover how poetry can be just like man’s best friend, even if it refuses to sit or lie down.

That Little Beast – Mary Oliver

That pretty little beast, a poem,
    has a mind of its own.
Sometimes I want it to crave apples
    but it wants red meat.
Sometimes I want to walk peacefully
    on the shore
and it wants to take off all its clothes
    and dive in.

Sometimes I want to use small words
    and make them important
and it starts shouting the dictionary,
    the opportunities.

Sometimes I want to sum up and give thanks,
    putting things in order
and it starts dancing around the room
    on its four furry legs, laughing
    and calling me outrageous.

But sometimes, when I'm thinking about you,
    and no doubt smiling,
it sits down quietly, one paw under its chin,
    and just listens.

Oliver, Mary. Devotions. Penguin Press, NY: 2017. (pg. 10)

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