4 distilld lessons on poetry from Mary Oliver x On Being

Here are the distilld lessons (extended) from the episode "Listening to the World" from On Being with Krista Tippett and Elizabeth Gilbert.

4 distilld lessons on poetry from Mary Oliver x On Being

Here are the distilld lessons (extended) from the episode "Listening to the World" from On Being with Krista Tippett and Elizabeth Gilbert.


On this episode of On Being with Krista Tippet, Mary Oliver, a poet and an author who won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, talks about how poetry saved her from a difficult childhood. She also shares how poems can have a healing effect and how they can be guides to understanding our purpose in life.

Read this if...

  • You’re interested in poetry
  • You’re curious about the impact of poems
  • You want to know how literary pieces help in healing

Guest bio

Mary Oliver is a poet and author of over 25 books of poetry and prose, including American Primitive, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She also earned the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. She died of cancer at the age of 83 last January 2019.

the distilld lessons (extended)

Life can be unpredictable. We sometimes find ourselves going through hardship. People do have different ways of coping. For poet Mary Oliver, she found healing through poetry.

In this episode of On Being, Mary discloses how difficult her childhood was and how poetry helped her heal and grow into a successful adult.

Here are the distilld lessons inspired by the “Mary Oliver – Listening to the World” episode of the On Being with Krista Tippet podcast:

1. Poetry can help us heal overcome our struggles

In an interview in 2011, Mary talked about her experience of sexual abuse when she was just a child. To make sense of what she’s been through, she started making “a world out of words.” From there, she started writing poems, and they became her salvation. Poetry helped her process what happened to her and helped her heal.

She didn’t start out writing poetry to express her childhood struggles. It was not until working on poems for her book, Dream Work, in 1986 that she became more upfront about the misfortunes of her life. Writing about her experience helped her come to terms with them and eventually move forward.

A study from the University of Texas shows that writing can help people overcome stress and trauma. Once people open up and write about a traumatic event through expressive writing, they will more likely become comfortable to talk about it to others. The act of writing actually shows that the person wants to reach out and ask for support.

Writing about our trauma also allows us to revisit the experience from a safe place, according to another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It helps us feel in control of our trauma, enabling us to overcome helplessness.

Even autobiographies about traumas can also help trauma victims deal with their experience. Garrard Conley, author of Boy Erased: A Memoir, expressed in an interview that writing about his traumatic experience didn’t just help him accept himself, but enabled him to empower and give voice to people going through the same thing. Autobiographies can even be instrumental in advocating against violence and abuse as in the case of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which has become one of the most widely-read and taught books in American schools.

By simply identifying our feelings and putting a name to them through writing, we can start healing our wounds.

2. The power of “I” in writing poems

Mary wrote poems using the pronoun, “I.” An editor criticized this approach, saying readers might find her egotistic. But Mary believed that the experiences she wrote about are not only hers but might be of others as well. She persisted in using this style, distinguishing herself from other poets. Readers, far from finding her egotistic, even appreciated the inclusive feel of her poems.

When we read or hear our experiences with others, especially extraordinary ones, it can foster closeness even with strangers. It’s the same way when we read a poem or a piece of literature speaking about our own experiences. We feel a closeness with the author. When works of art speak about our own emotions, we feel seen by the writer.

When we, ourselves, write about our own experiences, we tell our readers that we see them. When we write in the first person, we don’t only write about our thoughts and feelings, but also give voice to those going through the same experiences. In turn, they can feel empowered to share their experiences to others.

3. Attention is necessary in creating beautiful things

Mary would write her poems while wandering in the woods. She would observe her surroundings and write about them in a notebook. She shares that some poems are merely the by-product of being attentive to what’s happening around her.

For Mary, truth can be an elusive concept but sometimes, it can also be just right in front of us. Her poem, “The Summer Day”, is one example of how she wrote poems based on what she is seeing. She wrote that particular poem as she observed a caterpillar eating sugar from her hand. By being attentive, she was able to distill that simple event into a poem that asked the readers the existential question: “What do we do with our life?”

Creating something beautiful out of what catches our attention isn’t easy. It’s a talent that requires focus. In Talent is Never Enough, John Maxwell emphasizes that focus is necessary in maximizing one’s talent. With so many distractions around us, we can lose attention. Focus is what sustains any talent. John quotes William Matthews to echo his point, “The first law of success in this day, when so many things are clamoring for attention, is concentration—to bend all the energies to one point, and to go directly to that point, looking neither to the right nor to the left.”

Had Mary been less attentive to her surroundings, she wouldn’t have been able to write her beautiful poems. The world wouldn’t have “The Summer Day”, a beautiful and profound poem written as she observed a grasshopper eating out of her hand.

4. Pair creativity with discipline

Mary acknowledges the importance of creativity in her life, but she also admits that creativity alone is not enough. According to her, we need discipline in order to hone our creativity. We’re always creative, but our creativity can get tired of waiting to be harnessed, or it can just get tired.

We have to set aside time to take all our creativity and work on something, whether it is writing or other artistic pursuits. For Mary, what’s important is that you have the discipline to show up every day and in her case, put something to paper. She also shows discipline with habit. Her habit of wandering in the woods for inspiration allows her to focus and hone her creativity.

John Maxwell also says something similar in Talent is Never Enough. For him, discipline and diligence maximizes any talent. Perseverance plays a major part in putting creativity to good use. We need to be determined in our efforts to improve our talent and use our creativity.

Creativity and talent will never develop on their own. We need the discipline to work on our talents. We can start by making daily appointments with ourselves to wield our creativity and work on our talents. When we start doing this consistently, we will improve and realize our full potential.

For a shorter conversation, the distilld lessons summary are here.


On Being

Hosted by Krista Tippett, On Being is a podcast which examines what it means to be human and how we want to live. The distilld lessons here.

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