Lifesaving Poems: Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’


The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver

If there is one theme I keep going back to in these Lifesaving Poems posts, it is this: behind every discovery of every single poem in the list there is a person who nudged it forward, often directly, sometimes invisibly, frequently without knowing it, towards me. From friends, fellow poets and teachers, to sitting in a car park waiting for a poetry workshop, or driving to one, I feel the luckiest of people to have had such great mentors.

This is no less true of my discovery, some three or so years ago, of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Now, I realise, as with my discovery of Billy Collins, that I was pretty much the last person I know to come to this particular party. Until I found this marvellous blog post by my old friend Malcolm Doney I had kind of felt Oliver’s searching and tough-delicate poems kind of bouncing off me a little. I am not proud of it; but it is true.

I loved Malcolm’s telling of the story of Russell Brand grilling on Newsnightin the wake of the fallout from his prank call, with Jonathan Ross, to Andrew Sachs. I never saw the programme in question but feel as though I have. Brand stated that there are two Russell Brands, the one people go to see and hear, expecting something miraculous, and the idiot who makes prank phone calls. He confessed to making the same mistake himself, thinking he was phoning up Manuel from Fawlty Towers, not somebody’s grandfather. He believed in the icon, not the man.

Not least among the pleasures of reading Malcolm’s piece, therefore, was the physical sensation of feeling my preconceived ideas about Brand being turned on their head. From the sound of it, this is what Jeremy Paxman went through as well.

Paxman concluded the programme with this reflection, that there was important terrain for us to explore between “external validation and internal validation”: ‘a matter in essence, of finding yourself, beyond other people’s expectations’ as Malcolm so eloquently put it. At that point Malcolm’s piece stops; he lets Mary Oliver do the talking instead. Her poem is a life lesson I can never learn too often.

Lifesaving Poems

If you liked this post, why not try Rose Cook’s ‘Poem for someone who is juggling her life’ or Denise Levertov’s ‘The Secret’


  1. This is a classic poem with such an enduring message. Great to see it on your list, Anthony. I also love Oliver’s book length poem ‘The Leaf and the Cloud’, a hymn to nature and writing.


  2. I loved this. I have shared your feeling (your pre Doney feeling) about Mary Oliver actually – with a couple of exceptions. But this poem, which somehow I have never met before — quite something! I read it aloud to my partner and when I got two thirds of the way through burst into tears. Best quality tears.


    1. Hi Nell. I am so pleased you saw this. And also relieved to know it is not just me with that reaction. I don’t know how I avoided knowing about this ‘classic’ until so recently, but there you go. Like you, it completely floored me when I first read it.
      As ever with many thanks for your comments


  3. This is one of the first poems of Mary Oliver’s I came across and it spoke to me in a way that only poems can – it got right to the core of things. I love the gentle nature of her poetry, with flashes of savagery – quite at one with nature itself. I would be interested in your view of Rules for the Dance as I think it is not so much rules as an uncovering of the underlying structure of poetry in quite a fluid way and I enjoyed it much more than the Stephen Fry which I have just started and which seems much more dense and offputting.

    And I absolutely know what your friend meant in his post about public personas and what Russell Brand was talking about with Andrew Sachs. I went to see a well known TV show filmed just before Christmas and was shocked by how much I felt I knew the dancers in it, and caught myself smiling at them as if they’d recognise me too!

    Oh – and i saw the recent Russell Brand interview and saw how he absolutely refused to capitulate to the grilling from Paxman, while simultaneously playing with Paxman’s preconceptions of him. Fascinating as both parties were very strong and, while Brand ‘won’ he also ended up having words put in his mouth (revolution!) by Paxman. Each was ‘writing’ the other. Worth a watch.


    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment.
      I admit to not having read The Rules for the Dance -but maybe now I will.
      Your comment reminds me of a comment Seamus Heaney once made about sonnets, something along the lines of them being about age and sex and death and the ‘dance within yourself’. I have not read all the Fry. I admit to not getting on with it at all, putting it down in the bookshop in a huff.
      I’m pleased you caught up with the Paxman pieces. Leaving aside Brands branding of himself, the curious tone of derision, in both their voices, for each other, is never far from the surface.
      As ever with grateful thanks and good wishes


      1. ‘The dance within yourself’…yes – that’s it! What a great line. I saw your post on the note you got from Seamus Heaney – I’m not surprised you treasure it. 🙂

        Derision, yes. There was a curious tone…you’re right – I think curious because there was an undertow of grudging respect – they were circling and ‘dancing’ like the bullfighter and the bull! But also that overwhelming sense of irony that they were having these conversations at all, perhaps?


      2. It is hard to get away from what Stephen Ball has called the discourse of derision, in all aspects of public debate in our country.
        That is why sane and kind voices like Heaney’s are still so vital to me, and why I need to remind myself to keep returning to them.
        As ever with thanks


  4. Hello Anthony
    Beginning, dozy poet here whose first brush with Mary Oliver is reading this poem now. Everything about it said “YES!” to me. The recognition of the truth of it made me smile. I don’t always connect with poems but I did this one. Thank you so much for opening the door.

    Liked by 1 person

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