Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today, I’ll be reading and talking about a poem by the great poet Mary Oliver, titled, “On Not Mowing the Lawn.”
Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio. Much of her poetry, including “On Not Mowing the Lawn,” describes her relationship with nature. She had felt a strong connection to nature from a young age. She had a hard childhood and escaped into writing for relief from it. Oliver went to both Ohio State University and Vassar College, but did not get a degree from either place. She published many books, including “Blue Horses,” published in 2014, in which the poem, “On Not Mowing the Lawn,” appears. She won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Oliver said that some of her favorite poets (among others) were Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Actually, there is a reference to Walt Whitman in “On Not Mowing the Lawn.”
Oliver does what many poets do, but in her own way. She pays attention to details. For Oliver, these details are usually found in the natural world — in the looks of animals, the tastes of berries, and flowers blooming. Oliver takes a similar approach in the poem I’ll read today.
Let the grass spring up tall, let its roots sing
and the seeds begin their scattering.
Let the weeds rejoin and be prolific throughout.
Let the noise of the mower be banished, hurrah!
Let the path become where I choose to walk, and not
Let the goldfinches be furnished their humble dinner.
Let the sparrows determine their homes in security.
Let the honeysuckle reach as high as my window, that it
may look in.
Let the mice fill the barns and bins with a sufficiency.
Let anything created, that wants to creep or leap
be able to do so.
Let the grasshopper have gliding space.
Let the noise of the mower be banished, yes, yes.
Let the katydid return and announce himself in the
Let the blades of grass surge back from the last
Or, if you want to be poetic: the leaves of grass.
If you try to find “On Not Mowing the Lawn” on the internet, or at least the version that I just read, you won’t be able to. So many of Oliver’s poems have grass and lawns and nature involved in them that you can keep scrolling and never find the poem you were looking for. But that, in a way, is what books are made for. To be held, and for their pages to be turned, and for their satisfying smell to be sucked in through your nostrils. Books give people thrills, no matter what author, genre, or subject. For Oliver, nature does this too. She expresses some of this in not mowing the lawn, practically singing about grass and its wonders — “let the grass spring up tall, let its roots sing/and the seeds begin their scattering.” At the same time, the poem is also an excuse in verse, or simply a way to procrastinate such a tedious chore as mowing the lawn. The poem is at once an ode to letting nature run its course, to letting plants and animals live without human interference, but it is also an extremely detailed and therefore “intellectual” way of getting out of something she doesn’t want to do. It is a way to make more time for her to simply lie on the grass, admiring it and writing more poems about it for people to enjoy.
“On Not Mowing the Lawn,” exaggerates the concept of allowing all living things to have free will. She describes mice scurrying around in barns uninterrupted, grasshoppers clearing space for themselves, and katydids coming to sing as loudly as they want. Oliver writes, “let anything created, that wants to creep or leap forward, be able to do so.” She speaks of banishing the lawn mower as a way to do this, as a way to let nature become wild, as it truly should be.
“On Not Mowing the Lawn,” is a poem full of imagery, allowing you to see everything that Oliver describes and to place yourself in that peaceful circle of nature. Something I found interesting in this poem was the last line. Oliver writes, “Or, if you want to be poetic: the leaves of grass.” As I said earlier, one of Oliver’s favorite poets was Walt Whitman, and “leaves of grass” is the title of his one and only collection of poems. In a way, this line is a homage to Whitman. This part of Oliver’s poem is funny, because, even though “On Not Mowing the Lawn” is a poem, she says, “if you want to be poetic.” This also makes me think about ideas or words that are “poetic,” versus ideas and words that aren’t. Really, there is no such thing. Oliver happens to use simple words and images in her poetry, and other poets might not, but if a poem is good, it will convey a powerful idea in a way that leaves you feeling something.
“On Not Mowing the Lawn,” is a poem that offers insight on both nature and letting it run wild and also on how to get out of doing a chore. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you with the next one!