Take a walk on the wild side


Wild, Wild

by Mary Oliver

This is what love is:

the dry rose bush the gardener, in his pruning, missed

suddenly bursts into bloom.

A madness of delight; an obsession.

A holy gift, certainly,

But often, alas, improbable.

Why couldn’t Romeo have settled for someone else?

Why couldn’t Tristan and Isolde have refused

the shining cup

which would have left peaceful the whole kingdom?

Wild sings the bird of the heart in the forests

    of our lives.

Over and over Faust, standing in the garden, doesn’t know

anything that’s going to happen, he only sees

    the face of Marguerite, which is irresistible.

And wild, wild sings the bird.


[Apologies for the spacing. WordPress has gone bonkers on me and I am unable to put in the correct line breaks. This really upsets me.]

  • * *


Walking Under the Trees

by Billy Collins

I’m walking under the trees

walking in and out of their shadows

walking step by step under the trees

so the leaves on their lowest branches

graze my bare head

as I walk slowly under the trees

so close to me they could have

their arms around my shoulders,

walking under the guardian trees.

I’m walking under the trees

plucking a leaf

and putting it in my pocket

so I won’t forget walking

under the cloak of these trees

thinking of nothing else

but the trees and me walking

under all their leaves and branches

walking all morning under the trees.

  • * *


Easily distracted people love a good assignment, so when a scavenger hunt with my sisters included a clue to “Find something our mischievous elf can post,” I thought, Thank you! Just the thing to push me back to the blog.

Rushing into a Delaware beach bookstore, one team of sisters picked out a Mary Oliver poem, the other team one by Billy Collins. Not surprising because Oliver and Collins are always the most represented and popular poets in any poetry section. Their trick, except it’s not a trick at all it’s a gift and it’s hard work, is to write poems that are conversational, relaxed, and loose.

What’s interesting about these randomly selected poems is that Oliver and Collins have pulled a switcheroo. Typically, Collins is light and funny, Oliver gently earnest. Collins delights with his imaginative and tender explorations of the human condition. Oliver is revered as a poet of nature and of the soul. But in “Walking Under the Trees,” it’s Collins who’s the nature poet. And in “Wild, Wild,” Oliver tries her hand as the wry old philosopher musing on life’s ironies.

Let’s look briefly look at each poem.

Collins’ poem about walking under the trees uses the progressive tense to pull us into the moment. He is walking under trees—he hasn’t already walked. His observations are moment-to-moment, and as we move along with him, time slows. Like him, we become conscious of each step. In two stanzas of nine lines each, the repetition of walking under trees creates calm, like a mantra does, like a prayer labyrinth does, allowing us to leave distraction behind. We focus solely on the experience.

When Collins writes that he’s

thinking of nothing else

but the trees and me walking

under all their leaves and branches

walking all morning under the trees

he’s created a spell. Now when I walk under trees, I think about walking under trees. I think about all the ways Collins experienced the trees as affectionate and protective. Every walk I’ve been on since reading this poem has been better for it.

Oliver’s poem “Wild, Wild” is an outlier in more ways than just veering off the nature trail. Because she’s a Romantic nature poet at heart, the idea of wild and wildness is almost always presented as desirable and positive in her work. Take her most famous line—

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?


In her work and in so many other poets’, wild represents freedom, joy, passion, the soulfulness of our stripped-down selves.

But in “Wild, Wild,” wildness wreaks havoc, not joy. The poem has three allusions to love stories—Tristan and Isolde, Faust and Maguerite, Romeo and Juliet—each of which is a tale of wild love (A madness of delight; an obsession) that leads to tragedy. That old bird of the heart in the forests/ of our lives is the precursor to piles of dead bodies.

She’s not dismissing it though. She’s just giving a more nuanced picture of wild than her usual. It brings to mind a certain kind of bemused old person watching two young people madly in love. He feels delighted, but also a little . . . well . . . you may want to calm down about it, kiddos. That wild passion is not going to last forever and may even hurt a bit. Not that anything can be done about it. The heart wants what it wants.

  •  *


It’s hard to overstate the popularity of Collins and Oliver. My biographies are brief and don’t nearly cover the stature and success these two poets.

Billy Collins was born in 1941 in New York City. He graduated from Holy Cross and got his MA and PhD from University of California.


His readings have been called “the literary equivalent of Beatlemania.” He once commanded a six-figure advance for book, almost unheard of for a poet. He’s published 12 books of poetry and served 2 years as Poet Laureate of the United States. He launched Poetry 180 to encourage high school students’ interest in poetry, with one poem for each of the 180 school days of the year.


He lives now in Florida with his second wife.




Mary Oliver (1935-2019) was born in a Cleveland suburb. Her father was a high school teacher. She had a difficult childhood (she later stated she was sexually abused) and spent a lot of time in the woods near her house, writing poems and building huts of sticks and grass. (I add this detail for my youngest daughter who claims that whenever she wondered what to do with the kids she was babysitting, I always said, build a little house with sticks and grass.)


At 17 she went to the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in New York and befriended the poet’s sister. Oliver spent several years helping to organize Millay’s papers.


She attended Ohio State and Vassar College but did not graduate.


Her partner, photographer Molly Malone Cook, was her literary agent. They were together in Provincetown, Massachusetts for over 40 years until Cook died in 2005. After Cook’s death Oliver moved to Florida.


She won countless awards, most importantly the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She taught at many colleges and universities.


She died of lymphoma at age 83.

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