Study Guide

When Death Comes Introduction

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When Death Comes Introduction

One of the most common complaints about poetry is that it's difficult. And, even worse, difficult on purpose! Sometimes it can feel like poets are scheming against us, gleefully hiding meanings, making them into little prizes available only to people who spend their lives studying poetry. Then, in turn, those people can walk around feeling all superior, because they know what the poems really 'mean.' We don't really think this true about poetry, but it can still be frustrating sometimes.

Well, we're pleased to announce that Mary Oliver writes poetry that will knock your socks off even if you didn't get a Ph.D. in literature. She's one of the best selling living poets, and her poetry is totally accessible. She wants you to understand. In many poems, she'll just come right out and address you. She'll ask you questions and point things out to you. In "When Death Comes," she even breaks (at least partly) the Golden Rule of creative writing – you know the one that says 'Show, Don't Tell.' Well, she goes right ahead and gives it all up, telling us exactly what she's thinking. Of course, she provides some brilliant images and similes along the way, and we'd argue that the music of her language does plenty of showing to back up what she tells us. But the fact remains: she tells us, openly, what she's talking about.

We have to say it: Thank you, Mary Oliver! This is the kind of poetry that's easy to fall in love with.

What is When Death Comes About and Why Should I Care?

It might be less common among strapping young folk like us, but it seems pretty universal to wonder about death. What it might be like. What, if anything, might happen afterward. But thinking of death has a way of being all about life. If you haven't had this thought yourself, maybe you've seen it in the movies: when I die, how will I want to look back on my life?

The most obvious form of this soul-searching is probably the mid-life crisis (or even the quarter life crisis). Mom hits a point in her life when she realizes she's not getting any younger (there's that recognition of death) and decides that the way she really wants to live involves a motorcycle and bright purple hair. Dad quits his office job and buys a boat, or starts taking pilot lessons.

This poem lives in that territory of soul searching: it considers the moment of death and how our speaker would like to be at that moment. And from there it turns to the work of living. It recognizes that a part of asking "How do I want to meet my death?" is also asking "How do I want to live?" And the answer from our speaker is pretty astounding. So read on!

When Death Comes Resources


Modern American Poetry
A great site from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which includes commentary on Oliver's poetry from a number of literary critics.

Mary Oliver on
Photo, bio, and links to several poems.

The Poetry Foundation
Picture, bio, poems and links.


Audio from the Lannan Foundation
Mary Oliver reads her work and has a conversation with poetry critic Jay Parisi.

Audio from the Poetry Foundation
A reading of a Mary Oliver poem (by an actor).


Is she reading the book or the dog?
Picture of Mary Oliver with her dog.


Want to know Oliver's thoughts poetry?
A book on writing poetry (by Mary Oliver, of course).

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