“Everything” a poem by Mary Oliver to Celebrate National Poetry Month

by Guest Blogger, Joy Heaton*

Have you ever experienced a moment when you thought “this is everything!” and you wanted time to stop so that you could hold it forever? Perhaps it was kissing a first love, watching a surreal sunrise, or holding a cooing newborn. Everything becomes clear, pure, and transcendent. Your thoughts, feelings, desires, and terrors all disappear in a light called Eternity. But, as we all know, time cannot be stopped and moments cannot be captured…except perhaps by an artist’s brush or a poet’s pen.

EVERYTHING     by Mary Oliver

No doubt in Holland,
when van Gogh was a boy,
there were swans drifting
over the green sea
of the meadows, and no doubt
on some warm afternoon
he lay down and watched them,
and almost thought: this is everything.
What drove him
to get up and look further
is what saves this world,
even as it breaks
the hearts of men.
In the mines where he preached,
where he studied tenderness,
there were only men, all of them
streaked with dust.
For years he would reach
toward the darkness.
But no doubt, like all of us,
he finally remembered
everything, including the white birds
weightless and unaccountable,
floating around the towns
of grit and hopelessness––
and this is what would finish him:
not the gloom, which was only terrible,
but those last yellow fields, where clearly
nothing in the world mattered, or ever would,
but the insensible light.

 Pulitzer Prize- winning poet, Mary Oliver, invites us to ponder the truth and clarity of these illuminated moments in her poem, “Everything,” about the artistic sensitivity of Vincent van Gogh. This poem draws sharp contrasts between the carefree boy and the disillusioned man, the dark mines and the sunlit fields, the laborious work and the idle leisure, the reaching and the unreachable, the black dust and the white birds, the hopelessness of reality and the hopefulness of eternity. 
Oliver captured in words what van Gogh brushed onto canvasses; the clarity and brightness of light when juxtaposed with darkness. Even in death, van Gogh may have been reaching for a light that transcended time and held illusive bliss.
The curse and blessing of artists like van Gogh is the ability to see the world in a different light and to pursue that light until all that seems different is recognized as variations of light on a starry, starry night.
* Dr. Joy Heaton is Executive Director of Just Compassion, Inc.  Her doctoral thesis at Columbia Theological Seminary examined the practice of attentiveness as expressed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver.
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