Oliver, Mary




The winner of many literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Mary Oliver (b. 1935) is a popular American poet whose lyric poems contemplate the beauty of nature and the place of human beings in the natural world. In her 2004 poem “Daisies,” the solitary speaker takes a walk through a rural landscape in summer, listening to a mockingbird sing above her and gazing at the daisies underfoot. She ponders “what the world is… and what it means,” what nature can teach us, and what it is and is not possible for us to know. This poem’s themes make it especially well suited for reflective discussion among educators, students, naturalists or environmentalists, and members of spiritual or faith communities.

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Knowledge and UncertaintyNature and the EnvironmentTeaching and LearningWisdom and Contemplation

Big Questions

What do we know for sure? What do we not know?What is the value of uncertainty?Why do we reflect? What makes reflection difficult?What can we learn from nature and the environment?What are the greatest obstacles to teaching and learning?Where does the best learning happen – in the classroom or elsewhere?Who or what makes learning possible?Can knowledge be a barrier to wisdom? How?How do we become wise?What do we learn from silence?What does it look like to be truly present?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What are some thoughts that come to the poet as she is crossing from one field to another?
  2. Why do these thoughts come to her as she crosses from one field to the next?
  3. What is the place of the mockingbird in this poem? For what does the poet believe that the bird is mocking her? What does she mean by saying that his song is “born of quest?”
  4. Oliver calls “the small suns” at the center of the daisies “their hearts.” What might this mean?
  5. Why does she qualify her statement about the daisies' hearts with “if you don't mind my saying so”? What objection or resistance does she seem to anticipate from the reader? Is it a resistance that you feel when reading the poem?
  6. “What do I know?” the poet asks. What does she know?
  7. Does she herself “take what is given”? If so, in what sense?
  8. What does it mean “not to pick but merely to touch?”
  9. What do you make of the closing lines?
  10. How would you describe the narrator’s change from the beginning to the end of the poem? What does she learn and how does she learn it?
  11. Have you experienced this kind of learning or knowledge? When? What impact has it made on you?
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