“The Journey”

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of developing a “voice.” Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s truly essential to us.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo “Journey” by Cindy La Ferle —

19 thoughts on ““The Journey”

  1. And isn’t it a beautiful moment when we recognize, and know, and embrace our own voice? It’s not always easy getting to that place, but once it happens, it’s ours forever.

  2. I adore Mary Oliver and this is such an affirming poem for artists. I find all of her work (well, what I’ve read) very life-affirming in general. Thanks for sharing. I had not read this one before.

  3. Write that book, Bridgett!
    And Joanne and Cindy — glad you liked this one too. It is a beautiful moment when we know our own voice. Cindy H, I read this one in all of my workshops — I bet your writing students would enjoy it too! — CL

  4. For most of my life I have struggled to know and listen to my own voice.

    Once I found it – EUREKA! FREEDOM!

    Mary wrote,

    “…strode deeper and deeper
    into the world,
    determined to do
    the only thing you could do –
    determined to save
    the only life you could save.”

    Me? I bolted.


  5. Wow! I’m new to this website and rediscovering poetry. “The Journey”? Truly so many “fallen branches and stones” to duck and traverse on our way to saving our lives…This was beautiful.

  6. No doubt about it ~ this is my favorite Mary Oliver poem. I remember where I was when I first read it and how her words described exactly how I was feeling at the time. I have returned to read it many times since then, and it always speaks to me.

  7. Glad so many of you enjoyed this one. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” is probably more popular than this one (or more widely read). “The Journey” is a bit darker, or more brooding, but it’s a great wake-up call.

    I can’t wait to share the poem for next week, which is a bit lighter in tone. It’s been great reading your responses to this series so far. Thank you, all!
    –Cindy La Ferle

  8. I for one, can’t read certain things without feeling myself reading them out loud. Feeling transcended. This is one of those things.
    For what it’s worth, I’d never read it until less than a year ago. Now of course, I seem to come upon it often, my path bringing me where it is and all.
    So to see it here. Feels like an out loud hug.
    And right back at you , Cindy.

  9. I’m so glad you clicked your way over for a visit…. Earlier today while I was entering grades, I peeked in. I knew instantly that I would have to come back for a longer visit.

    I love Mary Oliver but hadn’t read this poem before. It really does speak volumes, doesn’t it? We seldom slow down and listen closely enough to our own voice… our own heart.

  10. Oh, yes. Amidst the confusion, I click on your post and reread this poem of Mary Oliver’s. The words express so much, really — and aren’t our voices sometimes embattled, covered over, wished away?

  11. Cindy, I love this poem but especially this opening line I had goosebumps too!

    And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

    (this is where I’m at right now on my journey and it is so scary, surreal and thrilling and altogether romantic, beautiful and like coming home!) ~Certainly it is the heart’s homecoming! 😉
    I adore quotes and their gold runs in my veins 😉 at remembrance. I drifted from poetry for a time but not quotes they kept me drawn in! and recently I came back and adore it all! 😉 This intrigues me to further discover more of this beauty like a dance of words on a noble page or is it the other way around?! I look forward to following your series, though this post is already a favorite! 😉 hugs, Jenn

  12. Thanks for this. I remember the splintering time in my life when I first understood my right to a voice. We travel our own roads to understanding.

    Beautiful poem. I’m so glad you’re doing this series!

  13. Again, I’m thrilled at the great response to this series. And I’ve got a great line-up of other awesome poets — Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Kenyon, Rumi, Charles Rafferty, May Sarton … and more! Stay tuned.

    If response continues to be this strong, I might run more than one poem a week. Let me know what you think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.