Letting Go: Three Poems of Non-attachement

The essence of the human condition is our mortality; what we hold dear now, we will one day hold no more. Poetry, utilizing the gift of language, can help us to deal with this fact, and live our lives with attentiveness and gratefulness, making most of the days, knowing that nothing lasts forever. Here are three poems – two Western and the third, Japanese, to help us reflect on on the wisdom of nonattachment.

Excerpt from “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)

In Blackwater Woods is a free verse poem written by Mary Oliver. The poem was first published in 1983 in her collection American Primitive, which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. The poem, like much of Oliver’s work, uses imagery of nature to make a statement about the human situation. The following is the final two stanzas of Oliver’s masterful poem.

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it;
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
let it go.

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979)

Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet and short-story writer. She was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1949 to 1950, the Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry in 1956, the National Book Award winner in 1970, and the recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976. “One Art” is one of her most famous poems. Composed after a separation from her partner, it is a staggering poem about the terrifying heaviness of loss. Originally published in The New Yorker on April 24, 1976, twenty years after Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize and six years after she won the National Book Award, the following year it was the highlight of her final book of collected poems.

Elizabeth Bishop: quietly resonant. Photograph: Vassar College Library, New York


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Old Man at Leisure” by Muso Soseki (1275 – 1251)

Nonattachment and liberation are, in poetry, often associated with old age as is to be expected. The years bring (and should bring) some wisdom, as in this poem is by the 14th century Japanese poet, Muso Soseki.


Sacred or secular,
manners and conventions
make no difference to him.

Completely free,
leaving it all to heaven,
he seems a simpleton.

No one catches
a glimpse inside
his mind,
this old man,
all by himself
between heaven and earth.

~ Translated by W.S. Merwin.

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