Top 5 “Free Verse” Poems: #1 Mary Oliver- Dogfish

Mmmm…. untethered lines of figurative language! Some of my younger students are often surprised to learn that poetry does NOT have to rhyme. While rhyming poems can become repetitive or predictable, I simply LOVE the unpredictable and mysterious nature of free verse poetry. I love reading it, and I love writing it. Furthermore, free verse lends a sense of freedom to those of us who have a little interest in following rules of formality. The first poems I truly enjoyed writing and reading were free verse, and this continues to be the case. Read on to see my top 5 favorite free verse poems.

#1 Mary Oliver- Dogfish 

Chelsea Tobin reading Dogfish, by Mary Oliver

If you have ever seen a dogfish, you know that they are not exactly a fish, and are in fact a small, vicious shark. This poem describes the witnessing of a predator vs. prey and it describes a theme of acceptance of present trials. Interesting fact, did you know that larger sharks sometimes feed on the small dogfish shark? My old neighbor used to catch dogfish by accident while salmon fishing. He tells me they make great fish ‘n chips. (Don’t believe me?  Hello, Dogfish!) However, like all great poems, this poem is really not about the dogfish, but about that which the predator represents: experiencing or witnessing trauma and the universal human desire to escape that which makes our lives difficult.

When Oliver suggests that we are all the same, just trying to survive, and that there are no simple answers to the ways people treat each other, she hits a key nerve in me. The first time I read this poem, I was recovering from my own internal crisis after being deeply betrayed by someone I dearly loved.  I was re-traumatized frequently by memories and flashbacks during that time. My primary method of coping was to remain as busy with work and activities as possible, so that I did not have to think or feel the trauma that seemed to live within my own skin. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not have many people around me who believed in my dreams and I had very little faith in myself or in my ability to find peace in the future. I was exhausted and lonely, and I felt trapped.

During this difficult time, this poem came along and hit me in the right place. It forced me to face and accept the depth of my pain, and gave me an enormous gift—an experience of empowerment to no longer be disabled or victimized by my experiences. When Oliver paints a word picture of the little fish dashing away, she describes the urgency of a moment, both in nature and in our human hearts. When we waste time hoping or wishing away our present or past, we victimize ourselves. But when we accept the wildness and urgency of the present, we can move on with strength, hope, and empowerment.  This poem brought me sustenance during a time of desperation. It was a voice in the dark and continues to remind me of the beauty of radical acceptance to this day.  It is my white bread and butter, my comfort food, and an urgent reminder to keep moving forward, treading away surely from the past.

If any poem ever truly saved me, it was this one:


Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman’s boot,
with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know
what a smile means,
don’t you?


I wanted the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

for a little while.


It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don’t know what they were,
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.


Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
don’t we?



the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.


You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it’s the same old story – – –
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.


And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them.


And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

Mary Oliver


Some people turn to poetry, while some people turn to therapy. The concept that Mary Oliver wrote about so eloquently through metaphor is also detailed here:





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