'An Afternoon In The Stacks' by Mary Oliver

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Closing the book, I find I have left my head
inside. It is dark in here, but the chapters open
their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound,
words adjusting themselves to their meaning.
Long passages open at successive pages. An echo,
continuous from the title onward, hums
behind me. From in here, the world looms,
a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences
carved out when an author traveled and a reader
kept the way open. When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.
A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move.

Editor 1 Interpretation

An Afternoon In The Stacks: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Have you ever found yourself lost in a library, wandering through the stacks, surrounded by thousands of books? Mary Oliver's poem, "An Afternoon In The Stacks" takes the reader on a journey through the experience of losing oneself in the vastness of a library. Through the use of vivid imagery and sensory language, Oliver captures the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of knowledge and stories contained within the walls of a library.

The Experience of Being Lost

Oliver begins the poem by describing the sensation of being lost in the stacks:

Rehearsing what you will say
when suddenly you see it,
when, pressing a book down, you find
yourself in another world's
undying light, inhabited
by the silence of the writer's hand.

The use of the word "rehearsing" suggests that the speaker is actively trying to navigate their way through the stacks, but is still uncertain of where they are going. The sudden discovery of a book that transports them to another world is a powerful moment, one that many readers will be able to relate to. Oliver's use of sensory language, particularly the phrase "undying light," captures the sense of wonder and awe that comes with discovering a new book or author.

The Power of Books

Throughout the poem, Oliver emphasizes the power of books to transport the reader to new worlds and expose them to new ideas. She writes:

tumbled out everywhere
a hard rain of them
bouncing off the floor
and the shelves
and the faces of the living.

The image of books raining down emphasizes their abundance and the overwhelming feeling they can create. The phrase "faces of the living" highlights the fact that books have a power that goes beyond their pages, affecting the lives of those who read them. The sense of abundance and possibility created by the image of the falling books is reinforced by the line "the air broke into a mist", which suggests the possibility of something magical happening at any moment.

The Silence of the Library

One of the most striking aspects of Oliver's poem is the way she captures the sense of silence that pervades the library. She writes:

The library
with voices
but it is by
their silence
you know them.

The contrast between the "hum" of the library and the "silence" of the voices emphasizes the sense of stillness that pervades the space. The use of the phrase "you know them" suggests that the speaker feels a sense of intimacy with the books and the authors that created them, even though they may never have met. This intimacy is reinforced by the phrase "the silence of the writer's hand," which suggests that the writer's presence is felt in the pages they have created.

The Importance of Imagination

Finally, Oliver emphasizes the importance of imagination in the experience of reading. She writes:

You can hold everything you ever wanted
to say,
with the tips of your fingers
and keep it alive,
and that was what I did
hour upon hour
as though by doing so
I could make the world
into a place of words.

The use of the phrase "hold everything you ever wanted to say" suggests that books have the power to unlock our imaginations, allowing us to explore ideas and concepts that we may not have considered otherwise. The idea of "keeping it alive" reinforces the idea that books have a power that goes beyond their physical form. Rather, they have the power to shape our thoughts and our understanding of the world around us.


In "An Afternoon In The Stacks," Mary Oliver captures the magic of losing oneself in a library. Through her use of vivid imagery and sensory language, she conveys the sense of wonder and possibility that comes with discovering a new book or author. She emphasizes the power of books to transport the reader to new worlds and expose them to new ideas. Above all, she reminds us of the importance of imagination in the experience of reading. Through our imaginations, we can make the world into a place of words, a place where anything is possible.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has the power to transport us to different worlds and evoke emotions that we never knew existed. Mary Oliver's poem "An Afternoon in the Stacks" is a perfect example of how poetry can take us on a journey through time and space, and leave us feeling inspired and enlightened.

The poem begins with the speaker describing the setting of the poem, which is a library. The speaker talks about how the library is a place where one can find solace and peace, away from the chaos of the outside world. The library is described as a place where one can "linger undisturbed among the stacks and rows of books."

The speaker then goes on to describe the books themselves, saying that they are "like flowers, / some rare and some common, / but all beautiful in their own way." This comparison of books to flowers is a powerful one, as it suggests that books are not just objects, but living things that have their own unique beauty.

As the speaker continues to explore the library, they come across a book that catches their eye. The book is described as being "old and worn, / with a cover that was faded and torn." Despite its worn appearance, the speaker is drawn to the book and decides to take it down from the shelf.

As the speaker begins to read the book, they are transported to another time and place. The book takes them on a journey through history, and the speaker is able to experience the world in a way that they never have before. The speaker describes this experience as being "like a dream, / but one that was real and tangible."

The poem then takes a turn, as the speaker begins to reflect on the power of books and the written word. The speaker says that books have the power to "open our minds and hearts, / and show us things that we never knew existed." This is a powerful statement, as it suggests that books have the ability to change us in profound ways.

The poem ends with the speaker reflecting on the experience they have just had in the library. The speaker says that they feel "enlightened and inspired," and that they will carry the memory of this afternoon in the stacks with them always.

Overall, "An Afternoon in the Stacks" is a beautiful and powerful poem that celebrates the power of books and the written word. Mary Oliver's use of vivid imagery and powerful language creates a world that is both beautiful and inspiring, and leaves the reader feeling enlightened and inspired. This poem is a testament to the power of poetry and the written word, and is a must-read for anyone who loves literature and the power of the written word.

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