In Camille Paglia's anthology Break Blow Burn, this feminist scholar and cultural critic provides a provocative analysis of forty-three of the world's best poems. She writes in her introduction that "[p]oets have glimpses of other realities, higher or lower, which can't be grasped cognitively. The poem is a methodical working out of fugitive impressions." While taking into consideration the diminished role of poetry in schools and society at large, Mari-Beth Slade also takes into account with precise observation some of those "fugitive impressions" when talking about the work of Mary Oliver.
As a society, we don't read poetry like we once did. Although we still study poems in school and acknowledge our poets at prestigious award ceremonies, most of us turn to novels when reading for pleasure and are far more interested in the Giller nominees than the Griffin winner. Reading poetry is so much more labour intensive than reading fiction; it requires a different skill set than the one needed to navigate our fast-paced world. No poet seems to understand this better than Mary Oliver (Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, Beacon Press, 2010).
Back when people did read poetry for pleasure, Alexander Pope proclaimed (in verse!) “True wit is nature to advantage dressed / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.” Had Pope lived 300 years later, I’m sure he would have appreciated the way Oliver advantageously dresses nature to express human emotion. Oliver is famous for her “affinity with the natural world” (her words) and most of her poems draw on images from nature. But Oliver is much more than a naturalistic poet. The parallels she draws between human existence and the organic world imply that we are deeply interconnected.
Her best-known poems, “The Summer Day” (New and Selected Poems, 1992) and “Wild Geese” (Dream Work, 1986) have developed a cult-like following. “The Summer Day” is an elegant poem about the abundant beauty and diversity in nature and the enigma of the creation story. The poem ultimately calls into question our definition of spirituality and purpose in life. The inspiration comes from the deceivingly stimulating act of a grasshopper thoroughly washing her face. The opening lines of “Wild Geese” are likewise astonishing in their obvious simplicity: “You do not have to be good…You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves”. This works for the wild geese: they follow their natural course every year and find success in their place. Like many Oliver fans, I have “The Summer Day” and “Wild Geese” on my wall as a daily reminder. Other admirers have gone as far as tattooing lines of Oliver’s poetry on their bodies.
Mary Oliver has often been criticized for her overuse (some say abuse) of pathetic fallacy. Just as Oliver sees her sensations reflected her environment, readers see their emotions in her poetry. Like reading a horoscope, we tend to see what we want/need to in a poem. It’s certainly easy to make the leap fromgeneral to personal and personal to general in Oliver’s work – her use of pathetic fallacy invites this. And I appreciate how, depending on time, mood, or reader, the poems can mean a myriad of things. Lately I’ve been obsessed with the notion of accountability and I’ve noticed lots of examples of accountability in Oliver’s poetry. Quite aptly, Oliver’s work is like a “stroll through the fields”: although the elements are objectively constant, an observer can interpret them accordingly.
As a writer it’s impossible to avoid autobiography in some form, so I’m always intrigued to know a few choice tidbits about the writer’s life. The tidbits I’m interested in go beyond the fact that Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 10, 1935, and won both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. I’m interested in the fact that Oliver admits that she tried to avoid taking interesting jobs because she didn’t want to get interested. Oliver wanted nothing to distract her from writing, yet in the poem “A Dream of Trees” she recognizes that these distractions are the very things that fuel her creativity. She dreams about retreating to a Walden of sorts, retracting from the world and writing in peace, but she needs the world’s “lamentations” and “crisis” because “Who ever made music of a mild day?”
Mary Oliver was interviewed by Maria Shriver in O Magazine’s inaugural poetry issue this past March. Perhaps I’m misinformed and we’ll start universally reading poetry again. If anyone can revive it, it’s Oprah. Her website currently lists the 20 volumes of poetry we should all own (Dream Work makes the cut). I like her picks and it’s more authentic than buying an anthology. Like a greatest hits album, poetry anthologies have the potential to distort the poet’s voice and strip out contextual clues. But an anthology can be an affordable and accessible way to get to know a poet. New and Selected Poems Volume One is a perfect way to get aquatinted with America’s best-selling poet. The book is arranged in reverse chronological order (by date the original collection was published), so I would suggest reading it from back to front to get a sense of Oliver’s growth as a poet. But you needn't take my advice. If we learn anything from Oliver, it’s how poetry illuminates the private and personal world and makes it public.
- originally published on July 20, 2011 in Critics at Large.
– Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.