It is no small irony that, for exactly the reason that Mary Oliver is loved by legions of fans, she is also reviled by many critics: a simple, clear spoken language and a set of themes, predominately nature-based, that she returns to again and again.
Next month, the 3 Poems By Discussion Group will be considering Mary Oliver. In preparation, I have been steeping myself in her work in recent weeks, reading volume after volume in an attempt to come up with a solid overall picture of Oliver the poet. The results of this crash course have been illuminating. But first, a slight digression.
I’ve spent the better part of last year engaged in an online discussion of what exactly a good or great book of poetry is. The discussion has centered around a postulation that the average poetry book generally has two to three very good poems, with an above average book having anywhere from 4 to 6 or beyond. The discussion morphed into a proposed list of “near perfect books of poetry,” which has been very interesting, indeed. Overall, the list consists of the classic poets you would expect (Whitman, Plath, Dickinson, Frost), classic titles, and compilations of selected or collected poems. Oliver herself has two titles on the list: American Primitive and Dream Work. I believe House of Light will be finding its way on to the list very soon.
In addition to her formidable body of work, there are two volumes of selected poems by Oliver. Yet neither the titles noted above nor the two selected volumes represents the very best of her work. The very best is an audiobook compilation entitled At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver.
The audio compilation of Oliver reading her own work contains some 40 poems, a full 24 that I noted as being at the very least very good and in some cases simply transcendent. Her reading is even, unmannered, and precise without being stilted. In a word, natural; a word that fits her work perfectly.
From these poems it is possible to distill something of the ideal Mary Oliver poem. Her work finds it’s initial inspiration in close observation, as she noted in an interview in the Christian Science Monitor on December 9th, 1992. From her observations, mostly in the woods or along the shore, comes a musing or a question. The question sparks speculation, the musing, perhaps, wonder. The result frequently is a transcending of the moment, a rending of the veil, if you will: a glimpse of the unknown.
Of course, if one can reduce a poet’s work to a formula, the criticism alluded to in the opening paragraph of this post gains considerable purchase. However, if in fact the moment is transcendent, the glimpse illuminating, the criticism falls away. For instance, in the poem In Blackwater Pond, the speaker observes the trees and the cattails and the pond itself and suddenly every pond “is nameless now.” She observes that with everything she learns each year, still she is led back to this:
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
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,
to let it go.
Sometimes, the question is evoked and no answer or even speculation provided. At others, the poem opens with the question, as in Bone, when the speaker is “always trying to figure out / what the soul is,” then goes on to describe in some detail her discovery of a whale bone ear on the beach of her native Cape Cod. She moves on to thinking about the bottom of the ocean and how we all know what it’s like though we’ve never seen it but the soul
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.
In Goldenrod, she comes upon a simple field of this colorful if inglorious weed, observing bees and flowerlets and butterflies. Suddenly a breeze rises and she is “happy, and why not?”
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
—full of dark hours?
—And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,
that it is better than these light-filled bodies?
—on their airy backbones
—they toss in the wind,
they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
–they rise in a stiff sweetness,
—in the pure peace of giving
—one’s gold away.
One final glimpse into Oliver and the world; in I Looked Up, Oliver spots something in the green branches of a pitchpine, a “thick bird, / a ruffle fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back -.” Her mind wrestles beyond the meaning of what she sees:
What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.
When I make a little sound
it looked at me, then it looked past me.
Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent,
and, as I said, wreathed in fire.
There are twenty more poems I thought worth their weight in effort, both to write and to read. All is not light and sweet in the world of Mary Oliver; there is Wild Geese and The Alligator, Lonely White Fields and The Bear, and many more. Death is always a hairbreadth away, as it is in life. Which is why we celebrate: without death, life is a party without end. And we all know how those go.
Please consider joining us in our discussion of 3 poems by Mary Oliver at the Main Library in Classroom “A” on Thursday, January 8th, at 7:30 pm. We will be reading and talking about the poems “Wild Geese,” Music Lessons,” and “West Wind 2.” Preregistration is requested but not required. To register or if you have any questions, please contact either Don (412 622-1975, firstname.lastname@example.org) or Renée (412 622-3151, email@example.com).