Though not to everyone’s taste, Oliver has however managed to become one of the two most popular American poets of the last 20 years, among both the generally non-poetry reading and poetry reading public alike. In this, she is only surpassed by the ubiquitous Billy Collins.
As such, both poets have become easy targets among both mainstream and independent-minded poetry aficionados, as if popularity alone consigned a poet’s work to the realm of Hallmark “immortality.”
A continual criticism of both poets is that they are repetitive; they seem to be constantly rewriting the same poem over and over again. In fact, the exact same criticism might be leveled at every major poet, writer, musician, or artist, from Robinson Jeffers, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Vivaldi, to Gauguin.
Within a given style or subject, variety can be nearly infinite. Think of the short 3-line Japanese form, the haiku. Think of 12 bar blues. Think of Edward Hopper’s use of light, in both urban and rural settings.
Mary Oliver is constantly exploring our place in nature, our place in the universe. This is, in fact, one of the big themes in all of literature. Oliver typically, in her own unique way, approaches this idea by direct encounter with nature itself. She ventures out, much like Frost or Thoreau or Wordsworth before her, sees something unique, something telling, and she works hard through her verse to wrap her mind around it.
As a result we, her readers, wrap our minds around it, too.
So, she might find a piece of whale bone ear on a beach, or come upon a three legged buck, or a lovely flower, or a flock of departing geese. This is the stuff she transmutes into poetry, at once elegaic, ecological, and philosophical in nature. It is what you might expect from Oliver and it is largely what you get. It is in the execution that Oliver makes the connection to her readers.
Here are two poems from Evidence that are not typical Oliver, at least on the surface. The subject of the first is, ostensibly, the ancient Chinese poet, Li Po, and the subject of the second, again apparently, is the composer, Franz Schubert.
Li Po and the Moon
There is the story of the old Chinese poet:
at night in his boat he went drinking and dreaming
then drowned as he reached for the moon’s reflection.
Well, probably each of us, at some time, has been
Not the moon, though.
He takes such small steps
to express our longings.
Thank you, Schubert.
How many hours
do I sit here
aching to do
what I do not do
he throws a single note
higher than the others
so that I feel
the green field of hope,
and then, descending,
all this world’s sorrow,
so deadly, so beautiful.
Quite simple poems, yet they cut right to the heart of the matter in a very different way than might normally be found in Oliver’s work. Not different in essence or theme, necessarily, but different in execution and approach.
The first retells the famous story of Li Po’s death when, in a drunken reverie, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water, fell in and drowned. The success of this poem rests in the delicate balance between the irony of the zen-like aphorism Oliver elicits from the scene and a very harsh underscoring of who we are and what the moon is. The moon, indeed, has never been desperate; inanimate objects rarely are. Alas, weak as we are, all people have been inflicted with desperation at one time or another. Nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t exact vengenance; nature just is.
Turns out this Eastern-style maxim is in actuality another type of nature encounter, so familiar to Oliver readers, yet found here in the most unlikely of places.
With “Schubert,” we visit the land of the desperate once again, this time with the listener of a beautiful, transcendent classical piece. What the listener is reminded upon the hitting of that highest of notes, and the resultant tumble downwards, is the pure sorrow in the world, evoked perfectly by the master composer, who strikes deep in our despairing little hearts with the notion that life, that nature, that the world, is “so deadly, so beautiful.”
The poem turns deftly on its last four words, a beautiful, deadly pirouette that we might not have anticipated but that surely, knowing Mary Oliver, we should have. One only has to look to her most famous poem, “Wild Geese,” and for “deadly” and “beautiful” substitute that poem’s descriptors “harsh” and “exciting,” to realize this message isn’t so very different at all.
Yet the two poems, “Wild Geese” and “Schubert,” could hardly be less similar. In fact, in all of these poems, Oliver addresses nature and our place in it, and out of it, from three distinctly different perspectives.
If this is repetition, bring it on. I’m ready for more Mary Oliver, anytime.