When, if ever, should a poet retire?
I have to admit this was the question that crossed my mind when, opening to the first page of Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, the new Mary Oliver poetry collection, I read the title of the first poem, which is also the first line:
What can I say that I have not said before
I thought, oh, no, she’s succumbed to the very criticism that has been leveled at her by many a critical nemesis. And the second line:
So I’ll say it again.
Time to take a deep breath and pause – this is how you begin a new book?
Well, I love the work of Mary Oliver. I’ve reviewed two recent collections, Evidence and Red Bird, as well as the audio book On Blackwater Pond, right here on Eleventh Stack, as well as leading discussions on her work. Mary Oliver has a sense of humor – to begin a book with a poem entitled “What Can I Say That I Have Not Said Before” most certainly can be ironic. The poem, overall, however, wasn’t anything special and so my anxiety was hardly relieved.
Still, this is the Mary Oliver we’re talking about.
So, onward. All the way to page 16 and nothing. I’m beginning to sweat. And then it clicked.
It clicked, the specific it being “Beans Green and Yellow”:
Beans Green and Yellow
it is mushrooms
gathered from dampness
under the pines;
I have known
the taste of lamb
full of milk
and spring grass;
it is beans green and yellow
and lettuce and basil
from my friend’s garden-
as though it were an ordinary thing,
we eat the blessed earth.
The how of this poem reminds me very much of one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets: James Wright. The poem is “A Blessing.” Each of these poems has a set scenario that is commented on in a final three-line coda that is most haiku-like. Both poems wrench us out of ourselves; “Beans Yellow and Green” figuratively and “A Blessing” literally, at least for the speaker, and figuratively. The Oliver poem turns, ever so calmly mimicking its own declaration, on the simple line “as though it were an ordinary thing.”
Here is what Oliver does best. She reminds us where we are and, in so doing, collectively who we are, and how very amazing that is, indeed. Shades of “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life.”
If this be repetition, play on.
Ten pages on there is a devastating prose poem entitled “In Provincetown, and Ohio, and Alabama.” What might these diverse locales all have in common? Drink deep and long of a cold mountain spring and you’ll think of it eventually. It begins
“Death taps his black wand and something vanished.”
Ah, yes, there’s some common ground. There it begins and it ends with one of the most horrific, “holy” images in all of Oliver’s considerable body of work. To call it stunning and pure and frightening doesn’t seem quite to capture the extent of its power. This one is for the ages: all of them.
Two other poems capture the haiku-like quality of the closing lines of “Beans Green and Yellow.” “April” is a beautiful meditation on a beautiful early spring evening, the poet stopping herself in mid-poem to let the “something” from “somewhere other” complete the poem for us. It is simple, succinct, and wise.
The other is “How Heron Comes” and here it is:
How Heron Comes
It is a negligence of the mind
not to notice how at dusk
heron comes to the pond and
stands there in his death robes, perfect
servant of the system, hungry, his eyes
full of attention, his
wings pure light.
There is plenty here we could try to suss out: the heron’s “death robes,” what is “the system,” and how exactly are wings made of “pure light”? Do the details really matter, individually? Sure, in a sense, but they matter more, far more, collectively, for their tone, their ambiance, is their meaning. There is a lesson being taught here and it’s not primarily by the poet. The poet, in the spirit of Zen direct pointing, is calling our attention to the lesson, which is the lesson itself.
In Zen, direct pointing is illustrated in the aphorism of the finger pointing out the moon; once we’ve seen it, we no longer need the finger. You might say “How Heron Comes” is an example of that finger.
The universality of the message here is underscored by one simple word, one article, that is not in the poem: “the.” For the title is not How The Heron Comes, it is How Heron Comes, and line 3 is not “the heron comes to the pond,” it is “heron comes to the pond.”
It is what is not in the poem, it is what is not here, that tells us everything we need to know.
And this is what Mary Oliver does best; she calls our attention to what we don’t see, what we ignore, either willfully or by default. Heron shows it is “full attention” that is needed, no “negligence of the mind” will do.
I walked away from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems with 9 poems that grabbed me. Thinking on that, I recalled Nicolson Baker’s idea in his recent novel, The Anthologist: a poet writes 2, maybe 3 great poems in their lifetime. So, here I was with 9 poems that have given me both pause and a reason to return to this volume again and again. Next I thought of all those other fine poems in all those other excellent books Ms. Oliver has written and found myself quite satisfied. I bet you, too, would find yourself quite happy with Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, though I’d venture to say, perhaps, that the poems you walk away with might not necessarily be the same ones that I did.
So, when should a poet retire? Well, when someone starts paying poets to write poems, when someone puts a roof over their heads, when someone picks up the tab for health insurance, when someone believes that maybe we might get 2 or 3 great poems out of a poet and it’s worth the investment. Maybe then poets can start thinking about retiring.
Then again, maybe not.