The Life in Mary Oliver’s Poetry

mary oliver

Angel Valentin for The New York Times

I started this post with a different title, but death is an illusory thing. What’s important about Mary Oliver is the life in her poetry. She put the earth in her lines more so than any poet since John Clare (or the Japanese poet Issa). Both poets, and there are surely poets in other languages, were careful and loving observers of the natural world, and found within it our humanity.

She was also, as far as I know, the only English language poet of the last 50 years able to make a living as a poet. That is, she wasn’t a glorified “court poet” under the protective patronage of a college or university press. She actually sold the poetry she wrote. The reasons for that are many, and none of them foremost, but all parts whose sum exceeded the whole. She was comprehensible, nearly always created a time and locale in her poetry, and possessed a gift for the furtive and original metaphor. Her best book, in my opinion is What Do We Know, and so I’ll take most of my examples from there. The book has always struck me as feeling like a unified whole, an encapsulation of her art, more than just the latest collection.

But for an example of the kind of furtive metaphor of which she was a master, here is the opening to Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks:

What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,

not the inside of a stone.
Not anything.
And yet, how often I’m fooled—
I’m wading along

in the sunlight—
and I’m sure I can only see the fields and the ponds shining
days ahead….

The first two verses are fairly ordinary, but we already get a feel for where we are—wind, a stone, and her musing on the inside of a stone. She already plants our feet on earth. But then there’s that furtive metaphor, “wading along in the sunlight”, a line that would never occur to the vast swathe of contemporary poets, and the reader breaths the clear waters of Oliver’s poetry.  She will talk about ponds, and her poet’s imagination infuses her lines with the metaphors of water. She continues:

I can see the light spilling/like a shower of meteors

And later her legs are “splashing over the edge of darkness”. It’s figurative language like this that enriches her poetry and is the lifeblood of poetry. The magnificence of earth, and life on earth, makes itself felt not just in description but in the very lineaments of her figurative language. This was a trick of Shakespeare, Keats and T.S. Eliot. And you will find it in all of her poetry (all italics are mine):

the palavering wind/is walking/through the pines [p. 48

The death went into her
like lightning
in slow motion,
it mashed her knees,
it ruined the red glove of her heart [p. 49]

The latter prepositional construction is a kind metaphor for which Oliver possessed a genius. Even when her imagery skirts the clichéd, she finds ways to breathe unexpected life into the commonplace:

the snowy tissue of clouds pass over [p. 5]

Or describing rainfall:

…I fall to my knees and then the flowers cry out, and then the wind breaks open its silver countries of rain

Or when describing the sea:

oh bed of silk,/lie back now on your prairies of blackness your fields of sunlight

In any other context “fields of sunlight” would be clichéd, but as a description of the ocean Oliver breathes new life into the collocation. If she had simply written  “snowy clouds”, one might rightly call it clichéd, but the collocation “snowy tissue of clouds” breathes just enough life into the commonplace that the reader pauses. And when describing a hummingbird she writes:

He is a gatherer of the fine honey of promise… [p. 14]

Most other poets would have written “promise of honey”, but how easy to give new lungs to the trite and clichéd with a little turn of phrase. There’s much that her generation could have learned from her, but didn’t.

The gentleness of her poetry can belie her clear-eyed and unflinching assessment of decay and death—and that dying can be cruel. Describing an owl:

…this beast of a bird
with her thick breast
and her shimmering wings—
whose nest, in the dark trees,

is trimmed with screams and bones—
whose beak
is the most terrible cup
I will ever enter.  [Beauty, p. 13]

She could as easily be describing Baba Yaga. And None of this describes the owl but describes what was in Oliver, and in us, who see the owl.

Those who treat her poetry as little more than tittles for the gardening column of Ladies Home Journal fail to recognize the inner life of her poems. They’re not just about the natural world, but a kind of metaphorical landscape of her (and our) inner life. They do so humbly. They don’t invent a new grammar or syntax. The don’t contort themselves with typographic hand waving. She makes no grand claims for her poetry. Her poems are like prayers. And in the poem Praying, she all but describes the artistic principle guiding her poetry:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

[Devotions, p. 131]

That she made a living as a poet speaks to her appeal among readers who also avoid elaboration, who draw no contest between poets, and who enter poems as doorways into gratitude—and joy. There can be a plainly adolescent joy even in Oliver’s last poems. What amazes is that where a lesser poet’s effort inevitably unravels in flights of mawkish sentimentality, Oliver grounds her exuberance in our senses. She never lets the earth further than she can touch, or smell or inhale:

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,

what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again

in a new way
on the earth!
That’s what it said
as it dropped,

smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches…

[Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, p. 36]

And if there are lines by which I’d choose to remember her I would pick the closing lines of the same poem:

…my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars

and the soft rain—
imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.

Mary Oliver died January 17th, 2019.

upinVermont | January 21st 2019

January 21st 2019

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Our first real winter’s snowstorm moved through last night and most of today. At day’s end the sun slipped under the edge of the departing storm—just a little sunlight before nightfall. My mailbox, made of treated 2×4’s, stainless steel screws, and roped from the branch of our dooryard’s maple, still defies the plow.
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21: January 21st 2019 | bottlecap
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