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

the reappraisal begins…

Every generation, at some point, declares its independence from the one that preceded it; and the baby-boom generation is over-ripe for just such a comeuppance.

While not all the authors skewered in Anis Shivani’s article are baby-boomers, I was interested to notice those who are.

Here’s what he has to say about John Ashbery:

Exemplary Lines: “The sheiks protest use of / aims. In the past / coal has protected their / O long, watchful hour. / the engines had been humming / stones of March in the gray woods / still, the rods, could not they take long / More anthems until dust / flocks disguised machine.”

More responsible than anyone else for turning late twentieth-century American poetry into a hermetic, self-enclosed, utterly private affair. Displays sophomoric lust to encode postmodern alienation into form that embodies the supposed chaos of the mind. Though he has somehow acquired a reputation for the visionary (especially among the Brits, who think he’s the greatest American poet), John Berryman’s Dream Songs are infinitely more on the mark. Another amateur philosopher, like Jorie Graham, another acolyte of what he thinks is Wittgensteinian logic. Ran away with postmodern irony, eccentricized it to the point of meaninglessness. Now we have no working definition of irony anymore–thanks, John Ashbery! Mixes low and high levels of language, low and high culture, every available postmodern artifact and text, from media jargon to comic books, to recreate a reality ordered only by language itself. When reality=language (as his carping cousins, the language poets, have it, just like him), politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can and will step in. Has been a Mannerist after his own outdated manner at least since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Among the writers listed here, I want to like him the most–it’s too bad he’s been a parody of himself for so long.

And here is his take on Mary Oliver:

Exemplary lines: “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.”

America’s best-selling poet along with Billy Collins, and that tells you all you need to know about how the public views American literature. A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany. For example, 5 a.m., opossum, backyard, broken, it ran. Or 3 p.m., kitten, field, how real, peace. Only has to mechanically alter the variables, to get the same desired effect. United with other writers on this list by showmanship, calling attention to her own skills, putting herself at the center of epiphanies and moral goodness. Publishes a book a year with interchangeable contents–how she has put on the brakes on her own evolution is the real wonder. Poems are free of striking images, ideas, or form. Animals and natural settings are described in the vaguest of terms. Has long been enrolled in the Dale Carnegie school of winning friends and influencing people. As far removed from Emerson as Stephen King is from Melville. Here she is communicating with the snow crickets: “I looked down / into the theater of their perfect faces– / that frozen, bottomless glare.” Communicating with the hermit crab: “Once I looked inside / the darkness / of a shell folded like a pastry, / and there was a fancy face.” Her optimism, like Billy Collins’s, is a slap to the face of history. Again and again, she happily wonders: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” One suspects, she knows the answer.

He also has some opinions about Helen Vendler,  Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, and Billy Collins.

So far, the comments (following the post) are scatter shot – as one would expect. Many deride the criticism as subjective, but when has criticism been anything but?

What’s especially interesting is that fully half the authors are poets. Thinking back on my Let Poetry Die post, this must be the first time I’ve seen so many contemporary poets stuffed into a non-literary web site or publication. Unluckily for them (or justifiably) they’re being sauced like a pot of lobsters. Although I haven’t read each and every comment, very few of them mention any sort of familiarity beyond Ashbery (9 out of 10 negative) or the critic Helen Vendler (who seems to have been foisted on students by professors who couldn’t do better).

No one is jumping to the defense of these poets (as opposed to the novelists). And I’m not sure by whom these poets were overrated, other than by whatever academic institution hired them or teaches them. Of all the poets mentioned, Ashbery has the furthest to fall. I doubt his reputation will survive the next generation. History is overstuffed with artists who were lionized by their own generation, only to be swept into dusty anthologies.

It’s not me, it’s you.

A Bad Date

This, in a nutshell, is what too many modern poets and the poetry establishment, publicly and privately, has been telling themselves and telling the modern reader for over half a century: It’s not me, it’s you. Just recently I was discussing the matter with another blogger, who I like, but who contemptuously characterized the modern reader as only interested in greeting card poetry or  poetry for children.

Why I Wake Early - Mary OliverThe poetics of the last 60 years has largely been a failure. And who’s to blame? You.

What do I mean by failure? I mean that poetry, as a genre, has failed to engage the modern reader and audience.

There are exceptions. Mary Oliver would be an exception. So would W.S. Merwin. Oliver and Merwin, like all poets, have written good poems and bad poems (they don’t need me to defend them), but  they have engaged the modern reader in a way that no avant-garde  poet has equaled – certainly not Ron Silliman or Ashbery. At Amazon.com, Mary Oliver’s “Why I Wake Early” has a sales ranking of 8,636 (the best, so far, of any poetry I’ve found). John Ashbery CollectedBy way of comparison, the best John Ashbery  (the darling of the modern poetry establishment) – The Library of America’s Collected Poems: Volume 1 – has a sales ranking of 245,215. The book that is considered by many to be his masterpiece and very best, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, comes in at 427,389. Ron Silliman’s Alphabet ranks at 523,241.

This means that, at Amazon, Oliver’s sales rank, compared to Ashbery, is 28 to 1; compared to Silliman 60.5 to 1.

And yet Ashbery was the poet who Library of America chose to glorify. In fact, according to Amazon, Oliver has consistently outsold every English speaking avant-garde poet on the planet. What does this say about her poetry? The ignored poets will tell you that popularity is no indication of quality, let alone greatness because: what do you know? – even while they themselves yearn to be read by you (read popular). This is a convenient belief and goes some way toward explaining why a poet like Oliver or Merwin, both of whom are far more widely read and appreciated by the modern reader, is overlooked in favor of Ashbery. And it gives you an idea of what the modern poetry establishment thinks of your taste: if the modern reader wasn’t such a lazy dolt with child-like attention spans and greeting card aesthetics, then the truly deserving poets (apparently not Oliver) would be popular. Really, it’s you.

By the way, and because the subject will inevitably come up, here’s how Amazon’s Sales rankings can be understood:

47.9% of Amazon’s sales consisted of titles ranked better than (under) 40,000. 39.2% of their sales were books ranked between 40,000 and 100,000.5 Titles ranked between 100,000 and 200,000 accounted for 7.3% of sales, while titles ranked from 200,000 to 300,000 accounted for only 4.6% of sales.5 Anything above that accounts for only 1% of sales.

Researchers at MIT (Brynjolfsson, Yu and Smith) studied publisher-provided data of one publisher’s weekly sales for 321 titles, and compared the figures to Amazon’s sales rankings for the same week. The observed weekly sales of these books ranged from 1 to 481 copies and the observed weekly rankings ranged from 238 to 961,367.5 Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books also analyzed performance based on a brand new book he published. Combining the information culled from both studies, if a book is ranked 100,000 you’re looking at selling about 1 copy per day. At a ranking of 30,000 it’s averaging between 1 and 2 copies per day. The 10,000 ranking calculates to 2 copies a day. The 1,000 ranking is estimated at 11 sales that day. A book with a rank of 10 is estimated to get 700 sales a day.

Keep in mind that a ranking at any single point in time is not indicative of actual sales. Selling two copies of a title, regardless of whether it has ever sold before, will propel it into the top 50,000 for at least a few hours. If the same book otherwise sells very rarely, or never, it will drop 100,000 rankings the next day, 400,000 rankings over the course of the week, another 200,000 rankings the next week, and so on. Eventually it will hover around 2,000,000.

So, keeping that in mind, I’ve been watching the sales rankings of both books, Oliver’s I Wake Early and Ashbery’s Collected Poems, for the last 8 weeks. They have both remained fairly stable. And as this post ages, you can check them again and update me. I’ll do the same. I’m all about the evidence. The long and short of it is this: Oliver’s book represents a part of the 47.9% described above, Ashbery’s book represents a part of 4.6% (which is all the more damning given the fanfare surrounding the Library of America’s publication). And if we’re making a fair comparison (single book to single book), Ashbery’s Masterpiece is found in 1% of Amazon’s sales.

Lastly, and as of 2008, Amazon represented 70% of the online book market. By any standard, that makes Amazon a fairly reliable indicator.

Is the audience out there?

Another refrain you will hear is that the audience for poetry no longer exists; poetry isn’t a genre that people care about. And you may also hear that the modern American reader can no longer distinguish between great poetry, good poetry or bad poetry. Both of these have to be among the most self-serving arguments ever concocted. It’s you, really, it’s you. We’re writing great poetry, you are just too clueless to recognize it.

In Tyler Hoffman’s book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, he opens with a lovely anecdote: “In 1919, Frost wrote a letter to his daughter Lesley. who had entered and lost a poetry contest, urging her to beware of caring about the reception of one’s [sic] work: ‘Setting our heart when we’re too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death.'”[Intruction p. 1]

Hoffman continues:

As Vernon Shetley has shown, this hostility to modernist difficulty is not unique to Frost; other sophisticated readers saw that such difficulty spelt the demise of the “common reader” – a condition Shetley argues, from which we have not recovered: “The last time they [general readers] were sighted in large numbers was in Frost &  Politics of Poetrythe 1960s, refreshing themselves in the New England landscapes of Robert Frost.” Although the recent rap-meets-poetry scene has done much to reenfranchise the common reader, or, more accurately, the common listener, Shetley’s point is well-taken. [Ibid 2]

And finally:

To be sure, Frost’s poems seem on the surface fairly accessible by virtue of their colloquial sounds, and the appearance of his poetry in such mainstream magazines as Haper’s, New Republic, and Scribner’s attests to his success in attracting a popular audience. (…) In a 1913 letter, Frost made clear his ultimate intention of getting out beyond the poetry circle in his hunt for money and fame:

[T]here is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands…. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do by taking thought. [Ibid 3]

And this is what Frost’s poetry continues to do, along with Oliver’s. They reach the crowd. And the crowd, contrary to the insinuations of modern poets, has no trouble recognizing the good poetry from bad. They continue to buy Yeats, Frost, Dickinson, Cummings (today’s sales rank 32,675), Keats, Eliot, etc… If they didn’t sell, publishers wouldn’t stock bookstores with multiple issues – never mind the numerous books on haiku, sonnets, love poetry, erotic poetry, etc…

Don’t be fooled. The audience is out there, but if sales are any indication, they don’t want to read disjunctive, non-grammatical poetry. A great poet may emerge out of the conceptual or avant-garde aesthetic, but it won’t be by badmouthing or ignoring the judgment of the “common reader”.  If these poets want to succeed (and with more than that success “of esteem” or the teapot-approbation of their own establishments) they will have to do it the same way every great poet has done it, by engaging the “common reader” intellectually and emotionally (which is what those other best-selling writers condescend to do, otherwise known as short-story writers, dramatists and novelists).

If  the vast majority of latter, 20th century poets aren’t read as widely as they might be, maybe it’s because their poetry isn’t as good as it might be?

Is it them, and not you?

And of course, my standards apply to me. If my own poetry is abysmally under read (and it is), then I’m not going to blame the readership. The audience is out there. I’ve certainly failed to reach it and I have failed to market myself (this blog is a start). I happen to think my poetry is great poetry but I haven’t put it to the test. I blame myself for that. Given the chance and exposure, suppose I fail?

Emily DickinsonThen it’s likely I’m a poor judge of poetry, especially my own.

I’m not going to blame my lack of success on the mediocrity of the masses.

Is popularity the same as quality?

This is the direction these discussions inevitably go. If one judges the worth of a work according to its sales, what about all those mediocre poets and artists who were also, in their own day, best selling? Think of Longfellow or Salieri.  Longfellow wasn’t a bad poet, but was hardly the equal of Whitman or Dickinson.

But the question isn’t whether mediocre artists can’t also be popular, but whether the better poets weren’t.

The foremost example of the great poet who wasn’t popular is Emily Dickinson. But her example is flatly misleading. In her own lifetime, Dickinson never courted the public. She effectively sequestered both herself and her poetry. What if she had tried to court the public? We don’t know. What we do know is that once her poems reached the public, after her death and, albeit , in an edited form (primarily normalizing punctuation and spelling according to scholars), they were a definitive success – rapidly adopted by the reading public.

Poetry FreedomWalt Whitman achieved considerable success during his own lifetime. So did Tennyson, Shelley, the Brownings and Wordsworth. Keats didn’t live long enough to see success in his own lifetime. And though his reputation ebbed and flowed, his influence was ever present. Among the moderns, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost were both recognized by the general public and saw their work widely disseminated.

Looking back through history, the pattern is the same (though what it meant to be successful depended on the era). Shakespeare retired a rich man.

The bottom line: modern poets can’t argue that obscurity or neglect doesn’t portend continued obscurity and neglect. If this generation’s self-selected great poets are being largely ignored by the general public then, according to history, it’s a reliable sign that they will continue to be ignored.   How long will the current generation’s establishment continue to champion poets who aren’t being read? Probably right up until the next generation quietly (or not so quietly) removes them from their pedestals. That’s the way it’s always been.  While popularity isn’t a reliable sign of greatness, it’s a fairly reliable sign of mediocrity. Poets who courted the general public and were marginalized in their own day continue to be marginalized by later generations. Right now, I can’t think of any exceptions.

What poets are being read by the general public? They are, first and foremost,  the poets who write to be understood. Their poems possess imagery that the average reader can make sense of, along with clarity and unity of thought. The public continues to buy and read poetry written in rhyme and meter. The youngest audiences instinctively gravitate toward language that possesses rhythm (accentual and accentual syllabic meters) and rhyme. They find it in nurseryThe Shadows of Sirius - Merwin rhymes and later in rap and popular music. Go to a site like Poetry Freedom if you want to see what the youngest poets and readers enjoy.

It’s easy for modern poets to dismiss these young poets and their poems as trivial and mawkish, but the techniques they use, are learning and enjoy are the techniques of the great poets: Frost, Keats, Shakespeare, Cummings, Dickinson, Eliot, Yeats, along with poets like Simic, Merwin and Oliver. They’re the audience of the future.

My bet is that they know great poetry when they see it.

(W.S. Merwin’s Book, The Shadows of Sirius, as of July 22nd, 2009, has a sales rank of 5,406. Just checked at 4:30. Someone must have bought another copy, Merwin’s ranking jumped to 2,879.)

[The Frost book which I’m following is the Library of America Edition – same as the Ashbery. So is the Whitman, which I’ve included just out of curiosity. Ron Silliman is represented by his new book, the Alphabet. Christian Bök is represnted by Eunoia.]

———–Oliver-|-Ashbery–|-Merwin-|-Frost—|-Silliman-|-Bök——-|Whitman

July 23: 8,632 –|-346,513—-|-15,010—|-181,394-|-630,876—-|-555,938—|43,348
July 24: 8,192–|-371,296—-|-4,085—-|–71,003-|-678,531—-|-631,346—|38,318
July 26: 5,255–|-87,204——|-11,116—-|-184,614|-705,812—-|-206,932—|127,792
July 27: 8,618–|-94,564——|-8,527—–|-87,657-|-252,553—-|-344,750—|122,208

IMHO: (G)reatness & the Language of Poetry

On Being Memorable

I’ve been scouring the net for other response’s to Orr’s New York Times Article, where he asks: Where is the ambition? Where are the Great poets?

Orr - On PoetryWhile pursuing discussion on Orr’s article over at A Compulsive Reader, another question occurred to me. Why is it that practically no poets after the moderns seem to be widely read, remembered or recognized by the general, non-poetry reading public. Almost everyone I ask (who maybe reads three or four poems a year) knows of Robert Frost, can name a poem by him and maybe even recite a line or two. No one, (during my unscientific survey), could do the same for any poet of the later generation.

The one clear difference between Frost, Cummings (and Eliot in some cases) is that they wrote Poetry that utilized meter and rhyme to varying degrees. There’s no dispute that meter and rhyme are mnemonic aids. The trick of rhythm and rhyme begins before writing, with the oral tradition. So, the fact of Frost’s popularity is, I think, indisputably linked (though not fully dependent on) his use of meter and rhyme.  His poems are memorable in ways that Ashbery’s poems simply are not.

The Marketplace

There aren’t a lot of Border bookstores or Barnes & Noble bookstores in the smaller malls of the Midwest. Instead, there are shops like Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders), that cater to the very general public. I used to shop at Waldenbooks – the only bookstore close by. I know all about their poetry section. It usually only had four or maybe five books in it. Waldenbooks, unlike Borders and Barnes & Noble (which are still primarily located in urban and metropolitan areas), only buy what they know they can sell.  That said, they are a top-notch barometer of what the wider population typically reads on a daily and weekly basis.

Here’s what I never found on any of their shelves: Language Poets, Avant Gard, Black Mountain Poets, Objectivists,  Beats, etc… none of the various “schools” after the moderns. If anyone reading this can tell me whether this has changed, let me  know. While I was shopping at Waldens, the only free verse poet they  stocked was Walt Whitman. Period. The other poets were Robert Frost, Christina Rosetti, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, his major plays, maybe Keats, maybe Tennyson.

What do all these poets have in common?

With the exception of Whitman, none of the poets are free verse poets.

Why has the generation of free verse poets that followed the moderns largely failed to appeal to the wider, non-poetry reading, public – why have they failed to capture their imagination and inspire them? Or let me put it another way: Why have they failed to be salable?

If popular appeal is a part of (G)reatness – then the last generation of poets have failed.

In reading the various responses to Orr’s article, almost every individual volunteered a list of poets who Orr could have or should have mentioned. But I can’t think of any two bloggers who agreed on a poet.

A Failure of Aesthetics? Poetry is more than content.

My hunch is that Orr is equating (G)reatness with popular recognition and appeal, which is why he passed over all the poets other bloggers have variously mentioned. That said, Orr studiously avoids defining much of anything –  asking more questions than he answers. He avoids defining what he believes to be (G)reatness in style which, it would seem, ought to be part of the equation. His description is artfully noncommittal:

Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”

Ya think?

I’ll go a step a further.

AR Ammons Collected PoetryA poet can’t be (G)reat unless his or her poetry is stylistically (G)reat – and by stylistically (G)reat, his or her poetry must stand apart from prose. It’s not enough to have “great thoughts”. At least in the wider literary marketplace, poetry is judged in part by how and to what degree it differentiates itself from prose. AR Ammons’ poetry attains a level of complexity comparable to that of Stevens, but he lacks Stevens’ melodious line and flare for metaphor and imagery.  His poetry is more like a compressed prose. Meanwhile, the poems widely considered to be Stevens’ best are also, frequently, his most metrical and metaphorical- Sunday Morning and The Idea of Order at Key West.

Shakespeare’s ideas, as Robert Shaw pointed out, are frequently pedestrian, but his language could elevate proverb to profundity. Poetry is more than content. That’s the realm of the novel (which isn’t to say that some novelists aren’t better stylists than others) but that’s not why the broader public reads them. Poetry has to be more than content, or it places itself in direct competition with every other work of prose. What Do We KnowThe results are, simply put, obvious and indisputable. A store like Waldenbooks is stuffed with contemporary novels while its poetry section couldn’t stop a screen door.

When poets adopted free verse, they surrendered the one quality of poetry that, up until then, differentiated it from every other form of writing. And it’s not just rhythm and rhyme that were rejected, but rhetoric and the building of ideas out of metaphor. Walt Whitman, while he rejected rhyme and metrical pattern, remained an intensely rhetorical and figurative poet. In contemporary poetry there is frequently nothing that distinquishes a poem from any given prose paragraph.

Mary Oliver is perhaps among the most salable of modern poets. Her poetry is rich with figurative language, image and metaphor, all immediate and accessible. Her poetry uses language in a way that a novel doesn’t.

Who knows whether Oliver will be counted among the (G)reats?

Maybe her stature will be comparable to Andrew Wyeth, who was favored by the wider public while being largely rejected by art critics, curators and collectors who couldn’t help but interpret Wyeth’s popularity as a rejection of their own increasingly unpopular aesethetics. As it is, I have an uncertain sense of Oliver’s overall popularity.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, while it may be held in high regard by fellow poets, must be special-ordered in most smaller book stores while Robert Frost’s poetry can be found in any number of permutations, including children’s books.

Can the contemporary aesthetic of free verse be (G)reat?

Have the poets of the last hundred years legitimized their own aesthetics?

If wider public appeal is any indication, the answer is No. The poets of the last generation have failed to produce a genre that in any way  competes in the marketplace of modern literature. It has failed to inspire the wider public. Rather, the marketplace continues to favor a poetry that is not prose or “lineated prose” – but that is differentiated from prose in all the ways rejected by the generation following the moderns and contemporary poets.