Poets Who Make Us Better: Mary Oliver
When I began an arduous search of poetry journals, I read so many poems I didn’t connect with that I suspected I had been born in the wrong time with too many blessings to ever be a poet. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I stopped writing poems.
Then, during a trip to New England, I meandered into a quaint bookshop and saw the glossy green cover of White Pine, a poetry book by Mary Oliver. Confetti could have fallen! Or, more likely, rose petals, bird feathers, pine needles, and beach sand….
Her poems not only spoke to me as no one else’s had done, they called me to observe intently and search attentively for THE precise word. For instance, the opening poem “Work,” hung on these lines:
“All day I work
with the linen of words
and the pins of punctuation…”
We talk about words being “silken” – smooth, soft, sleek, and often shiny – the kind of things I had aimed for in writing poems, but no. In the very first poem of my very first introduction to Mary Oliver’s work, she tells us she’s looking for linen – a fabric that can be coarse or crumpled and in need of ironing. But, with strong fibers woven from the flax plant, linen is a natural material to work with in writing poems.
How unlike the synthetic poems I had been reading! How observant! And see how precise the poem becomes in the line, “the pins of punctuation….” Isn’t that exactly what punctuation does?
What I’d often looked for, however, in the poetry I’d been reading were lines that carried insight to readers in a plum-delicious way. Consider, for example, Mary Oliver’s poem, “Yes! No!”
“How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.
The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small dark lanterns.
The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.
How important it is to walk along, not in haste, but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out….”
Did you notice the poet’s skill in enticing us with lush, unexpected descriptions before injecting flat statements into the poem?
For another example, look at “I Looked Up,” and see how a ‘thick bird” with “a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders” prefaces these flat but startling statements:
“What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.”
The more I studied the poems in White Pine, the more the book hooked me until I wound up buying everything of Mary Oliver’s I could find. I also read and re-read A Poetry Handbook by this highly acclaimed poet, who had already won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Then I discovered Blue Pastures with its poetically written essays on poets, poetry, and Oliver’s own writing life.
The wisdom, beauty, insight, exactitude, and down-to-earth practicalities of those books invite me to read them again, making new discoveries with each reading. In Owls and Other Fantasies, for example, the “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard” has a beak that “could open a bottle” while the eyes with “their soft lids” –
“go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder –
or the Book of Revelation.”
One might say the same for the soft lids of Mary Oliver’s eyes as evidenced by “The Uses of Sorrow”
in her book Thirst:
“Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”
In both an experiment or a trial, evidence can confirm a claim or prove it, so it’s not surprising that one of Oliver’s books is called Evidence. The title poem includes a line that exhorts us (perhaps, like an Old Testament Prophet?) to “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
Published by Beacon Press, as many of Oliver’s books are, Evidence contains the persuasive poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simply,” which shows the poet’s consistent aim in her work.
“I want to write something
or about pain
as you are reading
you feel it….”
“…you will realize –
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.”
That refreshing goal made her poetry exquisite yet accessible and unique, establishing Mary Oliver as a poet who makes us better – as poets and people too.
Mary Harwell Sayler‘s bio:
Mary Harwell Sayler began writing poems in childhood but, as an adult, wrote almost everything except poetry! Eventually she placed three dozen books in all genres including poetry and how-to books on poetry and writing. She also maintains the Poetry Editor blog and provides resources for poets and writers on her website. Recently she collected almost all of the prayers in the Bible from many English translations, paraphrased them into contemporary language, and published the Book of Bible Prayers. She then published the prayer book in the King James Version only, the Book of KJV Prayers.