Arts/Literature

The poetry of Mary Oliver and other fantasies

I’m late to the Mary Oliver party, I realize. Her first book of poems came out in 1963. By 1984, she was getting love from the Pulitzer committee. In 1992, the National Book Award committee gave her the nod. She’s won a slew of awards, and The New York Times has called her “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.”

I found her, just this autumn, because of some owls.

In my attempt to feed my head full of poetry this semester, I picked up one of Mary Oliver’s many volumes from the bookstore shelf because the title caught my eye: Owls and Other Fantasies. Just the idea that a writer would look at an owl as a fantasy held promise.

The poems in the 2003 collection hooked me at once. Filled with beautiful description, thoughtful metaphor, and peaceful insight, the poems seemed like everything I thought nature poems should be.

Take, for instance, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”:

His beak could open a bottle
and his eyes—when he lifts their soft lids—
go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder—
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation….

I can only imagine what an owl might read in Revelation, but even the thought of it wowed me.

I mentioned Oliver’s name to a colleague, and she shrugged and nodded and sort of brushed Oliver off with the casual tag “Nature Poet.” It wasn’t quite a slur, and it wasn’t quite dismissive, but it wasn’t an “Oh yeah, she’s awesome” either. I felt sad because, I admit, I had been quite charmed.

Oliver doesn’t necessarily put a lot of herself out there in her work. She’s not taking a lot of personal risks, which seems to be the currency of good poetry these days. But what I do appreciate about her work, aside from the imagery, is her willingness to let the nature challenge her.

“I live in the open mindedness of not knowing enough about anything,” she writes in her poem “Luna,” which appears in her 2004 collection Why I Wake Early.

Her poems continually celebrate nature’s ability to teach her new ways of understanding the world and herself. In “Goldenrod, Late Fall,” she says, “The weeds let down their seedy faces / cheerfully, which is the part I like best, and certainly / it is as good as a book for learning from.”

“O, good scholar,” she says in “Mindful,” from Early,

how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these—
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Her poems often cascade down the page in interesting arrangements (which I can’t capture here). I did find some of the poems in Early to be too distracting in their line breaks and physical dishevelment and alignment on the page.

She best articulates her wonder at the natural world in a selection from “Sometimes” in her 2008 collection Red Bird:

 Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Yeah, I can get into that, for sure.

Oliver has published some twenty-eight poetry collections, so I have some catching up to do. A trip through one of her books, though, is like a quiet walk in the woods.

…but of course the birds were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking the sweetest music
out of their leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and
beautiful silence
As comes to all of us, in little earfuls, if we’re not too
hurried to hear it.

(from “This World,” 2004)

6 replies »

  1. Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” made me have to sit down when I first read it. It was such a powerful poem for me that reading it was a physical process, something other than reading. I have enjoyed discovering her poetry for myself since I read that.

  2. Read the whole body of her work. Read it with a relaxed meditative frame of mind. Dont overlook her prose. You will learn much more of her and fall even more in love with her. She is truly awesome and I am thrilled that you have discovered her. I frequently read her poems over and over in the early morning as a spiritual nourishment at the beginning of my day. Her work serves well for that no matter what your religious tradition. Her work is rich and deep and with each new reading of any given poem of Oliver’s there are new insights. She is a treasur. Thank you for sharing your discovery of this wonderful poet.

  3. I am a counsellor and use poetry with clients. Mary Oliver’s work is perfect for this, particularly The Journey and Wild Geese.

  4. Thank you for this article, I love Mary Oliver! I must disagree about her not “putting herself out there”. Read the poem The Journey, it is a story about following your own path and listening to your own voice. The poem really resonates with me and it show her honesty and vulnerability – thank you for that Mary!

  5. Thank you for saying, Sarah! I believe that Mary Oliver puts herself “out there” in everything she writes………… The depth of her work in unfathomable…………