Mary Oliver is a fairly obvious choice for this weekly series of posts about books that I own. If you are a regular reader of this blog (both of you!) then you will know that last year I learnt and read one of her most famous poems, Wild Geese, for a Tongues & Grooves organised evening entitled Poems from the Heart.
You can read about the event here. I also reprinted the poem in full, and included a link to a recording of Mary Oliver reading it. As with all recordings, it’s interesting to see the inference and difference in emphasis that the poet makes on particular phrases and words.
I’ve not recited any poems in public since. Hopefully this situation will change in the not too distant future. If you are reading this, and struggling right now, these days will pass.
Incidentally, there was an article in the Guardian this week on the value of poetry in a pandemic. It’s an interesting read, and I think also gives an indication as to why certain poets are particularly popular amongst the general public, particularly at times of personal and societal crisis.
Mary Oliver is certainly one of those poets. I know that her work has been sniffed at by many, whether due to her popularity amongst non-poets, or due to her writing style, faith, or subject matter. There’s a really excellent article about this, and her work, in The New Yorker, which you can read here.
If you don’t know Oliver’s work, her most famous poem is probably this one;
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and throughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
You can hear her reading The Summer Day here.
So what do you think? Do you side with the critics, with those who regard Oliver’s work as doggerel? Or was she right to receive the Pulitzer Prize? I’d genuinely be interested in any comments or thoughts.
For what it’s worth, Oliver isn’t my favourite poet, but I’m on the side of the Pulitzer panel. It is far, far more difficult to write in a simple, straightforward style like this than you may think. As argued in the New Yorker article it is also easy to underestimate this type of poetry. Religious poetry is deeply unfashionable, as are nature poems that speak of wonder as opposed to those that rail about the climate crisis.
In addition, if you only know the most famous poems, such as The Summer Day or Wild Geese, you are missing out on the full range of her work and subject matter. Mary Oliver had a traumatic childhood – some of her darker poems, or at least those I have read, are, as I understand it, about her father, poems such as A Bitterness, which ends with the lines
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.
So all is not light in Oliver’s poems, and there is a weariness and sadness under the surface in many of them.
It is easy to say that Oliver’s poems, certainly the most famous ones, those that become memes and post-stick notes, aren’t particularly challenging and are easy to understand on the first reading. Is that a weakness or a strength? I guess this depends on the audience, and your view on what poetry should be, and what it should do for the reader. Do we always want to be challenged?
I know a good number of people for whom Mary Oliver’s poetry gives great comfort and hope. And in times like these, sometimes that’s all we need.