Learning from Mary Oliver

I first came across Mary Oliver in the eighties.  She’d just won the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive and was reading at FSU.  We were in a wide parlor room of an old college hall, and somehow I ended up sitting beside her while the author Phillip Graham read.  I didn’t know anything about her or about writing, and I remember I asked her a few questions about her poetry, about finding out about winning the Pulitzer, and if there were jobs for literature majors, like I was.  She was cordial to me, though in retrospect she must have thought I was a bit of a loon.  Still, her poetry stuck with me, and recently I pulled out Dream Work.

Mary Oliver is a nature poet.  Her poems are easily accessible and concerned with the spiritual aspect of nature.  One has the feeling God is always just outside the lines guiding her (after her partner died she did publish a book of what some would call religious poetry).  So reading her again, I was thinking she is somewhat on the surface, overt in her meaning, and then, of course, there’s always nature (I began to count how many poems in the collection used the word wing).  But she does have some beautiful lines.

Here’s the start of “Milkweed”:

The milkweed now with their many pods are standing
like a country of dry women.

They’re dry because they’re about to drop their seeds as “each one crackles like a blessing/over its thin children as they rush away.”  A gorgeous image.

And “The Moths”:

At night, sometimes
they slip between the pink lobes
of the moccasin flowers and lie there until dawn,
in those dark halls of honey.

Those “pink lobes” and “dark halls of honey” stand out to me.  Such sensory detail.

Then, in other poems, there are wonderful combinations of words, phrases we’ve never heard: “bulbs of their lungs,” “the simple garment of leaves,” “wondrous drowning,” “in water dense as blindness,” “the root-wrangle.”  Each poem has little nuggets to learn from, little linguistic explosions that make me think of language as something new.

So I go back to Mary Oliver to learn and feel inspired.  And she never disappoints.


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