Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1506
Mary Oliver seems to mean by the title of her collection of poetry Dream Work an intuitive as well as deliberate movement toward a nature-oriented perception of oneself. Dreams are an important vehicle for this movement, and nature is both in them and the goal toward which they move, the goal being life in its truest sense. If this sounds like Romanticism, it is, but with a twist. Instead of viewing man as a dimly divine creature discovering godhead in nature, Oliver’s Romanticism leaves out the divine aspect and the human egotism; she regards nature simply as the best place for a person to see where he or she belongs.
For Oliver, nature is hard to avoid. It is an overwhelming presence, and the way one pays attention to it is not mainly through reason but through the subconscious and through intuition. In order to find out what nature is all about, one must be feelingly open to it. At first, at least, nature is frightening. In “Banyan,” she shows how the organisms in nature are inexorable, beginning as seeds and ending as insatiable growth. Not only is nature hungry, predatory, as in “Bowing to the Empress,” but also impersonal. The destructive forces in nature see no link with their human victims because they cannot. There is no love or hate in them as there is in people, which makes them hard for people to accept. Yet accept them people must, for nature is as much man’s home as it is the home of anything else in it, and people acknowledge these forces—some of them, at least—by living with nature’s dangers, as in “The Waves,” and by personifying its dark power, as in “The Chance to Love Everything.”
One may talk about nature, but one cannot talk to it, for it has no mind. Except for man, the creatures of nature simply act. They do not think about what they do (“The Turtle”), they do not talk about what happens to them (“The Shark”). What goes on, however, inside these creatures, inside organisms, parallels what goes on inside man on the level of instinct. It is on this level that man’s unique ability to think about himself finds its best use—in showing him, through dreams and imagination, that his isolation in pride or despair is foolish, that his meaning is embedded in the features of nature itself.
Aside from her liking for nature, how does Oliver find this out? She does so through dreams. What are dreams to her? They are the opposite of that mental activity which seeks to hide or control. They force one to face oneself, to admit one’s guilt and fear, to go beyond the boundaries one imposes on one’s perception. In “Rage,” Oliver sees her father dreaming about her.
His guilt forces him to see how badly he hurt her psyche by hiding his love for her. She presents her own dream about him in “A Visitor,” in which she does not cringe from him as she used to but faces him as the cruel and hollowed-out person he was, and, realizing the longing in him for expiation, she accepts him into herself, thus finally freeing herself from the paralysis of which he was the source. Indeed, one of the main lessons of dreams for Oliver is that the feelings which stunt and free people are most accessible to them in their sleep.
If dreams teach Oliver to trust her feelings, nature teaches her feelings—often through the analogues and personifications she brings to bear on them—what life is really all about. In “Whispers,” she learns that the paralysis of self-absorption has little to do with the healthy life that nature leads in its humdrum fashion. She finds that when she is in nature and patient with herself, she gradually opens to the life it shares with her. In “Sunrise,” the sun, its warmth, teaches her happiness. In going back to its source, the river in “The River” shows her what progress toward a sense of home means. She sees that nature is not merely a clash of forces resulting in exhaustion but that, for example, the male wind helps to impregnate the female earth. In “Clamming,” her vision of her place in the food chain in nature reveals to her how healthy such a system is. In “Trilliums,” she exults in the energy she detects in nature, even as she acknowledges the hardship of expending such energy, and she is fascinated by the way nature’s creatures act without thinking (“The Moths”). A dream tells her—or nature tells her through a dream—that she is one with nature’s movements, that she is the fire in wood and the growth in a flower.
In all such episodes with nature, Oliver believes that it is her imagination that is being appealed to, not her rational mind. Her imagination comes alive when she lets the animal deep inside her work on it from the bottom up, as it were. In this way, nature is a kind of muse, sometimes leading her to give voice to the destruction it causes (“Storm in Massachusetts, September 1982”) and the destruction its destroying creatures undergo (“The Shark”).
Oliver is not a passive student of nature. She believes that she must act on its lessons. First she must face the pain of which she is afraid in her personal life, then, through acceptance of her weakness and through an intuitive openness with herself and her nonhuman surroundings, work to attain the kind of health that nature displays. In “The Fire,” watching the progress of a natural ruin, she is forced to return to her past, to the things in it that hurt her deeply, to the basic structure of her own organic life. Only then can she escape the past and break the paralysis that has kept her from doing anything useful. Thus, she can analyze her dreams properly (“Members of the Tribe”) and take joy in building a place for herself in the world (“The House”).
Besides being attentive to the lessons of dreams and nature, and trying to apply them to the way she perceives and conducts her life, Oliver sometimes focuses on art. She connects it with madness in “Robert Schumann” (where the composer is in an asylum) and in “Members of the Tribe” (where she is). Schumann’s art seems to have kept him afloat in his madness, countering its depression with enthusiasm occasioned by spring and Clara, the woman who became his wife. Art, in this case, is in tune with good feelings and with nature in the season of rebirth. Regarding herself, Oliver says that her breakdown preceded her art. Before she could create, she had to understand what was wrong with her, and this included analyzing her bad dreams. Having done this, she looks to other poets to find out how to think about herself as an artist. She decides that they are poor role models, not because there is so much unhappiness in their work but because they focus their creative energy on death. They are egomaniacs in their own bleakness; they do not seem to believe in the kind of health she wants to have in her life and reflect in her poetry. This requires, she thinks, humility, which, in “Members of the Tribe,” Michelangelo’s helper had, awed by the work his master produced. Because of his healthy attitude and his humble position, this man lived to an advanced old age. Death for him was more of an after-thought than something around which to organize his life.
This is the kind of humility and earthiness that Oliver admires in Stanley Kunitz. The poet in “Stanley Kunitz” is patient, doing the hard and simple work of his craft as though he were gardening. This view of poetry brings it in line with the processes of nature, which are not magical so much as drawn out and grubby. The true gardener or poet understands this; the true successes of writing, like gardening, come after a long time of tending, weeding, and pruning.
Mary Oliver is among the more philosophical pastoral poets currently writing in the United States. She is not content merely to express her psychological difficulties in pastoral settings; she treats nature, in giving her life, as a source of ontological truth, and she tries to give it more than personal meaning. In this sense, as noted above, she is a Romantic, and as such, she adopts a childlike stance as she faces nature. She wants to appear open, cleansed, simple, and in so doing, she often seems somewhat silly and cute. She has no sense of humor, it seems, and thus her poetry lacks a certain common sense. Carefully elegant as her style is, her personifications of nature, for example, amount to pathetic fallacies. If she were a real child, for whom everything is new, including language, her perceptions might be somewhat fresher than they indeed are.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23
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