Mary Oliver Analysis

Start Your Free Trial

Mary Oliver Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Download Mary Oliver Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Mary Oliver’s presence in her poems is most often a clear-sighted moving of eye and mind while staying physically still. She disappears, in a sense, by projecting her sense and moral life onto precise and compelling images that draw the reader into the “I” as experiencer. Through the projection of sensibility in the scene of nature, she can be harsh but accepting and express responsibility for her own life. For example, in “Moccasin Flowers” (from House of Light), the plant and human merge in spiritual ecstasy:

But all my life—so far— I have loved best  how the flowers rise   and open, howthe pink lungs of their bodies enter the fire of the world  and stand there shining   and willing—the onething they can do before they shuffle forward  into the floor of darkness, they   become the trees.

In her characteristic step-down lines, which give a feel of graceful floating, Oliver expresses the nature and work of beings to be fully and joyfully in the world before they move on to their merging in death.

Although Oliver began writing in the midst of the confessional movement of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, she never took on a victim persona. To the contrary, all her effort has gone toward entering the deepest truths of what is within reach of human consciousness. Thus she embraces the totality, from people’s wild and animal nature—joyful and painful—to their storied and moral questionings. Most often looking to nature for experiential knowledge, she is deeply Romantic in the American vein, taking as her models Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Whitman. The opening of “The Buddha’s Last Instruction” (from House of Light) succinctly states her aim: “’Make of yourself a light.’” The closing line, “He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd,” speaks of the terrifying difficulty of that journey. Between these lines, Oliver sees existence as a gift of “inexplicable value,” and to see this fact, which is imaged in the sun, is to become oneself a light. The way of healing and spiritual awareness is through entering what nature knows.

No Voyage, and Other Poems

Oliver’s first five volumes of poetry, published over sixteen years, show the poet beginning with a lyrical “I” who is, like Whitman, awake, watching and listening to nature, simultaneously an individual person grounded in a scene of mythic resonance and “at ease in darkness” of creative natural life. In “Being Country Bred,” from her first collection, No Voyage, and Other Poems,

Spring is still miles away, and yet I wakeThroughout the dark, listen, and throb with allHer summoning explosions underground.

The dark underside of nature is the unconscious coming to light, bringing danger and the excitement of possibility. In “No Voyage” (the title poem), she refuses to leave her own identity, determining instead to stay and “make peace with the fact” of her grief.

The poems of No Voyage, and Other Poems and The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems are conventionally versified, and many are narrative-based vignettes of people from Oliver’s childhood. “At Blackwater Pond” (collected in New and Selected Poems), however, is a short nine-line lyric that presages her mature work. In a baptism-communion-resurrection scene, the poet dips her hands in water and drinks.

. . . It tasteslike stone, leaves, fire. It falls coldinto my body, waking the bones. I hear themdeep inside me, whisperingoh what is that beautiful thingthat just happened?

The mystery of ecstatic awakening precisely matches the flow of rapturous experience.

Twelve Moons

The subject and technique develop further in Twelve Moons —for instance, in “Mussels,” with its short, step-down lines resisting, like the shelled animals, her grip. In “Sleeping in the Forest,” the poet finds herself imaginatively transformed as she becomes a dark, fluid consciousness, one with the night’s beings and businesses: “By morning/ I had...

(The entire section is 2,795 words.)