Oliver, Mary 1935–
Oliver is an American poet. The quiet directness of her verse unsentimentally investigates the individual's place in nature. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
In the title poem which begins ["No Voyage"], Mary Oliver recognizes that there is no possibility of voyaging beyond grief: in a "fallen city / On a cot by an open window," she comes to realize "Here or nowhere I will make peace…." Her courage is admirable, and the peace her best poems make with the world is rightfully uneasy. She is familiar with grief, she knows "the beast in the heart," and realizes that no distance can disguise any loss of love….
Her book is, in general, a record of what Frost called a "lover's quarrel with the world," and her best poems are lent tensile strength by the struggle within them between denial and affirmation. A reader can only feel that there is a considerable human being in, and behind, these poems…. One wishes that her … poems were less concerned with the trappings of poetry as such; she labors the word "sings," and too easily falls into such melodramatic metaphors as "the black stanzas of myself."
Similarly, she seldom recovers her multitude "moon" images, or her insistence on "dreams," from the conventionalized aura of romanticism which surrounds them. Her inclination toward what's "poetic" becomes openly embarrassing in [diffuse lines]….
Given the felt experience which constantly underlies Miss Oliver's poems, it's an unhappy task, at best, to criticize the poeticisms which diminish the value of her work. But because there is a poet at work in the best lines of even her least poems, it can be no kindness to Miss Oliver's career to discount the flaws of "No Voyage," or to excuse them as the limitations of a first-book poet. One hopes for her, rather, only more such poems as "The Diviners," "Being Country Bred," or "A House in London," poems made quietly moving by the specificity of a language demandingly her own.
Such poems overshadow the book as a whole, precisely insofar as they assert no more than they demonstrate, as they come to individual terms with the world they're much a part of. Perhaps most importantly, such poems—in being self-fulfilled—happily promise the further poems that Miss Oliver has it in her to write.
Philip Booth, "A New Poet's Uneasy Peace," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1965 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), April 15, 1965, p. 9.
Robert H. Glauber
Mary Oliver uses her poems [in No Voyage] to recall in the most controlled tones the country scenes of her childhood and adolescence. She is gifted with a kind of emotional total recall, so that, within very strict limits, every shade of meaning is included. Judging from the poems about her adult life, she needs those about her earlier years to maintain her sense of balance between current uncertainties and isolation and the solidly recognizable joys, sorrows, and companionships of the past.
There is little that truly speaks out here. All is muted. All is held within the narrowest range of possible responses. The control is so strict and detailed that one can only conclude that Miss Oliver quite intentionally holds down both her own expression and the reader's response. If, indeed, this was her intention, she has succeeded almost too well. A more murmuring book has not come along in quite a while—a pleasant, whispering voice.
But in the out-of-doors, in the daily life of a young girl on a farm, in the wanderings of birds and storms and surely in murder there are moments of high-pitched drama. There are delighted cries and shrieks of pain and confusion. One longs almost desperately for moments (or at least echoes) of this here. Eventually restraint begins to pall. The gentle pace begins to wear thin. One wonders: is there really blood and bone beneath this pale skin of verse? Control in a writer is admirable—especially in a young writer. But so is...
(The entire section is 2,276 words.)