Mary Oliver Oliver, Mary (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Philip Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 directness, passion, the determined pulse of young life. All this is missing here and so, for this reader at least, the poetry suffers. Miss Oliver simply never reaches me on the level where I live and react, the level where a book becomes more than words, where words snap quickly into life. All I can do is admire her careful cadencing and icy detachment—and wish she would let herself go. (p. 278)

Robert H. Glauber, "The Poet's Intention," in Prairie Schooner (reprinted from Prairie Schooner by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1965 by University of Nebraska Press), Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, Fall, 1965, pp. 276-80.∗

James Dickey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mary Oliver is good in "No Voyage"] but predictably good; one could have foretold her form reading anthologies and the poetry magazines of the day. She never seems quite to be in her poems, as adroit as some of them are, but is always outside them, putting them together from the available literary elements. (p. 61)

One can see how the items sort of inform each other and make a comprehensible statement, but it is made at the cost of the imaginatively personal statement that might have occurred in its place; the page has been filled, instead, with the conventional and ordinary, and the real poem shut out. This is too bad, for Miss Oliver has a fine ear and a quick eye. She will do better. (p. 62)

James Dickey, "Of Human Concern," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1965, pp. 61-2.∗

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Night Traveler is] conventional in style and vision…. Judging from the rhythms of "Blackleaf Swamp" … [Mary Oliver] has read, and learned from, Frost; each of the 26 poems is carefully, beautifully, constructed around an image or event out of nature, or out of the poet's family life. The Night Traveler proposes that one lives in two worlds, that of the personal and familial, and that of the impersonal and inhuman. One is lonely in both….

[Oliver] sees the true "terror" of the country as nature's pitiless disregard for the individual, whether prey or predator; she cannot divide the world into victim and oppressor.

Joyce Carol Oates, "Poetry: 'The Night Traveler'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 24, December 9, 1978, p. 28.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The news Mary Oliver reports in The Night Traveler is not the kind to be found in our daily papers, but will be familiar to anyone with an abiding interest in the nether world of dreams and the shadowy regions of the unconscious. Her chapbook contains twenty-six poems which confront and often release the generative power of first forms residing in the human psyche. The descent into the interior depths announces a process of journeying begun in "Sleeping on the Island," the first poem, where the essential self is uncovered … and ends in a moment of promise in "Messages," the last: "And at last one tree / Hovers, hollow, / Tall as a lighthouse: the secret / Castle of honey."

Between these two points Oliver charts a world not fashionably surreal but authentically mythic in its dimensions. Her concerns are the eternal ones—death, change, loss, illusion—all seen through the "rich / Lens of attention." Oliver assumes, as the Romantics and Hart Crane before her, that we have fallen away from a state of grace inhabited by our elders. Like … a number of poets now occasionally returning to technical formalism, her lines in "Stark County Holidays" demonstrate a powerful awareness of waning: "Our mother's kingdom does not fall, / But year by year the promise fades; / Dreams of our childhood warp and pall, / Caught in the dark fit of the world." Again, in lines freer, more open and characteristic, she seeks in "Morning in...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Hugh Seidman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As their titles suggest (e.g., "Mussels," "The Black Snake," "The Fawn" and so on), Mary Oliver's poems [in "Twelve Moons"] are often informed by the drama of the natural universe, and engage the themes of death and transformation in an evidently highly worked language…. Though well intentioned, the craft has slid off into inverted syntax, easy and "purple" adjectives and clumsy alliteration…. [Some of her poems also suffer] from inflated rhetoric … and a not rigorous enough use of simile and metaphor. In "Snakes in Winter," each forked tongue is "sensitive as an angel's ear" and "lies like a drugged muscle." The "angel's ear" is straight literary conceit (i.e., who says that such ears are "sensitive" or that angels even have ears); the "drugged muscle" is almost a tautology.

Miss Oliver's poems also have the predilection suddenly to speak from the point of view of the thing they are rendering ("The Lamb," of course, is wholly in that mode), rather than let the continuing particulars carry full weight. Endings often fall with a too neat metaphysical crescendo from more austere beginnings: stanzas tend toward equal line count or poems are set as one large block, creating an illusion of tightness that is unfortunately belied by the aforementioned formal lapses as well as a "heaviness" of subject and tone. The somewhat spiritualized crows with the weighty "saves" and the moral-like assessment of death at the end of "The Storm" is an example of such ponderousness…. (pp. 24, 26)

Miss Oliver's poetry succeeds best when her vision—which is obviously felt—forges its own formal congruences beyond her love of artifice…. (p. 26)

Hugh Seidman, "Natural Universe," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1979, pp. 24, 26.∗

Jeff Schiff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What attracts me in Twelve Moons] is the intellectual delay it creates. Most of these poems function in such a way as to combat absolute cerebral comprehension. The imagery forms a bridge between the self rising and the self falling away. Mary Oliver must have walked time and again where she would not have to write this way; for there is surely more evidence of continued process than of ultimate completion. The results are therefore predictable: psychic and emotional information that spans both the personal and the collective unconscious.

In all of this, though, I do find poems that could have been omitted, poems overwritten. I hesitate to point this out because I did like this book a great deal…. Now I can only attribute this artful excess to fear. And there is more than ample justification for that. Not many poets—I must say it—not many poets who are women, are able to strip down to the simple question; not many are able to speak as she does…. (pp. 212-13)

There is nothing wrong with literature that promotes the personal, the confessional. Yet, in all of that, I do not read poems for the safe and guaranteed round trip. And Oliver's work will only return those who can go with it—at times blind, at times unstable. Somehow, after reading Twelve Moons, you are no longer capable of remaining separate, remaining a man or a woman; you begin to walk where you have not, and to think that "… probably / everything / is possible." (p. 213)

Jeff Schiff, "Perhaps for the Marriage," in Southwest Review (© 1980 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 211-16.∗

Emily Grosholz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Twelve Moons is a] book whose subject is nature and the place of human creature in it. When Oliver holds to her sense of respectful distance, the poems succeed very well; only when that hold slips do they become too anthropomorphic and sentimental, too much like animal fables. The poet lives in Provincetown and clearly spends a great deal of time outdoors, as one imagines Annie Dillard, covering miles of fields and woods, then halting, motionless, attentive, for hours, "Entering the Kingdom."… The figure of the crows [in this poem] tells the ambiguity of her position, for they are at once mythologized (as the angel at the gates of Eden) and yet, having been given a voice, they contradict their own speech, telling her how strange she is within the kingdom, how little entitled to her attributions of discourse. Like the paradox of the liar, the poem swings back and forth, riddling.

You could almost use this book as a field guide (and it is entirely à propos to recall here Robert Hass's beautiful Field Guide): surely one function of a poet/naturalist is to tell the reader to go out and look. When we go out just to look we are admittedly tourists, but this guide sometimes self-consciously tries to compensate for the way in which names divide and dismember the wild, and offers as well acute observation…. (pp. 302-03)

Emily Grosholz, "Poetry Chronicle: 'Twelve Moons'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 302-03.