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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2215

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Mary Oliver is one of those rare contemporary American poets for whom unapologetic and authentic exuberance about her surroundings infuses a lifetime of poems—poems that are, like the poet, “washed and washed/ in the river/ of earthly delight” (“Poppies”). Her New and Selected Poems, which received the National Book Award for poetry in 1992, offers a chance to examine her work as it evolves toward a recognition that she is unified with the world around her, that the wellspring of her joy is a singular voice that speaks from reflections on self and from perceptions of environment. Throughout the books, five previously uncollected poems, and thirty new poems represented in this collection, the poet is always aware that, as she asserts in “Spring,” “There is only one question:/ how to love this world.” The sections are arranged in reverse chronological order, a format that suggests reading to trace the ancestry of Oliver’s rich technical, philosophical, and experiential development. Each section, while working out various experiences, is guided by an unwavering drive toward connection and recapitulation—a belief, perhaps even an instinct, that she will eventually learn “how to love this world.”

The technique in the collection is organic, which corresponds to the focus and goals of the poems. Most of the poems comprise short lines that focus on minute details of language; the lines, like the poems, put reality under a microscope. Oliver’s consistent use of repetition of words and syllables, structures of grammar, even of strings of phrases using the same prepositions, deepens the meditation of the poems by giving them resonance, a resonance that haunts the reader with all the agony and joy of the poet’s experiences.

The last (and oldest) section in the collection, poems from No Voyage, and Other Poems (1963), contains decidedly outward-looking poems that are the origins of Oliver’s genius of perception. She writes in “Being Country Bred”: “Spring is still miles away, and yet I wake/ Throughout the dark, listen, and throb with all/ Her summoning explosions underground.” These early poems are about rural life, a life of organic rhythms keenly in tune with the changing seasons and the behavior of birds, a life lived immersed in a “landscape that we understand” (“Beyond the Snow Belt”). The poetic imagination that will later play a central role in uniting the poet’s mind with nature turns up, if not completely named as such yet: “I own/ Five wooden senses, and a sixth like water.”

Even as she writes her way through these pastoral poems, Oliver recognizes that appreciation, description, and even understanding do not overcome the separation of self from nature. It is not a gulf that can be willed away, and she musters courage to face head on the reality and pain of the gulf. She admits, “There is a thing in me still dreams of trees./ But let it go.…/ Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation.”

The section “From The Night Traveler (1978) and Sleeping in the Forest(1978) and Five Poems Not Previously Included in Any Volume” also engages the outer, natural world. These poems move beyond mere understanding of nature and show early indications of a strategy that explores natural parallels to experiences in the human condition. In both “Ice” and “The Family,” the language of the natural world acts as a language for the emotional life of others. Although Oliver spends much of this section creating setting and atmosphere (poems such as “Farm Country,” “Roses,” and “Bailing the Boat” are almost pure mood pieces), it is a setting in which people slaughter hens, rub down and hoof-trim horses, and collect clams, and in which old women attempt renewal—a setting in which people act and live. The natural world even seems to demonstrate to the poet a certain compassion for human events. In “Hearing of Your Illness,” one of three poems for James Wright, Oliver writes, “Then I went down/ to a black creek and alder grove …/ and told them.” She continues, “I felt better, telling them about you./ They know what pain is, and they knew you.”

Although No Voyage, and Other PoemsThe Night Traveler, andSleeping in the Forest show the earliest spark of Oliver’s perceptive capabilities, the poems from the also early The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972) and Twelve Moons (1979) continually confront and expose the self, sometimes brutally. The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems is a self-aware version of autobiography that attempts a unity of poet with reader by creating myth from personal experience. The various characters in these narratives become larger than life in the language Oliver assigns to them. These poems spin a personal history more than a confession. They are filled with universal characters such as the schoolteacher Willow Bangs, holding class inside all spring for her “love with pencils and arithmetic,” and the “fly-by-night” aunt Hattie Bloom, who finally runs out on her husband.

Like the poems from The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems, the poems from the section taken from Twelve Moons are full of autobiography and family history and show evidence of Oliver turning her attention inward, but this time the effect is more subtle. These poems describe the natural world, but the poet’s own will determines and shapes the natural world. In the poem “Mussels,” readers are reminded that it is Oliver who chooses the setting and the objects of perception. “I am on the riprap,” she writes, “I choose/ the crevice, I reach/ forward into the dampness.” Then, as if to punctuate the willful implications for her poetic process, “my hands feeling everywhere/ for the best, the biggest.” This is not a dialogue; Oliver is not unified with her world, but in control of it.

The sections taken from the early books are technically tight and traditional. Formally, somewhat strict iambic quatrameter and iambic pentameter show up in poems such as “Magellan,” “Morning in a New Land,” and “Beyond the Snow Belt.” “Winter in the Country,” “Anne,” “Magellan,” and several other poems also use rhyme and near rhyme. The conscious and deliberate language, especially in poems from Twelve Moons such as “Strawberry Moon” and “The Truro Bear,” furthers the strong presence of the poet’s internal will. The poems from this period are also frequently arranged with consistent numbers of lines per stanza.

The section of poems taken from the Pulitzer Prize-winning collectionAmerican Primitive (1983) is, both in terms of philosophy and impact, the breakthrough section of the collection. It is with this book that the “answer” to Oliver’s struggle for unity begins to present itself in the form of the poet’s imagination. This section is filled with meditations on animals, plants, the weather, and the natural landscape that are significant because convincing personal truths, truths of the decidedly inner landscape, are revealed by Oliver’s perceptions of the world around her. In the poem “August,” she writes:

all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark

creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is

this happy tongue.

Not only do the creeks, with all their dark inevitability, reveal some animal self, but they participate in the poetic process; they speak with the poet’s tongue. In this poem, as well as in “Mushrooms,” “Egrets,” “First Snow,” “Skunk Cabbage,” “The Fish,” and “Happiness,” meditation on natural objects and events opens immense imaginative space and provides very human insights. After cleaning the first fish she ever caught in “The Fish,” Oliver asserts, “Now the sea/ is in me:/ I am the fish, the fish/ glitters in me.” This connection leads her to what seems a religious realization that “we are/ risen, tangled together.” This poem, however, like this section, is also driven by a heartbreaking separation. The poem acknowledges, “Out of pain,/ and pain, and more pain/ we feed this feverish plot.” Oliver is a prudent poet; if she is to be wholeheartedly exuberant in unity with her world, it will not be premature or unearned.

The poems from both Dream Work (1986) and House of Light (1990) also speak of a poet partially unified with her environment while continuing to struggle with paradox and separation. Dream Work is experimental and fresh, building on the successes of American Primitiveby using voice as an agent of unity. In “One or Two Things,” the dirt, dogs, crows, frogs, and butterflies are given voice. The butterfly even speaks directly in the poem, offering the poet the wisdom “Don’t love your life/ too much.”

If the voices of the world have saving power, the voices of other people, especially of those of Oliver’s “house,” are riddled with “bad advice.” Accordingly, she breaks definitively and finally free from the family mythmaking so prevalent in The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems with the devastatingly real poem “Rage,” in which she confronts childhood abuse with emotions that are authentically and immediately her own. The world has become a subjective reality, a reality largely determined by the poet’s imagination: “Dreams do not lie,” she says. Oliver listens intently to the voices of nature and to “a new voice,” as she refers to it in “The Journey.” This new voice is a voice she recognizes as her own, a voice also determined to save the poet, a voice that accompanies her (and in fact leads her), “deeper and deeper/ into the world.”

This new voice explodes in House of Light with the direct questions that the poet has struggled with, through image and metaphor, to this point. “Some Questions You Might Ask,” “Singapore,” “The Ponds,” “The Summer Day,” “Roses, Late Summer,” and “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field” are all filled with questions directed to both the world and the self, as if the answer is to be found not in one or the other but in both. The answers do come. In “The Swan,” she writes that the path to heaven is “in the imagination/ with which you perceive/ this world.” Indeed, by blending perceptions of the outer world with the poet’s imagination, Oliver has hit on the process that promises to unify the self with the world, even to unify the poem with the world. When “Singapore” concludes “this poem is filled with trees, and birds,” there can be little doubt.

The poems from American PrimitiveDream Work, and House of Lightare more technically and formally open than the earlier work, more experimental. Oliver begins to use less obviously connected sections (quite successfully in “Two Kinds of Deliverance” and “Ghosts”) and starts to allow her language to become a more authentic and more important, if more subtle, element of the work. In “Humpbacks,” the pacing and rhythms of language beautifully match the movements of the whales as they “surge upward…and dive, and breach again.” In “Stanley Kunitz,” “The Turtle,” and “Lightning,” the opening of form, blended with strong, rhythmic lines, creates a tension that retains the best of myth, but personalizes and intensifies the poem.

The thirty new poems (1991-1992) that open the collection are nothing less than the work of a contemporary American neoromantic poet in full maturity, a poet who hears her own voice in the enrapturing world around her, who hears the world speaking in her own words. Individuality does endure, but as utterly connected with the whole, in harmony with creation. In “When Death Comes” she writes, “I think of each life as a flower, as common/ as a field daisy, and as singular.” Like the goldenrod (in the poem “Goldenrod”) that “blend as though it was natural and godly to blend,” the poet’s will blends with the will of her environment as she responds to nature with an animal faith. “A dog can never tell you what she knows from the/ smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know/ almost nothing,” Oliver writes in “Her Grave.” Oliver not only knows, she has the power to tell.

If these new poems are exuberant in their celebration of the self in nature, it is an exuberance that is earned. Oliver’s is a genuine exuberance because hers is a genuine, even Keatsian, confrontation with mortal isolation. In “Poppies” she writes, “Of course nothing stops the cold,/ black, curved blade/ from hooking forward.” The slow deliberateness with which the poem marches forward, with all the inevitability and devastation of the harvest, leaves little doubt that the poet is face to face with the reaper, the traditional separating agent who cuts each person off from the life-giving earth. In spite of all the reality and heartbreak of mortality, she continues, “loss is the greatest lesson.” The appropriate, natural response to the world, as she writes in “Poppies,” is one of ecstasy. The world is ultimately joyful, and it is through joy, joy at the details of the universe, joy that recognizes the cruel paradox of separation and overcomes it, that Oliver achieves unity of self with the world.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, September 1, 1992, p. 26.

Library Journal. CXVII, October 1, 1992, p. 91.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 30, 1992, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, December 13, 1992, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, November 30, 1992, p. 175.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, August 10, 1992, p. 58.

The Village Voice. December 8, 1992, p. S16.