Tuesday, November 08, 2005

I *Heart* Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is reading tonight in Seattle, at Town Hall, a venue that seats about 3000 people and is SOLD OUT (correction: the hall seats 900 people; still that's a hell of a lot for a poetry reading). I know her poetry (or at least a specific poem and its "dead kitten poetics") has been pilloried of late in the blogosphere. But I think she has written a lot of terrific poems. You have to read her for what she is, a kind of Romantic/Transcendentalist. She looks to nature for instruction on the self. Nature is just one big teeming pool of metaphors for her spriritual growth. Occasionally she comes off as preachy; but often she is quite illuminating. For more on this see the Mark Doty essay here.

Here's a poem that I think could be her ars poetica. It is one of my favorite Oliver poems:

The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water

that mud-hive, that gas-sponge,
that reeking
leaf-yard, that rippling

dream-bowl, the leeches'
flecked and swirling
broth of life, as rich
as Babylon,

the fists crack
open and the wands
of the lilies
quicken, they rise

like pale poles
with their wrapped beaks of lace;
one day
they tear the surface,

the next they break open
over the dark water.
And there you are
on the shore,

fitful and thoughtful, trying
to attach them to an idea —
some news of your own life.
But the lilies

are slippery and wild — they are
devoid of meaning, they are
simply doing,
from the deepest

spurs of their being,
what they are impelled to do
every summer.
And so, dear sorrow, are you.


Eduardo C. Corral said...

When I first glanced at the title of this poem I read:

The Line Breaks Break Over the Open Water.


The Sublibrarian said...

Me, too. A sign for me that I've probably been reading too much about poetry and not enough of the straight stuff.

Peter said...

E/R: I love the idea of "the lines break open/over the dark water."

Amy said...

I keep rereading one of Mary Oliver's other poems- "The Poet With His Face In His Hands", that appeared in the New Yorker a while ago. I love how she evoks nature, and how it seems to absorb human despair.

Anne said...

I'm glad someone else still likes Mary Oliver -- I was starting to feel like a bit of a freak. (I do think she's been putting out way too many books lately, and could possibly benefit from a tougher editor telling her not to publish EVERYthing, but heck, if I could write books that would sell like hers do, I'd probably do the same.)

Her partner of many years just died recently -- a couple months ago, I think -- so she's been on my mind a bit. I hope she's doing okay.

Peter said...

Anne: I didn't know about Mary Oliver's partner. That is very sad.

Diane K. Martin said...

Far be it for me to critique MO, but I think she should have canned the last line.

In fact, I might just end it with "doing."

Kells said...


Yikes, what's "dead kitten poetics?"

I saw Miss Mary last night, I'll a full report upcoming.


Robert said...

I'm not someone who *hearts* Mary Oliver, but I think she's written some very good poems and this is one of them (though I probably agree with you about the ending, Diane). Anyway, I'm glad to see her praised. It's ridiculously unfair for people to take that kitten poem as typical or "emblematic" of her work, or as emblematic of the sentimentality of "mainstream" poetry or of anything (I say as one cat sleeps on my leg and another nuzzles my foot).

Peter said...

Kelli: Yes I'd love to hear the report. If you visit Ron or Jeannine, you can pick up on the "dead kitty poetics" thread.

steve mueske said...

Twelve Moons is still one of my favorite books.