Well-Versed In Life: Mary Oliver's poems rhyme with her readers

Mary Oliver, Rachel Giese BrownMary Oliver is not afraid to use certain words. Cover your ears, for you may be offended. Her language includes words like beautiful, love, beloved, prayer, loneliness, God, He, holy, heaven.  And this from a woman who has taught at Bennington College, is a lesbian, reveres and has written scholarly essays on Poe and Whitman and Hopkins, has derided figures like Donald Rumsfeld in poems.

Such words that may seem blasphemous in contemporary poetry, that might likely be banned in MFA writing workshops where rap lyrics with homophobic, racist, and misogynistic refrains are lauded as new verse, appear in her poems that include images of chirping birds and receding ocean tides, sunflowers bobbing in the sun and hovering hummingbirds seeking nectar. And while her poems always present a mélange of meanings, rarely does a reader leave one of her works baffled or frustrated. Yet, no serious poet or lover of poetry would liken Oliver to a Maya Angelou whose poems have (thankfully) morphed into a line of greeting cards or a Rod McKuen who would spout his facile verse on late-night 1960s talk shows.

That Oliver, who lives and works in Provincetown, Massachusetts, is able to use such language repeatedly reveals that she may likely be America’s most confident poet. She is certainly among our most prolific. Depending on how you count chapbooks versus full-scale collections, her newest volume, A Thousand Mornings (Penguin Press; $24.95), may be her 28th volume, in addition to several books of essays.

She is also among the most popular of poets, though being named poet laureate has eluded her, thus far (write the Librarian of Congress!). Long known for her wariness in appearing at too many public readings (she’s no recluse, though, for she was a highly revered professor at Bennington and has led countless workshops, many based on her inspiring A Poetry Handbook), Oliver is a regular sell-out (in quantity of fans, not quality of poems) when she does take to a podium. She appears this October 15 at New York’s 92nd Street Y, the Mount Olympus of literary life (perhaps the only stage more metaphor-laden with poetic import might be the Swedish Academy during the Nobels). She has appeared before at the 92nd Street Y where it is not unknown for her fans to call out to her, as if at a rock concert, asking her to read some of her iconic works, the most requested being “Wild Geese,” which has rightfully earned a place in many an anthology—though it contains some of those academically banned words, including “repenting”, “despair,” “lonely”.

Oliver is famously private and used to her ways of working, writing often about how she walks with pad and pen at dawn every day through her local woods and along the shoreline. Several years ago, when I was articles editor at Country Living magazine, a big, glossy, Hearst title, I wanted to have her contribute a personal essay. Working through her publisher, I was told that Oliver was wary of a magazine so commercial and that she didn’t use the fax and wouldn’t respond to or send the manuscript by email. Eventually, I was told that she would write a piece, but insisted on hand-delivering the finished essay to me at the 92nd Street Y, where she was then to make an appearance.

Amid a crowd of Birkenstock-clad, public television-bag toting, gray-hair-ponytailed fans in the Y’s lobby, prior to the reading, she graciously handed me a sealed envelope and said she hoped that what she wrote was good enough. As a longtime reader of hers, I felt as if Sappho herself had waded from the Aegean to hand me new verse on a scroll. I waited until the public reading was over before opening the envelope and looking at the work on Lexington Avenue. While a close poet friend of mine looked over my shoulder, the moment I read the first sentence of the typed manuscript, I knew that the next issue of the magazine would be its finest. She wrote about her earliest years in Provincetown, with Molly Malone Cook, her life partner, and how poor she was in money, but wealthy in her love and the landscape she occupied.

Although it has been several years since Cook died, after she and Oliver had been a couple for more than forty years, Oliver continues to write poems about an enduring grief and sadness—though her poems are, ultimately, always optimistic, even flamboyant and reverential in their celebration of what is beautiful in nature, yet another reason for her success and popularity. Thirst (Beacon; 2006) was the first volume to address, full-metaphor on, her grief and perplexment at the loss. Although readers can infer that subsequent love has come into her life (apart from her dogs named Percy, of which there have been several), A Thousand Mornings still references such lingering turmoil. In the poem “Hurricane,” she describes both a real, wind-blown one, as well as “the other one…of a different sort, and lasted longer. Then/I felt my own leaves giving up and/falling. The back of the hand to/everything.”

In the book’s namesake poem, which describes a night where “my heart makes its way/however it can over the rough ground/of uncertainties”, she cites her belief that the night is always “overwhelmed by morning”, a time “for redbird/to sing.” That redbird makes another colorful flight in her 2008 book, Red Bird, where she writes as the first stanza, “Red bird came all winter/firing up the landscape/as nothing else could”, concluding that “I am grateful/that redbird comes all winter/firing up the landscape/as nothing else can do.” 

A Thousand Mornings may likely take you only a couple of mornings to read fully, though its imagery will last, well, you know, that many more mornings. And much of the imagery and subject matter in these 36 poems will be familiar to those who have read Oliver before—dreams of her beloved dog, Percy, foxes, black garden snakes, white herons, a soliloquy about the meaning of prayer. Much is familiar and that is a comfort to readers. But nothing is predictable. And that is poetry.