What We’re Reading: Winter 2018

On Reading Mary Oliver

Leonard Lang

As you may have seen in the intro for this issue, I was recently not so much reading Mary Oliver as recommending her. That led me to explore what Oliver has been up to recently as I’ve not actively sought her out for a number of years. That in turn led me to the discovery that all that I most admire in her work is exactly what I’ve learned upsets at least some literary critics. Her poems are lyrical, especially about the natural world—that’s so 19th century of her. Wonder—how naïve.

On the other hand, I also found a defense of Oliver by Ruth Franklin in the November 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.  I didn’t know Oliver needed a defense until then, but Franklin points out that “perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. None of her books has received a full-length review in the Times.” Not that she needs one as she’s likely as well known and beloved as any poet in America today. She also has received such old-fashioned awards as a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.  No need to feel bad for Oliver.

It just took me aback to think there was not only criticism, which can be part of a  helpful cultural discussion, but such lazy dismissal of her work as when Stephen Burt wrote a smug lefthanded compliment in the Times, “Oliver should continue to please those who seek uncomplicated wonder and spiritual consolation.”

Others speak similarly. A New York Times columnist  David Orr wrote this brief putdown in a larger column, ”… Mary Oliver, about whose poetry one can only say no animals were harmed in the making of it.”  Clever, yes, but in a way that again misses Oliver’s value.

To be fair the Times also has published a piece on Oliver where Orr and other critics are quoted but also rebutted. And the critics are right in part, too, but only about her weakest pieces. When her poems don’t work, they fall too easily into startling conclusions that haven’t really been fully developed or earned, given what she’s presented. But in so many of her poems, and not only the wildly famous ones (and yes, she  uses that word wild far too often), she pulls us into nature—the natural world and our own as in ”Ghosts” about the lost animals of our plains. In the final stanza of that poem, 7, she has a dream and watched as

a cow gave birth
to a red calf, tongued him dry and nursed him
to a warm corner
of the clear night
in the fragrant grass
in the wild domains
of the prairie spring, and I asked them,
in my dream I knelt down and asked them
to make room for me.

Does this offer spiritual consolation? Perhaps. But not in the negative sense implied by the critic. How about uncomplicated wonder? Yes, but what other kind is there?  Or must we recover from wonder with immediate rush of cynical stories to prove we have a more complicated experience than just wonder? What’s fun and impressive about Oliver is that she is constantly pinching herself to wake up into life, not a sentimental simple life, but into the simple wonder when we notice we are part of the complexity and mysteriousness that is life and for that matter, death.

Oliver’s wonder comes from reconciling our apparently isolated egos/selves with everything else that seems other. Oliver wrote in her essay collection, Upstream, …the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart” and perhaps even the hearts of literary critics, magazine editors, and aspiring adolescent poets.