The Magazine

Natural Poet

Environmental lyrics are more appealing than political verse.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By ELI LEHRER
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Some other parts of Red Bird don't work as well. A cycle of 11 linked love poems--quite possibly a eulogy for her recently deceased life partner and literary agent, Molly Cook--overflows with genuine emotion and love but falls flat in its poetic efforts to condense and channel that emotion, sometimes resorting to crude sexualized metaphor and occasional dead moments.

One poem, "So Every Day," reads in full:

So every day

I was surrounded by the beautiful

crying forth

of the ideas of God,

one of which was you.

It's well worded--"beautiful crying forth" has a nice ring--but "So Every Day" presents little more than a passing thought that relies more on the reader than the poet to provide emotion. Even in the context of the poetic cycle, the thought she expresses never really gets finished.

And when Oliver takes on politics in a serious way, her verse becomes decidedly mediocre. One poem, "Of the Empire," stands out for its sheer loathing for a public that doesn't always share her political views:

they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of

the heart, and that the heart, in those days,

was small, and hard, and full of

The problem isn't stinginess of spirit--poets from Chaucer onward have gotten enormous mileage out of hate--but, rather, banality. Oliver wants readers to snap into lockstep agreement with her sweeping statements rather than providing an emotional reason for doing so.

While she does well describing nature, her efforts at political poetry show a tin ear and obtuse sensibility totally out of tune with the wonderfully sensitive muse behind her other work. Luckily, Oliver or her editors seem aware of these limitations: The political poems are buried in the middle of Red Bird, and the stronger environmental works open and close it with vigor and force.
As with most artists, Mary Oliver's talent has its limits. But her poetry is rigorous, beautiful, well written, and offers genuine insights into the natural world. Even those who disagree with her strong views should read it.

Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.