by Mary Oliver
Beacon, 96 pp., $23
In a land where few poets can make more than a pittance off their verse, Mary Oliver stands
as a commercially successful outlier.
Although it will never show up in supermarket checkout lines, her work always tops the modern poetry bestseller lists at Amazon.com and in the trade journal Book Sense. And while Oliver has spent a good part of her adult life on college campuses, she never held a traditional tenure track position or earned a college degree. Indeed, for the past seven years, she's supported herself entirely through writing. In all, she has written almost 20 books and, although she's produced a textbook and innumerable essays, her output has remained largely metrical. And while she's won nearly every major award available to American poets, she's probably more popular on the high school level than in college, and more popular still with the small but active poetry-reading public.
She has an obvious, well-deserved appeal: At her best, Mary Oliver writes genuinely good, truly accessible poetry. Most of the poems in this latest collection concern her own impressions of the natural world. And when she sticks to that topic, she ranks among the finest poets the English language has ever produced. Whether she's describing a caterpillar's transformation (it expressed itself into the most beautiful thing) or describing her own mystical connection to birdsong (I listen hard / to the exuberances of / the mockingbird and the owl, / the waves and wind)--she almost always can come up with striking, resonant images.
The surprising, active verb formulation "expressed itself"--all the more arresting on the page because it's separated from the rest of the poem with a blank line--expresses the wondrous nature of a squirmy bug's transformation into a thing of great beauty. Likewise, the juxtaposition of the birds and earth forces in that second example brings home the undeniable interconnectedness of nature.
Above all, Oliver's poetry mixes two kinds of spirituality: interest in a creator god, and an almost rapturous love for creation. This newest collection overflows with a true, honest respect for all of nature. The image of Red Bird--which pervades the collection--may sum up her view of the world better than anything. In the final poem, the "Red Bird Explains Himself," the bird speaks for itself in profound terms:
If I was the song that entered your heart
then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,
and thus wilderness bloomed there, with all its
followers: gardeners, lovers, people who weep
for the death of rivers.
And this was my true task, to be the
music of the body.
This, more than anything else, outlines the essentials of Oliver's philosophy. Her odd juxtapositions of observations about lilies and ravens work just as well as her recounting of things she saw while walking. In other words, Oliver exalts a romantic--that is, emotional above all else--sense of the natural world combined with a transcendental love for the environment. God, although not absent, remains a formal, distant deity while the natural world and the world itself, along with the "ghosts of Emerson and Whitman" (Oliver's leading intellectual forbears), seem far more important than any heavenly spirit.
She's clearly earned her place as a poet laureate for romantic environmentalists. Oliver observes with a great sensitivity, and puts her impressions in verse in a way that few can match. She's almost never obscure but, unlike Ted Kooser--long the unofficial laureate of the environmental movement--her poetry rewards multiple, careful rereadings. She's a perceptive, rigorous muse of a modern environmental religion.
For those not given to romantic reverence about the natural world, some of her ideas and concepts may seem foreign. But to ignore Oliver on this basis would be to deny the beauty of the psalms to those outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, or the power of the Bhagavad Gita to non-Hindus. Oliver speaks plainly, carefully, and beautifully for those who place protection of the Earth above all other interests.
Beyond her observations of the natural world, however, Oliver's craft fades. True, she shows a modicum of real talent in comic verse about her dog Percy. Whether she's imagining Percy's emotional advice, or hoping that he could somehow convince the secretary of defense to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, she's funny and interesting if unapologetically slight.
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
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.