Mary Oliver

Specificity in Nature: Mary Oliver

I’m reading a volume of her New and Selected Poems right now, so I decided to see who she is. The book came with one of those annoying labels on it, this one claiming that Oliver is by far the best-selling poet in America. She dropped out of college to become a poet and ended up winning a Pulitzer and National Book Award. Not bad. Of course, she had a day job, and didn’t publish anything for the first 25 years. I like what she has to say about the work of writing: “If anyone has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day–which is what I did.”

Her poems aren’t pretty-pretty nature poems; they contain detailed description and interpretation of the natural world and our place in it. When she talks about a place and the life that dwells in it, you not only come out understanding something about that place, you feel the experience of observing. Bleah, that doesn’t sound like it means anything. Maybe some day I’ll think of some better way to say it.

She lives in New England, where she is still very much alive and working, though her long-time partner and agent, Molly Malone Cook, is dead. Ms. Oliver held a bunch of chairs at various colleges, but it looks like at this point she’s retired from day-to-day teaching. Here’s a beautiful example of her style: http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~richie/poetry/html/aupoem142.html

For some reason what came to me was this whimsical thing:

How many suns will rise today? (Wedding ode)

Our sun married, and brought home his wife
to be queen of unexpected energy:
the kind that hovers around a woman’s nipple
and frames the curve of her lips.

Violets and weeds of spring, and every flowering tree
hold up their arms to greet the newlyweds.
Even the birds look up
into the blushing eye of their queen.

She draws her face out from sleep, and presents to the horizon
a night-time smile on her daylight self.
Then our Sun pushes a lock of hair from her eyes
and fastens it behind her ear with a clip of beauty.

She offers him a cup of red
that imparts a new luster about his brow.
Solar flares arc up when they kiss,
and clouds give them cover of discretion.

Let every cricket and beetle shine
with light unto itself!
Let morning trumpet an unhurried sound
subtle as the breath of a snake.

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