Book Review: Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume Two



For someone who has written two books of poetry, I am, perhaps, not as regular a reader of poetry as I should be. I do not keep track of the many vibrant internet publications, nor read literary journals regularly. Because I want to support my fellow poets, I end up buying (or sometimes trading) books at readings and events, and reading local poets and new books by friends and acquaintances. Sometimes this is less than rewarding, wanting to like the work, but discovering that even though I find the writers amiable and engaging in person, I don’t quite click with their writing. Though sometimes I do, which is a joy.

I have found that when I read good poetry, and poetry that I connect with, that it often sparks a poetic impulse in me, much more so than the connection between reading prose and writing my own. So, I’ve made it a habit to occasionally buy favourite poets, as well as new ones. This I tend to do whenever I am visiting my family in Hawaii, or on occasional trips to another part of the USA. The American book market is so huge that even in bookstores with vastly reduced poetry sections, there are still interesting books and they are not expensive (unlike in Australia).

By now, I think I’ve bought all of Sharon Olds’ collections, as well as Mark Doty’s (two of my clear favourites), and have a few volumes of James Merrill and Gerald Stern. If in Canada, I make sure I’ve got whatever John Barton has published lately, perhaps Lorna Crozier or Patrick Lane, or as afore-mentioned, poets I’ve met. I usually buy the Best American Poetry series, which I love for allowing the poets to talk about the poems that were selected; and feel neglectful that I have not read one of the two Best Australian Poem anthologies that are published yearly (it surprises me that the Australian market can support two competing anthologies, but I’ll have to explore that further).

On a trip to Hawaii in December 2010, I decided to get to know Mary Oliver. A number of months beforehand, at a ‘5 rhythms’-inspired dance meditation session at the university, the facilitator had closed our two hours with an Oliver poem. It was beautiful: simple and lyrical, evoking the natural world and asking of our place in it. I made a mental note to look her up. And here, at Borders, at an extremely disappointingly reduced poetry section (not even a few shelves) were a few of her books, included two of selected poems. I like ‘Selected Poems’ for the range of work that they offer, and the way they provide introduction and overview. I chose the second Volume, as it includes 42 new poems, as well as 69 older poems chosen from 6 of her 8 last books. I was intrigued by the cover notes announcing that she has won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and is according to the New York Times, “Far and Away, the country’s best-selling poet”.

Right away, I recognised the voice that I’d been introduced to earlier this year. In ‘Mysteries, Four of the Simple Ones’, she addresses the seed-grain, the catbird, the turtle and blue heron in turn, then ties the natural world, her preferred subject, to the act of observing and writing poetry (‘to pluck from the basket the brisk words/ that will applaud them’). I find the form of the poem perfect. The seed-grain gets a short question, and longer questions go to the three animals, she steps into the poem to make a simple summation and celebration, addresses the animals once more by name, and gives the final word to the seed-grain, as if the initial question asked (‘How does the seed-grain feel/ when it is just beginning to be wheat?’) had been suspended in the reader’s unconscious to be completed by the final image of the seed-grain ‘kneeling in the dark earth, its body/ opening into the golden world?’

I was also struck by her openness, her simplicity, and the declarative quality of her words. ‘Today again I am hardly myself./ It happens over and over.’ she explains in “Reckless Poem”. Describing a period of teaching in Indiana, she asks ‘You tell me if it was worth it.’  It reminded me of the collection of Rumi’s work that I read last last year. Simplicity, emotion, and a direct address to the reader. Completely unfamiliar with Rumi, I felt it important to be open to his voice (or the translation of his voice), from a different time and place, in such a different style than other poets I know. I wanted to take him on his own terms and I was charmed (as well as finally understanding why so many people have referenced Rumi over the years.)

In the same way, I wanted to be open to Oliver’s unique voice. But I feel self-conscious to discover that I didn’t love this collection over all. How could I not enjoy such a popular, well-read and celebrated poet? I tired of poem after poem, personifying nature and animals. I found the sentiment veered towards mawkishness (usually avoiding it but teetering on the edge). And while I welcome her celebration of life, I have the feeling that I’d enjoy the poems read individually and occasionally, to remind me of the beauty of silence and nature–instead of, for example, seven poems in a row in the book where she make odes to silence while freshening flowers, then speaks of the virtue of beans, encounters with animals in Indiana, snow crickets and lilies, the natural world, and snow geese with words like delicious, wonderful, good, fancy, happy, lovely and joyfully – I found a sameness in tone and theme, broken sometimes with a tougher vision that appealed to me more: ‘sing of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.’


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