Wonderful in So Many Ways: New and Selected Poems: Mary Oliver

oliverI’m going to try not to get gushy in this review, but let me just say that Mary Oliver’s collected poems in New and Selected Poems are amazing. They have single-handedly revived my belief in poetry’s purpose and place in our contemporary moment. I had gone through a bit of a lull with poetry, in part because I had been reading some average poetry and in part because my own attempts at poetry fell so utterly flat. Mary Oliver is an extremely talented poet and the contents of this book are astonishing. I found myself writing poems down on pieces of paper to post up around my two work spaces.

I should warn readers though, that she is, at heart, a nature poet. I do not mean that label as a kind of parochial tag, but in the sense that she finds most of images and meaning in the natural world. This is not to say that she is a poet of the wilderness, but rather that she draws on the world she lives in (New England and Ohio). She often writes about bears, birds, insects, grasses, ponds, trees, and the like. However, I think the couple of lines from her poem “The Lamps” suggest more of what she is after:

“You wish it would never change –

But of course the darkness keeps
Its appointment. Each evening,

An inscrutable presence, it has the final word
Outside the every door.”

She is after human experience and the “human condition.” While I find myself cringing away from such a word, I can not quite describe her approach beyond that. She writes about life, death, desire, joy, sorrow, and dreams. These are not unique things to any one person or people, but could more accurately be called “human” traits (although there is evidence to suggest that animals do have emotions and dreams). She favours short lines and precise diction, doing a surprising amount of work with so few words.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to travel across North America on a bicycle. It was an amazing trip, but one of the things that surprised me most was that I found myself wanting to travel even slower than on the bike. I wanted to walk across the continent because from the bicycle seat it felt like I was moving too fast and missing too much. Reading this collection of poetry evoked a similar feeling. I wanted to spend time with each poem, reading and re-reading them to dig out their meaning and flavour. Unfortunately, 10-10-12 does not allow for that, so I think I am going to find myself struggling with this over the course of the year. Poetry demands slowness and I love it for this (even when I’m trying to quickly scan a few poems an hour before I have to teach them).

I am quite sure that Mary Oliver is going to be a writer that I come back to many times over the years. Her words and lines have a way of nourishing the soul (or mine at least), in a non-cheesy way. I am kind of surprised that I had not encountered her work at any length before, but am glad to have met a new traveler.

I highly recommend this book of poems to any lover of poetry.

I’ve listed some of my favourites below:
“Entering the Kingdom” “Gannets,” “Hawk,” “The Sun,” “Five A.M. in the Pine Woods,” “The Ponds,” “Dogfish,” “Wild Geese,” “Ghosts,” “Vultures,” “The Fish,” “Humpbacks,” “The Family,” “Ice,” “At Blackwater Pond,” “Spring in the Classroom,” “Learning About the Indians,” “The Esquimos Have No Word for ‘War’,” “Magellan,” “Going to Walden,” “No Voyage,” “Beyond the Snow Belt,” “A Dream of Trees,” “The Murderer’s House,” “On Winter’s Margin”


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