Arts, Books — July 18, 2012 12:47 pm

Overcoming Our Fear Of Poetry, Mary Oliver Style

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Here’s the thing about poetry: I love it. Here’s the other thing about poetry: a lot of people don’t. My (admittedly biased) theory is that poetry–like many other things in this beautiful and complicated life–is something that carries so much baggage for people that they are unable or unwilling to see their supposed aversion to it for what it really is: fear. I mean, who wants to admit that they’re scared of a silly little poem? Balderdash!

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But seriously. People are afraid of poetry. Afraid of the stillness and focus it requires, afraid of the emotions it illuminates, and afraid of looking stupid because they just don’t ‘get it.’ Especially that last one, I think; especially that last one. For some reason, poems have been built up as the highest literary art in our collective unconscious–the riskiest reading (or writing) endeavor one can undertake. Perhaps it’s as a result of the Modernist overthrow of “tradition,” when all of a sudden everything got weird and puzzling and you weren’t really supposed to know what was going on. There’s just so much dissecting to do, we’re taught–poetry is nothing but work.

Well, yes, given the concentrated nature of a poem, the intentionality of it–and therefore the demand to “understand” it–is more glaring than prose, which can seem to just “flow” because…I don’t know? It’s more similar to how people actually speak? Prose is just as ripe for examination, though. Maybe we’ll get into that next week. For now, I want to use this little plot of blogosphere that I’ve been oh so graciously lent to, hopefully, get you excited about one particularly talented and also accessible (read: not scary) American (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) poet, Mary Oliver.  Specifically, I want to take a look at her book of poems entitled Dream Work (1986).

Now, if you are a lover of nature–if being with the sunshine and the trees and the wild animals is where you find your god or yourself or however you want to put it–then Mary Oliver is the poet for you, and Dream Work is a great place to meet her.  And if you are the type of person who likes to consider deep things, who likes to ponder abiding truths, who appreciates comforting and challenging thoughts put better than you ever could–again, pick up a copy of Dream Work. And if one or both of the above things are true about you, but you don’t have the patience for ‘difficult’ or ‘enigmatic’ or, some would say, ‘pretentious’ poetry, then Oliver is most definitely a woman you need to meet. (Figuratively, of course. I was being poetic.)

Okay, enough proselytizing. Let’s get to some of the poems!  There a couple of ways I could go about this. One is to focus on a particular poem or two as an introduction to Oliver and this collection of hers; but, given that this is meant to be more of a generalized review/recommendation and given that I have limited space with which to work, I think I’ll just offer some of my favorite lines from a number of the book’s poems and let you decide where you want to go from there.  Hopefully where you’ll go is out to pick up some of her work. I’ve been told it’s a free country though, so do whatever you want; I don’t care. (I kind of care.)

Let’s begin with a stanza from “Morning Poem”:

there is still

somewhere deep within you

a beast shouting that the earth

is exactly what it wanted–


God that’s good. Right? I told you so. Or how about this one, from “Wild Geese” (my favorite of the collection):

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.


Sometimes she gets serious, as in “Two Kinds of Deliverance”:

…the wrinkled face

of an old Chippewa

smiling, hating us,

dancing for his life.

And sometimes more sentimental, as in “”Starfish”:

while I lay on the rocks, reaching

  into the darkness, learning

     little by little to love

        our only world.

So what do you think? Amazing, huh? She rocks my world. And really, any collection of hers is a great investment. I revisit her poetry on a regular basis, and it continues to inspire my mind and elevate my spirit. So get thee to a bookstore, dear readers!

BUT, before you go–in the spirit of Mary Oliver, who tends to ask a lot of questions–I have a enquiry for you: what poets would you recommend? Especially for those of us reluctant to get into the genre. I talk too much; let’s start collaborating!

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  • That book is one of my favorite books of Mary Oliver. Another poet who is connected to the land, but in a different way, is William Stafford. He’s my favorite poet. I wrote him a letter once and he wrote me back! That was so cool.

  • Wild Geese is one of my favorites ever.
    <3 mary oliver.

  • This is good- especially the introduction. There is a stillness required by poetry akin to meditation or prayerfulness. Like you said, having to deal with that kind of focus and forcing yourself to linger over a poem and the prospect of doing all that and then still not grasping it is intimidating.
    If you haven’t read Maurice Manning’s “The Common Man”, it is definitely worth a look. He’s interested in place, tradition and the import of those things on the present. Form and content-wise, it is (in my opinion) pretty accessible; part of his project is taking stories and using common speech rhythms and transmuting that into something new and poetic.

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