Saturday, January 20, 2007

"A Doorway into Thanks": Mary Oliver's Thirst

(response to THIRST, poems by Mary Oliver, 2006)

Everyone expects some virtuosity in art. "Even I could do that!" means the painting (or poem, or song) isn't even worth disliking. I've heard people say that about music by John Adams, and they were mistaken (see earlier blog entries on him). Now I'm tempted to say the same things about these poems by Mary Oliver.

Take for instance the second poem in this collection, "Walking Home from Oak-Head." It begins with the phrase, "There's something about the snow-laden sky in winter. . . ." How many cards in the drug store right now begin the same way? "There's something about a Mother. . . There's something about a good friend. . . There's something about (fill in the blank). . . ." Then, Oliver's poem is about stopping by woods on a snowy evening. Whose idea this is, I think I know! Without the complex rhyme scheme in Frost's poem, this one proceeds in groups of little lines, each indented one step beyond the one before.

do that.

Yet, I'll admit it: there really is something about a snow-laden sky in winter that causes "elation," just as Oliver says, and I'm kind of glad that she made me remember it. And when she describes the snow's falling "casually, then irrepressibly," that's nice, too, though not remarkable.

We expect, if not virtuosity in word play and compression, then at least some kind of insight that might not have occurred to us. Here, again, Mary Oliver finds some angles on things that, while not revelatory, are at least pleasantly reminiscent. There's a poem from the perspective of the patient donkey in the gospel that bears Jesus into Jerusalem, whose burden turns out to be -- as Jesus said in another context -- light. Several poems here focus on a dog named Percy, or maybe a series of dogs named Percy, whose cavorting on the beach provides me with vicarious pleasure and reminds me to try to accept the present as dogs do. My own pups teach me the same lesson.

Now, this particular collection of poems is, I understand, a departure for Ms. Oliver. She's had a reputation for politically stringent, environmentalist verse. But this book collects poems published in such periodicals as The Episcopal Times, Spiritus, and Nature and Spirituality. Following the death of a long-time partner, Mary Oliver went into an orthodox Christian church - whether RC or Episcopal, I'm not certain. Several poems here refer to newfound faith, prayer, and eternal life. Has faith made her "soft?"

One insight does emerge from the collection, which, along with those pleasant images and reminders, is enough for me to want to keep this collection nearby. It is that poetry and prayer and perhaps even the secret to a good (and eternal) life is simply what she describes in a poem called "Praying." You "pay attention" and "patch a few words together"...

                             . . .this isn't 
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

That feels right. Poetry, like prayer, doesn't have to be about virtuosity. I'm satisfied with any "doorway into thanks."


Deborah Fries said...

Scott, this comment is actually in response to a 2006 post of yours. Remember the line Ted Kooser uses in Poetry Home Repair Manual? Can you suggest a poem that's a really good example of "lifting the eyes"?

Virginia Wieringa said...

I absolutely love this poem- maybe I'm just a Hallmark kinda girl! I appreciate your analysis of it, but anything that stops me in my tracks like Praying by Mary Oliver is a good poem in my book.