Monday, September 10, 2012

Mary Oliver—The Poet of the Quiet Places

Mary Oliver, rigt, with Molly Malone Cook, her partner for 40 years at their beloved Cap Cod home.

Mary Oliver, who was born this day in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, semi-rural suburb of Cleveland, is the rare contemporary American poet who is both widely read and critically acclaimed.  She is the best selling American poet whose books are bought and read by people who do not read poetry.  But she has also won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, numerous other honors, and academic recognition despite never completing a bachelor’s degree.
Her work celebrates and explores nature, often as an empowering force of the feminine.  She has mastered, if she did not invent, feminist neo-transcendentalism—which I have no idea is a real school, but should be.  If it has not been described that way elsewhere, I congratulate myself on coining a useful phrase.
The semi-mystical, but plain spoken confabulation of nature with the divine feminine, has not pleased everyone.  Oliver has her critics, particularly among certain feminists who disparage her refusal to be an overtly lesbian writer or to explicitly enter political and social criticism.  Avant-garde circles disparage her refusal to come to grips with gritty modern reality and accuse her of a certain Romantic escapism.
All of this bothers the intensely private and person Oliver not at all.  She blithely continues to pursue the work of a life time in conformity to her own vision.  And millions are glad she does.
Among her foremost fans are Unitarian Universalists.  May Sarton may have been declared “our poet” forty years ago or more, but many more U.U.s read Oliver.  Many probably assume that she is one of us, which she is not.  But the identification is understandable because the UUA’s Beacon Press has been the publisher of her most successful collections and her poems are excerpted several times as readings in the familiar gray hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.  I know many ministers keep her volumes in arm’s reach of their desks and her poems often illustrate sermons.
As a child Oliver enjoyed exploring the creeks and woodlots of her neighborhood.  Her father, a high school English teacher in Cleveland, encouraged her bookish interests and her beginning explorations of poetry at the age of 14.
At 17 Oliver made a pilgrimage to the home of a hero, Edna St. Vincent Millay in upstate Austerlitz, New York where she made friends with the late poet’s sister Norma.  For the next seven years she lived on and off with Norma as a combination companion and an assistant in organizing Edna’s papers.  Thus the leading female poet of the first half of the 20th Century and the closing years and dawn of a new century were linked both spiritually and physically.
After leaving Austerlitz, Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College in the 1950’s, but never graduated.  She began publishing her poems in the usual little magazines and literary journals and was slowly building a reputation.
Late in the decade Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook on a visit back to the Millay home.  The two became an inseparable couple.  Cook became Oliver’s literary agent and documented her and their life together with her photographs.  The couple lived mainly, with a few diversions to college towns where Oliver was called to teach despite her lack of academic credentials, in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod for forty years until Cooks death in 2005.  Oliver continues to live there and draw inspiration from the sand, sea, and sky.
Oliver established herself as a poet to be reckoned with in 1963 with the publication of her first collection, No Voyage, and Other Poems at the age of 28.  She has had a productive career since then.  Among her major works are The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems in 1972;  American Primitive in 1983, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; House of Light  in 1990 which won the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award; New and Selected Poems  in 1992, which won the National Book Award; Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems  in 1999; a book-length poem, The Leaf and the Cloud in 2000; Why I Wake Early  in 2004; Thirst in 2006; and Swan: Poems and Prose Poems in 2010.
Despite her lack of academic credentials, Oliver has had a successful second career as at teacher.  She has taught at Case Western Reserve in her home state of Ohio; been poet in residence at both Bucknell University and Sweet Briar College, and spent nearly ten years at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont.  She has quietly mentored young writers, especially women, and published to admired non-fiction books about the art of verse, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse.
Oliver has seldom granted interviews or encouraged biographical exploration of her life.  She prefers to let her poetry speak for itself.  And so it does, in the great tradition of her most significant influences, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and the woman some say she most resembles, the isolated and private Emily Dickinson. 

Heron Rises From The Dark, Summer Pond
So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings

and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks

of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.

Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is

that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed

back into itself--
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.

And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn't a miracle

but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body

into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.

—Mary Oliver

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