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On Mary Oliver's Poetry

Oliver and The Romantic Tradition

Janet McNew

[McNew’s closely reasoned essay places Oliver’s poetry within the framework of the traditional romantic nature poetry paradigm, revealing striking differences in the relationship of the speaker to her subjects. Numerous examples from a number of poems over several volumes support her contrasts.]

… Why, we might ask, is so much important contemporary criticism in the romantic tradition unable to appreciate the kind of nature poetry that Mary Oliver writes?

The areas of dispute for these distinguished critics of romantic poetry usually involve boundaries – first, of course, between the self and nature, but also by extension between soul and body, consciousness and unconsciousness, subject and object, culture and nature, language and muteness, immortality and death, imaginative poet and immature child, transcendence and immanence. Hence, when we examine the archetypic situation of modern nature poetry … we also recognize the interplay of these mythologically opposed pairs. Furthermore, all of these dichotomies have also been philosophically and mythically related to that most pervasive pair, masculine and feminine. The usual sexual dynamic in romantic nature poetry assumes, therefore, a speaking male subject who explores his relation to a mute and female nature. Finding an authentic place in this traditional pattern presents challenges for women poets …


What Oliver does in her most intense visionary poetry is not so much to defy patriarchal boundaries as to ignore their defining powers. The terms "soul" and "body," for example, do appear in her poetry, but her mischievous phrasing often confuses the expected dichotomy. [Two poems, "Pink Moon – The Pond" and "Humpbacks" provide examples, from which it is concluded that: "In Oliver’s ‘primitive’ world, physicality thus becomes the most visionary spirituality."]


Intensely, sensuous bodily experience repr4sents for Oliver the human in the act of recovering a truth – that we are creatures. Memory of lost childhood sensuality, "splendor in the grass," led Wordsworth to a very different truth. In his "Ode: On Intimations of Immortality," he demoted nature from mother to "homely nurse" because he wanted to claim a more diverse parentage, a patriarchal one with "God, who is our home." Few romantic poets, even those like Wordsworth who wrote to recover a closer relation to nature, finally see themselves as entirely natural creatures, for natural creatures die, and poets, as Wordsworth’s title indicates, must find an imaginative route to immortality. Oliver remains faithful to her attachment to nature. Instead of forsaking the natural for supernatural eternity, her poems follow the cycles of the seasons to image loss and the possibility for renewal. These vast natural cycles, which usually symbolize traps and prison houses for the romantic visionary, are strangely consoling for Oliver. Wedding her close to them holds her close to the deepest mysteries she knows, those of natural transformation. …

Oliver’s visionary goal, then, involves constructing a subjectivity that does not depend on separation from a world of objects. Instead, she respectfully confers subjecthood on nature, thereby modeling a kind of identity that does not depend on opposition for definition. …

At its most intense, her poetry aims to peer beneath the constructions of culture and reason that burden us with an alienated consciousness to celebrate the primitive, mystical visions that reveal "a mossy darkness – / a dream that would never breathe air / and was hinged to your wildest joy ‘ like a shadow" (from Dream Work, p. 64), a dream of oneness with a maternal earth-womb.

From Janet McNew, "Mary Oliver and the Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry," Contemporary Literature 30:1 (Spring 1989), 60, 68, 69, 70, 72, 75.

Oliver’s Other

Vicki Graham

[Graham examines Oliver’s third collection, American Primitive, for poems in which Oliver imaginatively enters the perspective of an Other, often an animal. At the close of her essay, she offers comparisons with native American beliefs, and her concluding remarks may be aligned with those in the essay following hers by Robin Riley Fast.]

Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk. [Graham here inserts a footnote: "For a detailed discussion of the complex relationship between nature and language for women writers see Margaret Homans’s Bearing the Word."] But for Oliver, immersion in nature is not death: language is not destroyed and the writer is not silenced. To merge with the non-human is to acknowledge the self’s mutability and multiplicity, not to lose subjectivity. But few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical "that identification with natur4 can empower women" [a quote from Diane S. Bond’s "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver," Womens Studies 21:1 (1992), p. 1.]


American Primitive ends with fulfillment; the blank space at the end of "The Gardens" implies that Oliver has lost herself in the "body of another." But this loss of self is never permanent. Oliver becomes, in turn, a bear, a whale, a fish, but, as each poem and each subsequent transformation suggests, she returns again to human consciousness and must repeat the process of becoming another over and over. Rooted in the binary oppositions that structure Western thinking, Oliver can never fully escape the teaching of her culture that the mind is divided from the body and identity depends on keeping intact the boundaries between the self an others. Each of the selves Oliver becomes in this collection is self-contained and separate. A bear, like a human, has its own boundaries and becoming bear as Oliver understands this process involves moving back and forth across the boundaries between herself and the bear rather than dissolving the boundaries themselves.

Oliver’s desire to become other through mimesis conflicts with a culturally instilled need to establish a single, unified self, but Oliver neither faces this problem head on nor articulates it clearly as another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, does. Rilke, too, longs to get inside the body of another creature, to "let [himself] precisely into the dog’s center, the point from which it begins to be a dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished." But unlike Oliver, Rilke articulates the consequence of staying there: "For awhile you can endure being inside the dog; you just have to be alert and jump out in time, before its environment has completely enclosed you, since otherwise you would simply remain the dog in the dog and be lost for everything else." It is that "everything else" that Oliver does not want to be lost for. She cannot resign herself to being just "the dog in the dog" because this would mean she would never be a bear or a fish. Giving up human subjectivity would mean, at least as Oliver perceives it, giving up the ability to mime herself into the body of another. It would also mean giving up self-consciousness, knowing who and what she is, as well as the ability to remember and write about the experience. Oliver’s poems suggest that we need language and self-consciousness in order to experience stepping outside of language and the self.

From Vicki Graham, " ‘Into the Body of Another’: Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other," Papers on Language and Literature 30:4 (Fall 1994), 352-353, 366-368

Oliver and Native American History

Robin Riley Fast

Mary Oliver’s poetry offers European-American readers a way of responding to Native Americans and the past we share with them that both acknowledges the history and the consequences of colonization and uses that knowledge to start moving beyond the limits of cultural bias and individual disaffection. …

A strong sense of place, and of identity in relation to it, is central to her poetry. Her poems are firmly located in the places where she has lived or travelled, particularly her native Ohio and New England; her moments of transcendence arise organically from the realities of swamp, pond, woods and shore. The vital importance of native or adopted places, however, renders acute her discomfort about hoe her forebears came to be established in Ohio, and about how white Europeans in general established themselves on this continent – by evicting the Indians for whom, too, a sense of self was (and is) fundamentally bound to place. Oliver’s confrontation with her historically rooted discomfort, and her imaginative rapprochement with Indian ways of being in nature, constitute the political grounding of the poems I will discuss here, and contribute to the intensity of many others where politics is not directly evident but where she seeks a holistic relationship to the world. Her treatment of Indians differs significantly from those of such major white male contemporaries and twentieth-century predecessors as Jerome Rothenberg, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder; her poetry, like theirs, raises questions about the meanings of whites’ literary response to Native experience and culture.


… Oliver’s poems raise questions that strangely echo those she asked so angrily in "Tecumseh": "Where are the Shawnee now? / Do you know?" Why are her living Indians old? Did she stop on the Wind River Reservation or see any Indian people? Do her poems in some sense buy into the myth of the Noble Savage after all? Or is her treatment of Native Americans appropriately tentative and non-presumptuous? As Oliver’s poems generally do not concern human relationships other than the most intimate ones, it is fairly easy, and I think justifiable, to answer "yes" to the last question, let this writer of wonderfully moving and illuminating poetry off the hook, and avoid falling into the ranks of those who demand the right kind of politics of the writer. Nonetheless, such questions remain important, if perhaps unanswerable, for readers inclined to scrutinize the grounds of their own responses to literature and to the worlds that it opens to us. And they are the kinds of questions that we all need to ask, as we come to terms with the plural realities of American literature and culture.

from Robin Riley Fast, "The Native American Presence in Mary Oliver’s Poetry," Kentucky Review 12:1/2 (autumn 1993), 59; 65-66.

The Human and the Nonhuman

John Elder

[In a second, expanded edition of his 1985 Imagining the Earth,  Elder included a final chapter in which he appreciated Oliver’s ability to conceive natural events that she could transfer into textual experiences. But see, below, Dana Phillips’s contrary response.]

… Some of Oliver’s poems proceed from description to a more meditative mode, while in others a declarative or questioning voice may burst out for a line or two right in the middle. But regardless of their sequence, almost all of them manifest a dual impulse, at once to acknowledge the intricate, dynamic realities of nonhuman life and to convey the intense meaning of those realities for one who regards them long and clearly.

“Spring” expresses Oliver’s dual impulse in its most condensed and direct form. … [In that work] Oliver injects, as a separate sentence that links the end of stanza four with the beginning of stanza five, “There is only one question: / how to love this world.” ….

[T]his question seems to represent two main challenges for the poet. One is to register this world, to make room within human consciousness for as many of nature’s specifics as possible. In this respect, Oliver’s art resembles that of Annie Dillard in “The Present,” where she attempts, if only for a moment, to register the manifold life in that particular patch of earth on which she sits. …

[Elder offers examples to suggest that Oliver often resembles Thoreau in his effort to “break through abstraction and convention so tat he might discern the individuality within nature.”]

Such specificity recalls, as well, the haiku tradition with which both the Thoreauvian genre of prose nature writing and contemporary American poetry have strong connections. Like the haiku poet Basho, Oliver pursues the deepest significance of the seasons. But, also like him, she brings the broad contours of nature into focus through pointed particulars. The connection may be illustrated by juxtaposing her lines “It is January, and there are the crows / like black flowers on the snow” [House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), p. 75) with his haiku “A barren branch /  on which a crow alights / – it is autumn” (translation [Elder]).

A second dimension of Oliver’s central question is expressed in her poem “Turtte.” [Elder quotes lines in which a snapping turtle abruptly devours one of the brood of young led by a teal across a pond.]. …. Taking in the particulars of nature  presents an emotional as well as a cognitive challenge. There is no place for sentimental love or simple affirmation in a world like ours, where a predatory snapper cruises the lake. … Oliver is drawn to such moments not simply because of a desire to present the whole picture honestly, but also because in the predators’ single-mindedness she recognizes a special purity of concentration and intention. … [T[he snapper is part of nature, not a violation of it – no matter if seeing it at work does bring a shiver to the soft flesh and tender feeling of the human observer. But Oliver’s achievement in House of Light is more than simply emphasizing the lurker in the depths, or the continuum of decay through which a field of lilies bloom. The ecology o her poems represents her own emotions and ideas as fully integral with nature. …She understands the reality of life through an eosystem and so registers this reality as a psychological and emotional fact.

From John Elder, “Renewing the Question,” Chapter Ten in  Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature, second edition, expanded (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), pp 218-221.  

Sociopolitcs Deferred

Sue Russell

Until 1993, the sexual preference of poet Mary Oliver was a trade secret, albeit not a very well-kept one. If appearance in gay and lesbian anthologies is the main way readers find out such things, Oliver wasn’t giving any clues. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive in 1982 broadened her readership but did not bring this respected poet out of the closet. The timing must have been right when Oliver was announced as the winner of the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems in 1992. Perjaps spurred by "out and proud" winner Paul Monette (nonfiction, Borrowed Time) and Dorothy Allison (fiction, Bastard Out of Carolina), according to an unnamed Lambda Book Report staffer, Oliver took the stage at the award ceremony and thanked both the Democrats and "the light of my life, Molly Malone Cook," the woman to whom she dedicates her books.

Readers searching eagerly on the basis of this new information for lesbian content in Oliver’s work may come away disappointed. And yet, her personal aesthetic clearly aligns her with a lesbian literary tradition. Rhythmically, her poems adjust themselves to the pace of the poet-observer as she makes her way through forests, across meadows, and along the shore in her native habitat on the Atlantic coast. Her deeply held belief in the eternal ebb and flow of the universe may in fact contribute to Oliver’s stubborn refusal to align herself with any one sociopolitical position.


Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture. Poets who choose indirection as a strategy do so, at least in part, because that is what poetry means to them as a form of expression that can transcend its historical context. We owe them the favor of giving their work our fullest attention, no matter what shelf we find it on.

From Sue Russell, "Mary Oliver: The Poet and the Persona," The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 4:4 (Fall 1997), 21, 22.

A Career Overview

Annette Allen

The power of Oliver's highly acclaimed poetry rests in its passionate attention to the natural world which she sees as the source of revelation about ultimate things. Like her romantic predecessors, Oliver locates wisdom in the wilderness she seeks in solitude, where discoveries about the self and nature's otherness can be made. Her poems of thirty years and her recent prose collection, Blue Pastures (1995), reveal an art driven by visionary conviction in a manner similar to her claimed influences, William Blake and Walt Whitman. Expressed in simple language and familiar imagery, evoking dark and joyous states, this vision of nature is often conveyed in an ecstatic voice that compels. Celebratory and spiritual in her poetic vision, Oliver is one of America 's finest nature poets. . . .

Her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems (1963), is rooted in a mythical sense of the land and exhibits simplicity and a fine mastery of form, though some critics found the poems mannered. Like Robert Frost, her plain language and conventional forms could mask attention to an uncommon vision of nature's forces. The poems in The River Styx, Ohio and Other Poems (1972) call up an Ohio heritage and reclaim it through memory and myth, while her chapbooks, Night Traveler (1978) and Sleeping in the Forest (1978), develop the mythic dimension more fully, using themes of dreams, birth, and death. Oliver charts a course in the twenty-six poems of Night Traveler between two worlds, human and natural, where the individual faces loneliness and yearns to transcend the limited human world. In "Winter Sleep," the speaker voices her affinity with the she-bear who is the night traveler of the book's title and whose image, closely identified with the poet, reappears in later work. This desire to merge with nature's kingdom opens Oliver's fourth collection, Twelve Moons (1979), in its first poem, "Sleeping in the Forest," a poem where the poet vanishes over and over into the earth. Crafted thematically, Twelve Moons presents a wholistic vision of natural cycles, balancing these processes, as she does eloquently in the twelve moon poems, with what exists in human experience.

Heralded for its perceptions of the visible world and the lyric intensity of Oliver's voice, American Primitive (1983), like no other collection before it, celebrates union with the natural world, immersion in wood and swamp, and becoming other: bear, owl, or whale. For Oliver, the desire to become another begins with longing that originates in the body, but the mind presents an opposing impulse and attempts to bring the body to self-consciousness. "Blossom" and "The Plum Tree" capture this battle between body and mind in a series of oppositions, and while the poems have an edge of didacticism, the sensuous images triumph. In "Crossing the Swamp" and "August," the speakers in the poems merge easily with the other; in the former, she becomes the swamp, her body sprouting branches from the swamp's life force; in "August," she is the bear, more animal than human. Through Oliver's repeating verbs of desire, American Primitive, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, sings its belief that fusion with nature or merging with the non-human releases the self's multiplicity, fluidity, and ultimate joy.

Widening her vision in Dream Work (1986), Oliver expands her subject matter in an increasingly fluid voice, touching on music and the intimate lives of others in "Consequences," "Robert Schumann," and, in the tribute to her mentor, "Stanley Kunitz." This expansion continues in House of Light (1990) with "Singapore" and "lch Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen," a poem about Mahler on his birthday. As before, the ever-present theme, expressed primarily in poems of four or five line stanzas, is still the sensuous world. Spiritual and prophetic, the poems raise philosophical questions, and in revelatory moments, such as the conclusion of "Wild Geese," they signal the importance of the imagination.

In Oliver's oeuvre, New and Selected Poems (1992), which is structured in reverse chronological order, a prevailing idiom of wonder and awe reigns. Most of the poems bear the unique stamp of an Oliver poem: the solitary speaker bringing her uneasy, questioning spirit to the woods or fields in search of understanding, instruction, even solace. The stylistic hallmarks of conversational tone, plain diction, and momentous endings, which frequent Oliver's past collections, appear in the new poems as well. These poems have their strength, however, in the theme of imagined death, which is the final wedding of human and natural for the poet. Death recurs in the thirty new poems in various manifestations: in the bold images of . "When Death Comes," a poem about the poet's own death; in poignant and urgent lines about the lushness of peonies before death; and stoically in the isolating, falling snow of "Lonely, White Fields."

The companion prose works, A Poetry Handbook (1994) and Blue Pastures (1995), collectively offer Oliver's wisdom about the craft of writing, including the analysis of exemplary poems, and reflection on the necessity of solitude and mystery for a writer's life. Chapters on sound, the line, imagery, tone, and form in A Poetry Handbook serve as Oliver's concise, experienced guide to writing poetry. The observational powers that enrich Oliver's poetry surface in the form of soliloquies in Blue Pastures, providing insight to Oliver's childhood, her poetics and philosophy of nature. She meditates on Whitman as the brother she never had, on the merciless homed owl in its flight, and on language as a door past the self. Her brilliant, empathetic essay on the complex love affair between Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Dillon provokes the larger human question; how can we know another's life? This collection, transcendent like her best poems, confirms Oliver's talent for prose writing, which she began in White Pine (1994), a collection of poems and prose poems looser in structure and, according to several critics, somewhat given to commonplace adjectives and adverbs.

The evocative forty pieces of White Pine continue the intense appeal to nature's otherness in poems such as "Toad," where the creature's unknowing grace contrasts with the knowing, conscious language spoken above him. In all of Oliver's poetry, the otherness of the natural world and her longing to merge with it coexist with doubt about the value of human consciousness from which the language she uses, springs. Oliver struggles with her doubts and desires in the theater of the poem, creating a world of flora and beasts transformed in their greenery and creatureliness by language. . . .

from Encylopedia of American Literature. Steven R. Serafin, General Editor. Copyright 1999 by the Continuum Publishing Company.

Ecocritical Theories

Dana Phillips

[Phillips project is critical and revisionary: an attempt “to rediscover, to complicate, and hence to redefine ecocriticism, which despite the relative newness of the field, or perhaps precisely because of it, some creaky old traditions have found refuge” (p. ix). The fourth chapter  addresses critics who have rejected theory as “needlessly, pointlessly abstract, and therefore less than vital to the everyday practice of scholarship … as a justification of a return to the critic’s traditional task of providing appreciative commentary on works of insight and genius, with a little moral guidance thrown in on the side” (p. 135) .]

Elder fails to recognize that ecology, like other sciences, is reductive, even if it refuses to be reductive in the same way and to the same degree that physics and microbiology are. …Elder’s assumption of ecological and cultural wholeness has as its corollary the assumption that poets must concern themselves with wholeness above all else. …Regrettably, Elder seems to intend the comparison between the poem and the ecosystem, and between poetry and ecology, in its more ethically and “ontologically committed” form, which is why I think it is important to point out the shortcomings in his ideas about both poetry and ecosystems. …Poetry is not a manifestation of landscape and climate, or of anything else, for that matter, apart from the conscious decisions and unconscious motivations of poets, and the structural and aesthetic effects of genres and languages in which they write. …


Elder’s attempts to view literary and ecological values in the same light and in the same terms often bear strange fruit. Consider his reading of Mary Oliver in which the aesthetic supplants the ecological in a way that obscures the difference between the imagined and the actual words. “The ecology of her poem presents her own emotions and ideas as fully integral to nature.”  … He continues: “In describing Oliver’s imagination as ecological, I mean not to make a broad gesture toward her ‘environmental’ imagination but rather to describe a specific, and crucial, element in such poems as ‘Turtle.’ She understands the recycling of life through an ecosystem and also registers this reality as a psychological and emotional fact” [Imagining the Earth, second edition, p.221;  also see above, Elder]. Elder suggests that Oliver’s imagination is religious; he means both that it is taken up with a consideration of such matters of ultimate concern as life and death, and that Oliver as uncanny powers of insight and understanding.  … Elder treats the details of natural history as if they can be rounded off and up, and metaphorically recast by poets in emotionally suggestive terms, without a loss of the specifically ecological meanings that he claims to discover in poem after poem. Thus the movement of nutrients through an ecosystem becomes the ‘”recycling of life,” which suggests incarnation and overlooks the fact that while nutrients may be essential to the maintenance of a life, they cannot be said to have lives of their own.

Elder’s eagerness to see poetry in ecological terms leads him to champion what amounts to a sort of hyperrealism. He describes a passage from Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods “ as an “instance of aural transcription” because it contains a list of the birds that a mockingbird is supposed to have imitated as Oliver listened to it one morning. The list includes the linnet, an Old World finch, which suggests that Oliver’s mockingbird has a remarkably cosmopolitan repertoire of imitations. It must have learned to be a mockingbird not by knocking around among its aviary friends and neighbors, and not by obeying its instincts as a mimic thrush, but by listening to Berlitz tapes.

… When Elder insists that the mockingbird can be transcribed into Standard English, and not just translated, he treats the semantic and the sensual, or sense-making and sensory experience, as if they operated on the same plane and in the same instance. He posits an ecstatic and “poetic” version of the realism that some ecocritics have wanted to see as the saving grace of nature writing in prose. For the ecstatic and “poetic” realist, verbal descriptions can represent the natural world accurately by virtue of the fact that in skilled hands they reproduce its sensual features with absolute fidelity. Because this variety of realism does not recognize the difference between the world as represented verbally and the world as experienced sensually. And this is the sort of earth that ecocriticism should treat with all the circumspection it can muster.

from Dana Phillips, “Art for Earth’s Sake,” Chapter Ten in The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America (New York: Oxford University Press,  2003), pp. 155-156, 158-159.

Oliver and the Spiritual

John Gatta

[Gatta’s book-length study examines literature and religion in relation to the environment in American writing from the Puritans to the present. His comments on Oliver place her alongside Gary Snyder , Wendell Berry, and Pattian Rogers in a final chapter that associates the “religious” in contemporary ecopoetry with an open-ended love that is especially inclusive toward that which is unloveable; this work indicates “a resurgent, unexpectedly resilient strain of spirituality in contemporary American poetry (p. 226)]

A novel feature of this ecological spirituality is its emphasis on reciprocal restoration. … As Mary Oliver puts it, “the pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny” [from Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999, p. 101.)]


While ecopoetic meditation characteristically aims to integrate interiority with landscape by way of imagination, its outward focus differs from one writer to another. … Mary Oliver’s reflections ix most memorably on predators – hawk, bear and snapping turtle – commonly found in the Northeast. Ordinarily, too, Oliver prefers to concentrate attention by setting these images of non-human life within the frame of unpeopled landscapes.

While campaigns for environmental reform often appeal to humankind’s sense of duty or fear of self-destruction, the poets we are considering typically invoke love. Mary Oliver, in her poem “Spring,” announces the theme quite overtly when she describes a black bear’s emergence from hibernation. Identifying the bear’s own silent, primal and sensuous awakening as “perfect love,” the poet declares: “There is only one question: / how to love this world.” What does she mean? Is this love of earth anything but sentimental enthusiasm?

For Oliver, [Gary] Snyder, and the rest, earth-love seems to involve, in the first place, familiarity with one’s environment, attentiveness to its biotic and topographical details. Oliver’s black bear, whose moving fists and tongue connect her unself-consciously to the waking world, is evidently at home in the place where she finds herself. … [Oliver] knows she will never become identical to that black bear in “Spring” whose aboriginally sensate, direct communion with her environment the poet dreams of emulating. Simply imagining the experience of this animal, which the poet never claims to observe directly, ties her spiritually to the “dazzling darkness” of her own animal origins. [Mary Oliver, “Speing,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 70]. …

Another form of earth-love involves the poet’s struggle to accept natural processes that seem cruel or absurdly profligate from the standpoint of humanistic values. In “Turtle” Mary Oliver displays compassion for the predator no less than for its prey. … In “Nature”  she celebrates the owl’s wild instinct of hunting by night, finding in this bloody ritual a “true gift” and inevitability of nature “which is the reason / we love it.” The poem’s unrelenting cadences and lack of end-stopped lines reinforce this theme. And though the poet is troubled at first by the imperfection of nibbled lilies that crowd the black waters of summer in “The Ponds,” she finally asserts her will to believe in the transcendent prospect of floating “a little / above this difficult world.” To love the world is to look beyond imperfection to an affirmation that she is indeed “looking / into the white fire of a great mystery.” [Mary Oliver, “Nature” and “The Ponds” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992, pp. 90, 93.]

From John Gatta, “Learning to Love Creation: The Religious Tenor of Contemporary Ecopoetry,” Chapter Ten in Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present (New York :Oxford University Press, 2004), pp.: 226-227, 227-228,  234-26.

Oliver and the Philosophical Tradition

J. Scott Bryson

[Bryson situates ecopoetic themes in Oliver (and in Wendell Berry, Joy Harjo and W. S. Merwin) to align them with worlds constructed spatially and temporally by philosophers and theorists.]

… Oliver’s poetry proceeds out of a phenomenological worldview centered in the body’s fundamental relatedness to the rest of nature. As such, it rests on a place-centered poetics that allows her momentarily to enter the consciousness of her natural subjects. As a result of her awareness of this bodily collection, Oliver frequently and intentionally employs the pathetic fallacy. But she does so in a highly self-conscious manner that signifies her awareness of her inability actually to speak for nature, since she is  merely “the imaginer.” Thus her poetics are space-centered as well. In other words, Oliver response to the dualistic crisis proceeds out of a deep desire to play the role of related participant in the world she observes; however, with this ever-preset awareness that real connection between herself and the rest of the world most often takes place as only an act of the imagination.


… Poet Vicki Graham explains that ‘’over and over the speaker of Oliver’s poems reminds herself to look, to touch, to see, and to smell. Only by yielding to her senses can she get close to the ‘real’” [the quote is from Vicki Graham, " ‘Into the Body of Another’: Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other," Papers on Language and Literature 30:4 (Fall 1994), 355; also see, Graham above]. In both of her recent prose handbooks on poetry, Oliver discusses this idea, spelling out her understanding of the relationship between nature and the body and sounding a great deal like Merleau-Ponty:

We experience the physical world around us through our five senses. Through our imagination and our intelligence, we recall, organize, conceptualize, and meditate. What we meditate upon is never shapeless or filled with alien emotion – it is filled with all the precisely earthly things that we have ever encountered and all of our responses to them. The task of the meditation is to put disorder into order. No one would need to think, without the initial profusion of perceptual experience [Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, (Orlando: Harcout Brace, 1994), p. 105].

As Oliver proceeds from this phenomenological assertion, she explains that poetry evolves directly out of the relationship between nature and the body:

The natural world has always been the great warehouse of symbolic imagery. Poetry is one of the ancient arts, and it began, as did all the arts, within the original wilderness of the earth. Also, it began through the process of seeing, and feeling, and smelling, and touching, and then remembering – I mean remembering words – what these perceptual experiences were like, while trying to describe the endless invisible fears ad desire of our inner lives. [Poetry Handbook, p. 106].


… For [Yi-Fu] Tuan, place, along with culture, offers a feeling of connection to the world ad thus the means to “forget our separateness  and the world’s indifference” [Yi-Fu Tuan and Gretchen Holstein Schaff, Two Essays on a Sense of Place (Madison: Wisconsin Humanities Committee, 1988),p. 44], but it does so only through decision, in that no matter how strongly we feel related to an other, that feeling is, to a significant extent, illusory. So for Tuan, the only reasonable response to the modern crisis is to “acknowledge the reality of ‘islanded’ selves and the world’s indifference, peer ‘beyond’ the carapaces of place ad culture in all their myriad enthralling forms, and by thus putting a slight distance between us and what we create, recognize not only their necessity and power to delude but also their goodness and beauty” [Two Essays, pp. 44-45]. Tuan advocates that we accept modern alienation as fact; that we recognize the delusional nature of place and culture; and that we acknowledge both the “necessity and power” and the “goodness and beauty” of the delusions in helping us to deal with the perceived rift between people and nature.

The response Tuan endorses mirrors that of Oliver, whose work at its best weaves in and out among several philosophical perspectives. Unlike many traditional nature poets, she embraces the fact that the world is indifferent, and that in many ways, primarily as a consequence of her human logic and rationality, hers is an “islanded” self. Yet at the same time she realizes that the material and biological essence of her body serves as a significant point of relation between herself and the Others surrounding her. This awareness of relatedness leads to place-making, as Oliver uses her personifying poetry to enter the world of the nonhuman subjects around her; she also invites them to enter her own, thus imagining a place-full world that serves as home for human and nonhumans alike. Yet she tempers attempts at connection with a space-conscious awareness of her essential ability to achieve either goal; the chasm between herself and nonhuman nature is so wide.

From J. Scott Bryson, “Both Sides of the Beautiful Water: Mary Oliver,” Chapter Four in The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space and Ecopoetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005), pp. 78, 85-86, and 96.


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