Mary Oliver and Inspiration

maryoliverI was never a full convert to Mary Oliver’s poetry. Heresy, I know, but I dismissed it as ‘greetings cards’ type of poetry – plenty of feel-good factor, but too obvious and too easy to read (and dismiss). Too much of a bestseller?

Was this slim volume of selected poems entitled ‘Felicity’ going to change my mind?

At first, I thought not. The questions were almost touching in their naivety and blandness.

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

Why do people keep asking to see God’s identity papers when the darkness opening into morning is more than enough?

There are plenty of aphorisms, of the type which I thought had died out after the Enlightenment or Oscar Wilde:

All important ideas must include the trees, the mountains and the rivers.

Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still it explains nothing.

The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.

But then I came across the poems about love. And there the freshness, candour, surprise and even platitudes suddenly seemed appropriate when punctuated by breathlessness. You can feel the delight and search for new ways to express an emotion which catches us unawares every single time and makes youngsters of us all.

I did think, let’s go about this slowly. This is important. This should take some really deep thought. We should take small thoughtful steps. But, bless us, we didn’t.

Are the morning kisses the sweetest/ or the evenings/ or the inbetweens?/ All I know/ is that thank you should appear/ somewhere./ So, just in case,/ I can’t find/ the perfect place – / ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Mary Oliver is best known for her close observation of nature – and you won’t find much of that in this volume, so perhaps I am being somewhat unfair to her. So perhaps not the best introduction to her work if you are new to it, but a useful source of quotations for your own poetry? What do you think, am I being unfair to a poet that is appreciated by so many who would otherwise not read much poetry?


11 thoughts on “Mary Oliver and Inspiration”

  1. Argh no I totally agree about Oliver’s poems being mostly utterly unmemorable and sappy, but Wild Geese is famous for a reason, and the love poem(s?) you quote are lovely. Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss her completely…

    1. Interestingly enough, those friends who write creative non-fiction seem to like her most. And her nature poems are very closely and lovingly observed.

  2. Interesting post – I’ve not read Oliver, and poetry is such a difficult thing. For me it has to resonate personally in a much stronger way than prose sometimes. I’m not sure what you quote speaks to me personally – it seems perhaps a little simplistic – but I would have to explore more to be sure!

    1. I think simplistic is a good way to describe it. I feel that if a poem is not offering you something inexpressible as well, if it’s not asking more questions than it answers, it isn’t quite enough for me.

  3. I first read Mary Oliver back in college, and I liked her…I still read her occasionally, but she didn’t grab me by the throat as many poets did during that formative time. I agree that she has mass appeal, and that’s wonderful.

    1. A lot of writer friends really appreciate her, so I was curious to read more and see what it was that I ‘missed’. I enjoyed the poems, some more than others, but yes, I agree, she is not the kind of poet I would read over and over again.

  4. Her poetry may not always be moving, but if it helps people become comfortable with poetry, I think that’s a very good thing. I also think that more – is accessible the word? – poetry is helpful for people who want to try their hand at writing poetry.

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