Jim Schley's Essays

Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early: New Poems (Beacon Press, 2004).

Mary Oliver is among the nation’s best-selling poets, with a Pulitzer and a National Book Award among her accolades for 13 collections of poetry and 5 prose books. Those who love Oliver’s work are now so numerous and enthusiastic that I hesitate to express such disappointment with her new book, Why I Wake Early

Oliver’s poems are distinctively accessible, even for those not especially accustomed to poetry’s sometimes disorienting forms and stratagems. Engaged in an effort to grasp the enormity of the natural world through immediate, particular encounters with birds and animals or phenomena such as water and weather, Oliver has been lauded as a prophet by ecologists, gardeners, animal-rights advocates, and spiritual seekers. Many of us have been to weddings, anniversaries, graduations, and funerals where one of her poems has been read, eliciting nods and murmurs. 

In the characteristic Oliver poem, the physical landscape — and by implication, human society and the metaphysical universe — are invoked via the minuscule details of small things. Also typical is the narrator’s habit of exclaiming a sudden realization: 

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!

       What a task

          to ask

of anything, or anyone,

yet it is ours,

    and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.

Oliver’s writing addresses states of mind and emotion that could be called religious — ecstatic and contemplative. While the rhymes in the passage just quoted are deft indeed, in many of the new poems the phrasing lacks friction and tension, and the metaphorical equations seem somehow too easy, lacking the excitement of a spark leaping a gap:

Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we

only look and see.

A 21st-century writer aspiring to sow and harvest in the long-furrowed field of religious poetry is treading alongside such 19th-century geniuses of anguish and revelation as Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Contemporary poets who have unfashionably yet energetically immersed themselves in religious questions include Wendell Berry, especially in his marvelously tensile Sabbath poems, collected in A Timbered Choir; Denise Levertov, for example in her searching, subtle final book, This Great Unknowing; Jane Hirshfield in a series of gorgeous books combining Buddhist self-effacement with a decidedly personal (and comic) mental dynamism; and Mark Jarman in his new volume, To the Green Man (Sarabande, 2004), where a struggle with uncertainty yields intellectual turmoil and verbal vigor. And we’ve just seen the passing of arguably the greatest writer of our time, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz — chronicler of spiritual inquiry amid geo-political catastrophes — who died on August 14, 2004.

This not unsympathetic reader recognizes in Oliver’s new poems an intelligence that is conscientious and kindly. Yet too often Oliver succumbs to what Ruskin called the "pathetic fallacy," personifying wild creatures or inanimate entities with anthropomorphic attitudes or meaning, thereby subsuming them into our human moral predicament. The writing in these passages goes chatty and rhapsodic, or slippery and moist, lacking the piercing detail of more objective descriptions of natural creatures, which are of course utterly different from us. 

Of a lily, for instance, she writes that "maybe"

it says nothing at all

  but just stands there

     with the patience

of vegetables

   and saints

      until the whole earth has turned around

         and the silver moon

becomes the golden sun —

   as the lily absolutely knew it would,

      which is itself, isn’t it,

         the perfect prayer?

So many of her flowers have "faces," so many of her animals and plants have loneliness and "patience" and certain knowledge of the future. I may be callous to object, but reading Why I Wake Early I kept on experiencing a kind of squeamishness one feels hearing someone testify to a rapturous "communion" with God or nature that cannot be readily shared. I have no difficulty comprehending these poems, but because very little effort is required of me as reader, I am left out of their emotional orbit, left to respect their rhetorical flourishes and apparent passion without partaking.

To me the most engaging and powerful poems in the book are those that are briefer, more enigmatic — glimpses of situations (a hospital room,  the unearthing of an arrowhead, the sense of constant "breakage" at a seashore) or apparitions (a blacksnake swimming, clouds in flux, a toad) that require an intensified alertness to "picture" and understand. One poem, entitled "Bear," describes the poet’s sight of a large footprint in the trail and her resulting awareness that the whole landscape is "aflutter" with menace. That’s a sensation I seek when reading poems, as well.

In a world of so many difficulties, it no doubt sounds strange to complain that a book of poems isn’t difficult enough, but alas, Mary Oliver’s new work seems more proverbial than poetic. 

Jim Schley teaches writing and Native American Studies at the Community College of Vermont.