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New and Selected Poems

By Mary Oliver 

Original and Current Publisher: Beacon Press

Kiki Petrosino writes:

Some poems feel like enemy encampments. You snap on your flak jacket and helmet, backing into spiny thickets of adverbs, or struggling for purchase on a jagged field of enjambment. But reading Mary Oliver is like sheltering in a beautiful tree-house at dusk. It’s like sitting, cross-legged, on the plain wooden floor with your best friend from childhood. It becomes possible, in Oliver’s world, to understand nature as a passageway to a place enchanted by inquiry. The surfaces of leaves might be treasure maps; a wasp’s nest, “the porch of [a] paper castle.”

That’s not quite right, of course. I can’t really imagine being allowed inside a tree-house with the speaker of Oliver’s poems. This is a poet of solitude, of lonely walks, and the poignancy of her verse derives from her incredible gift for introspection. Many of the pieces in New and Selected Poems (for which Oliver won the National Book Award) read like monologues or soliloquies, but this is not drama that belongs on any stage. Instead, to read Oliver is to experience what thought feels like—to feel how observation and contemplation come together to make an inner shape in the mind, something like water in a cup.

In the systems of nature, Oliver finds ever more proof of humanity’s fallenness, but there’s still room for joyful, even ecstatic, speech. We’re privy to the great intimacy of Oliver’s discourse, the personal lexicon that lights her way to the revelation at the heart of each poem. Take this section of “Whelks,” for example:

When I find oneI hold it in my hand,
I look out over that shaking fire,
I shut my eyes. Not often,
but now and again there’s a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be
that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.

Like a musical composition, Oliver’s language rivets us not because it corresponds to the concrete realities of the everyday world, but because it points so powerfully to things that can’t be named. Does “shaking fire” refer to the reddish-brown lines that decorate the shell of a sea snail, or is Oliver “look[ing] out over” the shell, toward some barely-glimpsed image of the divine? Does the “wild darkness” come from inside the whelk, or from within the poet, who now transforms into “that long, blue body of light?” The demonstrative adjective “that,” repeated in quick succession here, suggests that the state Oliver enters is a known one, that which pulses just beneath our ordinary reality. We can’t exactly name it, but we feel it: like being pushed through a wall of water, or heat, to briefly occupy the space beyond. 

Open to any page of New and Selected Poems, and you’ll find moments of language that have entered the lifeblood of American poetry. Her poems are our songbook. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” she asks in “The Summer Day.” One collection earlier, she had seemed to give us the answer: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves” (“Wild Geese”). This work is a primer, not only for writing, but for a certain way of paying attention to the world. I can’t get enough of Oliver’s plainspoken, precise diction. When she talks about the world, she makes me feel like I’ve been only glancing at it through car windows. More than the others I’ve quoted, it’s the short poem, “At Blackwater Pond,” that makes me want to be a better poet, a better watcher, a better human:

            At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
            after a night of rain.
            I dip my cupped hands. I drink
            a long time. It tastes
            like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
            into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
            deep inside me, whispering
            oh what is that beautiful thing
            that just happened?

Kiki Petrosino
is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCE, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville. (Photo credit: Philip Miller)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Hayden Carruth for Collected Shorter Poems
  • Louise Gluck for The Wild Iris
  • Susan Mitchell for Rapture
  • Gary Snyder for No Nature

Poetry Judges that Year: Lucile Clifton, Donald Hall, Lisel Mueller, Linda Pastan, Charles Wright

The Year in Literature:

  • Selected Poems by James Tate won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.          
  • Mona Van Duyn was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Mary Oliver (1935- ) was born in Maple Heights, OH.
  • At the age of seventeen Oliver visited Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Milay. Oliver became friends with Milay’s sister, Norma, and spent the majority of the next seven years living with her and organizing Milay’s papers.

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Reader Comments (10)

I offer comments on Ghosts. One word title. Makes me think of human ghosts, not the topic at all, because Mary Oliver references animal ghosts. Number 1. Simple, unornamented. First stanza or verse: "Have you noticed?" Direct address to the reader. I appreciate the use of italics. The implication is if I haven't noticed, I'd better, and now. Pay attention.

No elevated language at all. One word title. When your mentor or instructor tells you titles are important, reference this poem! When you hear poetry includes elevated language, again, read the first stanza. How do the italics mean?

Now, find another poem in the English language that accomplishes what these first four words, and the number, if you want, accomplish?! I can't think of one.

I'll skip to the last verse and state it can stand on its on, almost, as a complete poem in and of itself. Just my opinion. The words make me think of a final chorus or the resolution of a prayer and a lyric.

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