I have a habit of reading poetry before I go to bed at night. It generally takes me a long time to get through a book of poems, because I try to read them slowly and carefully, even reciting them aloud to myself (you can imagine that my husband loves this) and I only read one or two an evening. Most recently, since Christmas, I have been reading the second volume of Mary Oliver’s collected poems, and they are some of the loveliest, freshest poems I have ever read.
Oliver is a poet of the natural world. She observes with a keen eye for detail, and nothing is too low or too high for her gaze: the grass, the tips of dead leaves, the behavior of birds and foxes and puppies and people, the stars and the sun. Energy suffuses her work. Every poem is contemplative, held in the palm of the hand, but every poem hums with Oliver’s scarcely-pent-up desire to fling herself out of doors and be looking at the world again. It is clear that writing poetry is necessary to her existence — it is her song, if you will, her purpose for being here — but the fuel for the poetry all comes from her walks in the woods and by the river, her time spent loving the world where we are all accidentally set down.
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
While the soul, after all, is just a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the wakening from a little sleep.
As I read, I was reminded vividly of Annie Dillard’s writing in her creative nonfiction, in works like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and For the Time Being. While Dillard’s prose is lyrical and poetic, Oliver’s poetry is worldly and prosaic. They meet in the middle, in this astonishing world of ours. I loved these poems. I found them redemptive, joyful, and clear-eyed.
And now I’m left without poetry to read, for the moment. Does anyone have any suggestions? In the past, I’ve loved collections by Jane Kenyon, Donald Sutherland, Billy Collins, Raymond Carver, Sharon Olds, Elizabeth Bishop, and Galway Kinnell. All suggestions cheerfully welcomed! And now I’ll leave you with one more poem, that seems to me to give in its fresh beauty Oliver’s own feeling about her work.
I was sad all day, and why not. There I was, books piled on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words falling off my tongue.
The robins had been a long time singing, and now it was beginning to rain.
What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map, or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work ongoing. Which is not likely to be the trifling around with a poem.
Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard were full of lively fragrance.
You have had days like this, no doubt. And wasn’t it wonderful, finally, to leave the room? Ah, what a moment!
As for myself, I swung the door open. And there was the wordless, singing world. And I ran for my life.