Essay

Mary Oliver and the Nature-esque

Rambles with America’s most popular poet.

by Alice Gregory
Mary Oliver and the Nature-esque
Original image by Paul Killebrew

In California, you know when you’re burning. The brightness hurts, and when you close your eyes, you see red. The cliffs are high and jagged, the ocean smashes the shoreline, and landslides really can bring you down. There you are dwarfed and powerless. All it takes is a five-minute drive down 101 or a glimpse of Mount Shasta to shatter what has become, since I’ve moved to the East Coast, my new disregard for nature, an indifference that my family places somewhere on the outer reaches of the autism spectrum. I’m chastised when I don’t pull over to look at the ocean view or when I fail to incessantly praise the virtues of Indian summer. What’s the matter with you? LOOK. It’s beautiful! Refusing to acknowledge the immensity of your surroundings in California amounts to blasphemy, and don’t think there aren’t higher powers waiting to punish you. There are earthquakes; and mudslides; and for about three months of the year, entire regions of the state threaten to spontaneously combust. You wouldn’t dare sleep naked in California—you might need to run outside in the middle of the night, awakened to a rattling house and a mile-deep fissure in your front lawn.

But I’ve learned that what the East Coast lacks in menacing spectacle it makes up for in a sort of scaled-down obedience. East Coast nature yields to us. With its lapping, Amagansett waves and sweet sugar maples, the wild here, such as it is, seems to be ours for the sculpting. Perceiving nature’s rhythms feels less daunting, and our observations can be quieter, more microscopic. There are no incisor-like mountains or blazing forest fires to blast your sense of self. It’s a place where a poetic feeling can be maintained in relative peace, where the flora, fauna, and mild geology make space for introspective rumination and a notion of society. You can nurture a private sense of romance. The East Coast does not demand that you bow down before it in awe, nor does it require constant, humble apology for being tiny and human. You can be surrounded by the quaint prettiness of nature, not terrorized by its beauty as you are in California. And nowhere is the dosage of this sensation more concentrated than in the poems of Mary Oliver.

The Pulitzer Prize–winning Mary Oliver has lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts (a tiny village on the tip of a tiny cape on the edge of a tiny state), since the 1960s. She sets most of her poems in the wooded, pond-studded acres that surround her house. People love these poems. The most recent poetry best-seller list leads with Swan, Oliver’s latest collection, published by Beacon in September 2010. The list includes seven other titles by Oliver, and this is not atypical. Week in and week out, multiple Mary Oliver books grace this list. It’s not just that she’s prolific, though she is (she has published 26 poetry collections to date, along with three books of nonfiction). Her verse is easy to digest, smooth and slightly sweet like pap. Mary Oliver’s poetry really sounds like poetry.Her images (branches, stones, sheets of clouds); line breaks (“the timeless castles / of emerald eddies”); and preoccupation with rural quietness (“I thought the earth / remembered me, she / took me back so tenderly, arranging / her dark skirts, her pockets / full of lichens and seeds.”) all confirm our earliest and least nuanced conception of verse. Even the most dunderheaded among us can read Oliver’s work and recognize that THIS IS POETRY.

Her corpus is deceptively elementary, though; it’s easy to be fooled by her frequent one-word titles—“Egrets,” “Dogfish,” “Daisies”—into thinking they are simply descriptive slabs. As a layman reading poetry, it’s tempting to be blinded by the more immediately visible parts of speech: the monolithic nouns, the dynamic verbs, the charismatic adjectives. Mousier ones—pronouns, prepositions, particles—go ignored. In “Cold Poem,” for instance, from her 1983 collection American Primitive, overlooking the “we”s and the “our”s, of which there are many, is almost irresistible. One is tempted instead to luxuriate in the broader strokes and be seduced by the wholesome imagery: “I think of summer with its luminous fruit, / blossoms rounding to berries, leaves, / handfuls of grain.” There’s a mental manipulation to Oliver’s rhapsody, a mesmeric quality, as though by conjuring these organic elements, she leaves her readers vulnerable to hypnotic suggestion. Do you feel relaxed? Are you ready for nature? But you miss a lot by allowing the large language to overshadow the more muted connective tissue. Paying such crude attention will not grant you the fortifying effects Oliver has to offer. It would be like receiving a souvenir postcard in the mail, staring at it, and appreciating the picturesque photograph, but never bothering to read the note or look at the return address, which of course is the entire point. And in Mary Oliver’s work, each lovely vista has a sender; it is signed. Nature, she seems to be saying, is a place for people.

Our clichéd image of the artist—solitary, mercurial, all-feeling—becomes even more exaggerated when we imagine the life of the poet in particular. Poets might write each other letters—inky loops on parchment, a blotter always nearby—but in their daily wanderings, they are alone: scribbling in notebooks, peering across moors, feeding ducks, mooning someplace. Company, we presume, would distract them from the hidden patterns of the world to which only they are attuned. Virginia Woolf once described herself as “a porous vessel afloat on a sensation; a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays.” This is how we think of the poet: noiseless, still, and absorbent. It’s comforting to think of them out there, monastic and alone, reactive to the minute stimuli we so often ignore.

But this speculative projection can lead us astray; it can prevent honest, critical reading of the actual work of these normal humans we treat like shamans.And the poems of Mary Oliver are not examples of solitude, as they might at first seem, but rather artifacts from a shared world. One of Oliver’s most famous poems, “Wild Geese,” from her 1986 collection Dream Work, is flagrant about this; it’s written in the second person and ends with an affirmation:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Or her poem “Breakage,” which begins with a lonely “I” naming the separate pieces of a landscape but then switches to second person with the hope of connecting, once again, to the “family of things”:

I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It's like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

Besides recounting dreams, one of the most tiresome tics is the insistence upon taking snapshots of nature: drugstore-developed photos of sunsets, iPhone pictures of shining lakes. No friends or loved ones ever want to see them, and trick yourself all you want, but you’re never going to successfully evoke that blissful vacation. By misdirecting our attention away from Mary Oliver’s pronouns, prepositions, and particles—and toward her geologic features and dewy patinas—we can be wrongfully convinced that her project bears resemblance to these uninspired, unpopulated, literally uncivilized photographs. But her poems aren’t snapshots of nature. She observes conscious life, even beacons it.

Whether the company Oliver invokes is biographical or not makes little difference. For 40 years, she lived with her partner and literary agent, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. Oliver is famously private about her personal life, but we can assume that Cook was often her meditative walking companion and, once Cook’s health declined, the first audience for Oliver’s descriptions of tidal shifts, first fawns, and mockingbirds. This real-life rapport becomes less exclusivein the poems; Oliver cultivates an audience of intimates. Her readers feel as though there is a voice scoring their solitary lives. There’s a reason that the word “ramble” refers to both walking and talking. Engaging in the two activities at once is one of the most sacred things you can do with another person. Shared words are animated. There’s a nice symmetry to it, too: as you get further along in conversation, you get farther along physically. Oliver’s poetry socializes nature, and her verses chaperone the imaginative time we spend in it.

To be silenced by your surroundings can be detrimental to a life of letters and language. Unlike in California, nature in rural Massachusetts is not overwhelming but manageable and hospitable, less a theatrical backdrop and more of an interactive diorama with thickets to peer into and polished rocks to skip. It’s not muffling or intimidating; it inspires poetry that sounds like poetry: spellbound but not shushed, contemplative but not cowed. This is why we buy Mary Oliver collections—why we read and recommend certain of her poems. She accompanies us in our ramblings. We like our place in the world to be affirmed as comprehensible and describable, one where even the quietest of people don’t disappear. There’s a kind of self-centered harmony to the East Coast, and a distilled version of it exists in Mary Oliver’s poems. Her fans perhaps do not consciously like nature so much as they unconsciously like themselves.

Originally Published: February 16, 2011

COMMENTS (23)

On February 16, 2011 at 2:16pm tsf wrote:
Wonderful.

On February 16, 2011 at 7:24pm @DC_to_Berkeley wrote:
I love the keen observations on east coast vs. west coast geography here. Truly fine writing.

On February 17, 2011 at 8:48am Holly wrote:
I've been reading Mary Oliver for a long time. Thank you for this thoughtful consideration of her work. I'm noticing new things because of it.

On February 17, 2011 at 11:39am Arthur wrote:
Thank you for this beautiful article!
Mary Oliver is a treasure and her poetry is transformative and healing. I always struggled with loneliness, but I will never forget reading Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" for the first time. I was then welcomed into "the family of things" and since have always considered myself a part of the world I never thought I belonged.

On February 18, 2011 at 10:45am WG wrote:
This is really great, Alice.

On February 20, 2011 at 10:28am Bruce wrote:
Very nice observation Alice, glad you noticed. I moved from east coast to west 20 years ago so my observations are the reverse.
The east coast wins hands down because of a certain patience and willingness to amble and observe. Old stone walls in the woods now heaved aside by huge maple trees lets us know that nature always wins, just less violently in the older ways of the east coast. This is reflected in the way people conduct themselves too.

On February 20, 2011 at 6:42pm quiltartist wrote:

I too will never forget the first time I read 'Wild Geese'. I gave it to my mother who was not long widowed and struggling with loneliness. She, born in Oregon but a life long lover and longtime resident of New England, who professed greatly loved those lush green and gentle environs, read it cryptically, looked up and snapped irritably in an East Coast, starchy Katherine Hepburn sort of voice, "I don't know what she's talking about!" Maybe you get Oliver better if you've been put squarely in your place, made miniscule by the rude, wild landscape of California, as I have. A lovely essay.

On February 20, 2011 at 9:45pm Jennifer wrote:
If you want to read about California in poems, try Gary Snyder. He will give you the rhythm. And, Brenda Hillman, my favorite from CA -- you have to love what she's doing. I love Mass, but don't forget May Sarton's Maine. And then there is Hawaii and thank goodness we have Merwin. Thank goodness they are all out there for us, with us, taking us.

On February 21, 2011 at 7:47am Howard Meyer wrote:
Wonderful,very much enjoyed the lines describing the usefullness of "rambling". Reminded me of Joyce's Bloom taking his walk through Dublin on a fine spring day. I'm sure Mary's poetry benefited greatly from the "chance encounters" a good ramble through any landscape offers.

On February 25, 2011 at 5:57pm Kelly wrote:
Loved this article and Mary Oliver's poetry.
Thank you for making the article as
enjoyable to read as Oliver's work.

On February 25, 2011 at 6:00pm Steven Pine wrote:
boring (I'm tired of playing nice)

On February 25, 2011 at 6:38pm Rick Monroe wrote:
I loved Gregory's comment:

"The poems of Mary Oliver are not
examples of solitude, as they might at
first seem, but rather artifacts from a
shared world."

I was reminded of how Kunitz and
Stafford, two other poets I love do the
same. Clearly, I'm drawn to poets who
show us their world and invite the reader
to join them in their experience.

On February 25, 2011 at 7:13pm John wrote:
Mary Oliver's beautiful lyric verse is a great
bridge to the world of poetry--I can always
recommend her to my friends who "don't
understand" poetry. She's an unassuming
presence, yet filled up the Lensic theater in
Santa Fe with several hundred people one
night a few years ago. For poetry!

On February 26, 2011 at 4:13pm judy robbins wrote:
I thought this essay captured the
differences between East and West coast
pretty perfectly. Having lived in the East
and visited Provincetown many times, I
know it well but it is more difficult to get
lost or be alone there since it is so heavily
populated. I live in Arizona; the beauty is
harsh - even the plants want to bite you
but if isolation is what you need, this is it.

On February 28, 2011 at 3:36pm Don wrote:

Let me get this straight, now. You grew up in groomed Marin and now you live in Brooklyn where, yeah, you got some bad weather this winter. You think California is mighty, with higher powers waiting to punish you, but that on the east coast, "nature yields to us." Prospect Park, maybe. Some of Long Island, most likely. But for much of the East, especially the coasts, literally, no. When I moved East from Northern California years ago, I thought that way too. But not for long, because I didn't spend my time in the city. Been in a blizzard? An ice storm? Caught out in a field with a serious East Coast thunderstorm around you? Provincetown in a winter storm? The Adirondacks are low hills compared to the Sierras, but you know what? You can die there, and people do. Summer cottages along Lake Erie. Boring, compared to Marin. Absolutely. Come there with me in lake-effect time, will you? Then we'll talk about how nature yields to us. I understand that you're writing about Mary Oliver's poetry and only secondarily about E/W physical differences. But you do take what you (in my view, quite wrongly) see as easy domesticated E Coast geography as a key to her poetry, and I think you're quite wrong about that.

On February 28, 2011 at 5:02pm Ruth Thompson wrote:
What a condescending, self-satisfied article! Twenty-somethings who live a gilded Brooklyn-Manhattan existence, with lots and lots of social padding comprising their reality, probably find Whitman "wholesome" and "relaxing" too. Mary Oliver deals with the existential rather than the social -- with the self stripped of cultural padding and protection. That is unfashionable -- indeed, unmentionable -- territory to the young urban literati, to whom, apparently, What We Know is All. An authentic encounter with Oliver's best poems leads to terror, joy, and the question very few want to hear: "And have you changed your life?" Luckily for Gregory, she is unlikely ever to hear it.

On March 5, 2011 at 3:46pm Karen James wrote:
Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets because she transcends and transports with her descriptions of nature that only nature lovers (east or west) can relate to.
I live on the Monterey Bay in Calif. and I am able to find the stunning, powerful and frightening aspects of nature but also the quiet beauty.

On March 11, 2011 at 4:51pm jessica chielli wrote:
I can't help but sense a tongue in cheek conceit to this critique. I love Mary Oliver, but I think east coast antiquity lulls readers into accepting verse that communes with a tendable nature but lacks the essential, dynamic expression in poetry that the struggle with mudslides, earthquakes and forest fires demands of the west coast poet.
The language of this article is a win for the English language. Whatever the public accepts must be double checked!

On March 31, 2011 at 9:10am Kate wrote:
When I read Mary Oliver's "A Poetry
Handbook: A Prose Guide to
Understanding and Writing Poetry", I
realized how much art and practice lay
behind each "simple" poem of hers. Thank
you for a beautifully written perspective of
her work.

On October 18, 2011 at 3:47am Jeffrey Beebe wrote:
I am also an East Coaster, West Coaster, and briefly in the middle (Wisconsin for three wonderful years, after having started out on Long Island), leaving Western Pennsylvania for the California coast for a number of years, now back in the Mid-Atlantic. A sense of place was always with me, maybe always framed in my mind by the memory of snow drifts against the first home I can remember and by sheets of ice off the shore or the sun on the summer beach, and the moving around the country probably enhanced that need to look around and notice where we are. Mary Oliver's poems remind me of that need. Even if they are artfully constructed, they also seem like natural moments shared and ready to be endured, but also enjoyed. Thank you for pointing out some interesting things about these poems and for stirring up thoughts about places and how people view them.

On August 2, 2012 at 6:57am tinkwelborn wrote:
Very nice essay, Ms. Gregory.

On August 3, 2012 at 4:40pm George wrote:
I loved this commentary, full of insight about nature and its simple,
stunning beauty in New England. I do not know the West, which I
know is my loss. I retired to Cape Cod and discovered the impulse to
write short lyrics about the changing seasons. Thanks for sharing with
me your love of Mary Oliver, whose work I must begin peruse.

On August 7, 2012 at 7:45pm Baltimore Poet wrote:
It is funny that the first comment is "Wonderful," and most of these
comments are from Oliver fans and thankful about the article. The
article is making fun of her (re-read the last three sentences). I agree
with the few posters above that this article is contrived. California, by
itself, has many climates, not one climate. Despite the largeness of
the Redwoods, the Pacific Ocean, Mt. Hood (yes, Oregon is in the
West), one can examine details out there. Likewise, Western New
York State, Pa., and even hiking near the highway in Maryland gives
one a sense of nature, a sense that when darkness falls comfortable
sleep awaits not. Get thyself a bed and heat. Anyway, I enjoyed
Oliver's first book. The (false) knowingness is very typical of today's
literary crowd.

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Biography

Alice Gregory is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in New Yorkn+1, The Boston Globe, Tablet, and NPR.org, among other publications.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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