Nature Rules

A reading by Mary Oliver at the 92nd Street Y.
As one of America’s best-selling poets, Mary Oliver is almost a guru to her cadre of devoted fans. Dara Mandle attended her reading in New York and was not surprised to find nuns in the crowd.

What do the actor Steve Buscemi and two nuns have in common? An appreciation for Mary Oliver, the reigning queen of nature poetry. Oliver writes often in her newer verse about “the light of the world.” No surprise, then, to spot sisters of mercy at the poet’s January reading at New York’s 92nd Street Y. But Mr. Pink? Wouldn’t lyrics about the virtue of green beans be a touch too cozy for such a rough character? No, it turns out.

Judging from the size of the crowd that night, and from the sales of her current book, New and Selected Poems: Volume Two, it seems that many people—and not just those obviously drawn to daisies—need cheer.

Oliver’s minimalist stage persona and sense of humor undercut the frequent sentimentality of her lyrics. In person, she makes sure her fans are getting their money’s worth—in this case, $17 per ticket. They gave her a rock star’s reception when she strode to the podium after being introduced by Alice Quinn, director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor of The New Yorker.

Although she won both a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Oliver’s demeanor is more PB&J than port. She has what most poets outwardly disdain but secretly covet: readers. Her work might appear only occasionally in graduate curricula, but it registers mightily on the reorder lists at Barnes & Noble.

Many of the poems to which she gave voice at her reading were from her most recent New and Selected volume. The audience responded avidly to the few poems about her dog, Percy. “Oxygen,” a manuscript facsimile of which was reprinted in the evening’s program, was dedicated to her partner of more than 40 years, artist Molly Malone Cook, who died recently (your life . . . is so close / to my own that I would not know / where to drop the knife of / separation. And what does this have to do / with love, except / everything?).

“Do you want to hear this?” Oliver asked as she prepared to read “Wild Geese.” In this popular poem, the sound of geese reminds readers of their “place/in the family of things.” A friend found her question a cringe worthy attention ploy—but he doesn’t go to many poetry readings. I found Oliver’s commitment to her audience refreshing. After all, many had braved rain and two subways to get here.

By reading’s end her directness, which had at first invigorated, began to wear thin. In her introduction, Quinn had noted, “Like Frost, Oliver is a poet of belief.” Yet Frost let the darkness in his poems gradually seep out; one might not even detect it in a first reading. Oliver often tells us point-blank to move toward the light—or, as she writes, toward “the sun, the purely pure sun, shining, all the while, over / all of us.”

And yet, Oliver acknowledges sorrow and mourning. One of the reasons her audience is so dedicated to her is because she lets them in. After reading the poem for her partner, Oliver shared three lines she’d read at her memorial service. In an age when so many writers build walls between themselves and their readers, Oliver opens windows. And why not? Her fans relish the view.

Originally Published: March 20th, 2006

A New York City native, Dara Mandle graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in English. She worked at such magazines as Talk and Mirabella, then earned her M.F.A. in poetry at Columbia, where she is currently the Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Writing Program. Her poems have appeared in...

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