New and Selected Poems | Interview by Eleanor Swanson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Interview by Eleanor Swanson

SOURCE: "The Language of Dreams: An Interview with Mary Oliver," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May/June, 1990, pp. 1, 6.

In the following interview, Oliver discusses poetry criticism, poetry workshops, and how her poetry has changed since her early work.

Mary Oliver's poetry both celebrates the natural world and puts before us disturbing images of that world, in which we see reflections of ourselves. Her poetry leads us to question what it is that makes us human, what being "civilized" has given us—and what it has cost. She calls upon us as readers to be in her poetry, to "look!" and to "listen!" with all of our might. As Janet McNew wrote in Contemporary Literature, Oliver's poetry evidences a "mythical closeness to the natural world" and a "conviction that nature is … an articulate and conscious subject."

She has given us poetry in which the "power of the earth rampages" ("Shadow," in Dream Work), poetry in which the "dark buds of dreams / open / richly" ("Dreams," in Dream Work). As Donald Hall commented, hers is a poetry "that if you leave yourself open to the language of dreams, is open to everyone."

Born in 1935 in Ohio, Oliver attended Ohio State University and Vassar College. She now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her book American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984, and she has won many other awards, including National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships. Oliver has four other books of poetry, including Twelve Moons, Provincetown, Dream Work, and her newest collection, House of Light.

[The Bloomsbury Review:] Your poetic method has been compared to a number of other poets—Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, James Wright. I read a review of one of your books in which three of those names were mentioned in the same paragraph. Do you have a comment on this relentless pursuit of influences on the part of critics?

[Mary Oliver:] What a compliment! And, yes, there is doubtless something about my work which is reminiscent of these poets who are in the American literary tradition. But, specifically, I don't think I have much to do now with Frost or Williams or Millay, or even Wright, whose work has been an important influence. Every poet learns by imitating other poets. We learn everything by imitation! And, as I tell students, there's no shame in this at all. It's a necessary period a writer goes through, a kind of discipleship. But there is finally a time when you begin to hear something new and different—something of your own—and that's the part of your work you want then to cherish, to make strong.

What do you think the critic's relationship is to the poet and poetry? I've read many reviews that reveal more about a critic's lack of knowledge of the poetry than anything else.

Today it seems that everyone wants to be a writer. No one wants to be "just" the reader, and few people are interested in being a critic. To read well is a worthy and not necessarily easy skill; and to criticize well—to be informative in terms of history, theory, background, so that you invite other people into the world of literature—is also a fine and difficult enterprise. A lot of critics don't really criticize, they review. And they review negatively with as much energy as they review positively. This is not very informative, or invitational. Of course there are exceptions—Peter Stitt, David Wojahn, Gregory Orr. Donald Hall is as good as anyone, and he's wonderful. He is in the way I mean, a mentor—more of an essayist really than a critic. Additionally, not many people write about why poets write, why they write about what they write about, etc., the really interesting questions.

I think this notion of the importance of reading well was implicit in my original question. I've sensed a superficiality—the critic doesn't seem to understand a new book, for instance, in the context of the poet's other work, or in the larger context, the much larger context out of which critical writing comes.

Well, yes. Good critical writing should and will illuminate beyond a single book. Criticism has a reputation for being kind of sour—rough and tough. I'll bet the word has some original sense of elucidating, or clarifying. That's one I'll have to look up. [In an editorial aside, Oliver adds: "From the American Heritage Dictionary: the word 'critic', derives from a Greek stem which means, simply, to separate, to choose."]

Your early work—and I'm thinking in particular of The River Styx, Ohiois formalist. Is that fair, to call it "formalist"?

It's fair to call it formalist, and it's also fair, once again, to call it derivative. No Voyage is my first book, it was published in this country in 1965. The River Styx, Ohio was published in 1972. They're the first two full collections, and they show the influence of all the people you mentioned earlier, plus others. They show the merit of admiring fine, American traditionalists, if you will: I was not concerned at that time about being "original." I was still learning how to write a poem. This was just before the passion for poetry workshops, and I worked alone. I knew very few people who wrote poetry. Today poetry is—can you bear this?—a "growth industry." So I have read, somewhere. But frankly, I'm not sure I didn't learn some things in those years of solitude—reading and writing every day for what … twenty years, twenty-five years—which a person working in company might not learn so well. I had to make my own decisions, without any social response. "In my craft or sullen art …," etc. I fear that sometimes, in workshops, fires are banked. After all, people enjoy a pleasant social response—that's why they join groups, isn't it? This pressure, if you will, could keep the writer a little tame. As well as ambitious for response. Prematurely.

What about Donald Hall and the "McPoem" and the whole workshop phenomenon, the consumer mentality he talks about in his essay "Poetry and Ambition." It's his point that people who come out of the workshop tradition, if that's the term for it, have a huge desire to win more prizes, publish more, possibly at the expense of the work. Would you like to elaborate on the whole workshop phenomenon?

Yes. I esteem Donald Hall greatly, as any sensible person would who knows his work, both his essays and his poetry. And, yes, he has worried over workshop procedures which give—heaven forbid!—"exercises." But now we're in the world of semantics. As I use the word, exercises are fine and useful. There are many mechanical aspects of writing which can be taught—which, in workshops, can be illustrated and practiced.

I go into the classroom like a magician, and I say here are some "tricks" which I have learned and which you can learn, just to have ready. Of course I am talking about language-skill, which, to tell the truth, is often in short supply, even among the most serious aspiring poets. "Tricks" are not poetry, but poetry does employ linguistic laws and acrobatics. So often I see that young writers are relying on luck for something to work—with more linguistic knowledge, they can begin to make the poem work. This, to me, is where a workshop can be helpful.

Remember too that workshops are run by individuals, and individuals have bias. There is no way around it, it's very difficult not to have a deeper affinity for some kinds of poems rather than for other kinds. Also, people try to get along. Two poets will try to get along, and so will twenty, or thirty. Additionally, it's very hard for writers in a workshop not to want, if only a little, to please the instructor. Everybody has to be very careful—writers can give up what is most strange and wonderful about their writing—soften their roughest edges—to accommodate themselves toward a group response.

The idea that something's lost in the process of "softening the rough edges" is an interesting one.

Yes. I think it can happen. I think criticism can come too soon and too harshly in workshops. And, also, the expressed aim of so much effort seems to be the publication of poems—right away, and for prizes. Of course this is almost always interconnected with the search for a teaching job.

One of the criticisms I've heard of Hall's views is that it's easy for someone who's already established to talk about there being no need to covet those awards and prizes, because there's a tremendous amount of competition for a very few jobs. I think that's a factor.

My life has been pretty singular, I guess. I mean, I never considered combining writing and teaching. Now they seem everywhere to go hand in hand. Yet I think they are not necessarily good friends to each other. I meet so many teachers who, in the first place, don't really want to be teaching and so they're kind of depressed people, and, in the second place, they are always trying to arrange for a "better" teaching position, meaning less teaching and more free time. What a sad attitude to have toward one's profession! Mostly, too, I find that people who want to be writers take on the usual joys and responsibilities—spouse, house, children—and so must plan their lives in a financial way. I can't argue with that. And it's too bad that creative people can't expect to make a decent living for years and years, but that's the way it is. If you put in the best part of every day, for years, writing, probably you're going to have a flat pocketbook. I certainly did! Teaching is such a fine profession. But writing is something else—a risk, and yet a necessity in certain spirits. What is the answer? Each of us must try to live a good life and a responsible life, whatever we decide that is. For myself, I do like to teach. But—not too much!

Over your several books, how to you feel your work has changed?

My first two books, No Voyage and The River Styx, Ohio, are out of print and, okay, they can sleep there comfortably. There may be a few poems I will someday want to salvage. But as I've said it's early work, derivative work. The books that follow, beginning with Twelve Moons and concluding with House of Light, I think of as a unit. I won't say much about them except that they all employ the natural world in an emblematic way, and yet they are all—so was my intent!—about the human condition. It's been said of American Primitive that it's a very joyous book. I hope House of Light will be seen in a similar way. What I write next will be quite different. Of course, writers always say this, don't they?

Can you elaborate a little on your ideas about the relationship between ego, the reader, and the world in light of how you feel your work has evolved? Why do you think it is evolving as it is? For example, in Dream Work the human presence is consistently more dominant than in Twelve Moons or even in American Primitive.

Yes, in both American Primitive and Twelve Moons there is one human presence, and that is the voice speaking in the poem, which should, or can, imaginatively, become the reader's inner voice. I was much involved in mechanics in those days. Flaubert says something wonderful: "Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation." I lived for years with that, trying for intense observation, believing in it. Well, I still do!

Your poems that take us to that world are very different from the ones in which the human presence is more prominent. What is the contrast between what is going on in the earliest of these four books and what is going on now in your writing?

What is going on, I suppose, is that I am a different person. It's often said that the lyric gift is the gift of the young—it comes with a tremendous amount of energy, it's tied in some deep way to the compulsive urge. I think it is so. Much of art is accomplished in the wonderful fit of compulsion! Sometimes, now, I think about such fits with utter longing! With age comes change. My commitment to art is as fierce now as my compulsion used to be. Of course I'm talking about the writer instead of the writing, but it amounts to the same thing. I think the poems run a little slower, I'm fonder of the longer line, wanting it to carry more. Issues are becoming more focused.

I sensed in your poem "Singapore" (in House of Light) the world. It's true that a very personal consciousness of death and of our own aging intrudes into our lives as human beings and writers. But I sensed in "Singapore" that the "impersonal" world—in the very best sense of that word—was pushing in too.

Yes. I feel this way. When young poets talk about the confessional poem, I say to them, I should think you would want to represent something more than yourself. I feel the function of the poet—be it short-term or long-term—is to be representative, and under that heading to be political, or social, or anyway somehow instructive and opinionated and useful. Even if only as a devil's advocate. Poets who have no material but their own lives don't hold my interest long, no matter how good they may be. I want poetry to help clarify and enlarge my life, not just tell me, in whatever exquisite detail, about the poet's life. These poems, which speak of the world somewhat directly, please me very much. Of course, as I've said, I always felt I was using the natural world emblematically. But poems like "Singapore" or "Acid" or "Tecumseh" make me fairly happy.

Is it your practice to do a great deal of revision?

Oh yes, yes. I revise an awful lot, fifty, sixty drafts easily. I have an old electric typewriter, no computer, nothing like that. I use notebooks, pens and pencils, the old-fashioned stuff. I do a lot of drafts, and I usually don't keep for long any of the revisions. I make myself make the decisions and go on about it. A lot of writers keep their papers. I don't. I won't be found dead with a lot of papers!

You know, then, when a poem is finished.

When it works. I don't use the question, "Is it perfect?" I ask if it's the best I can do and if it works. And if those two things are so, then I go on to the next poem.

Do you go back and read your work, after it's in print?

I suppose, except for public readings, I wouldn't read very much of it. It's just that I'm that much involved in what isn't finished, or even begun! I think most writers are probably like this.

To go on to something else, I also believe my writing is influenced by the readings. I prefer poems with a narrative—or better yet, two or three stories. I like to switch from rhetoric to a sudden vernacular phrase, or a heavily lyric passage, or throw out a question. Such devices involve the listeners and draw them in. Of course this is all just so that you can soften them up and say what it is you really want to say. This sounds very programmatic, doesn't it? And yet, it's true. I do remember those "listeners" when I write. So all that old stuff—the various mechanics—still fascinates me thoroughly. How enjambed lines "feel" to the listener, as compared with end-stopped lines. All that good business.

That's something concrete, to tell students in workshops.

Yes, absolutely. You know, in every other discipline a student learns a little at a time. In the visual arts, you learn to draw, you learn perspective, you learn theories of color, you learn to use charcoal, and oil paints—all kinds of things. You train your eye and hand to paint a picture, finally. But in poetry you're given the huge responsibility of writing a whole poem, right from the first. And at that point I say the sad thing that happens is that someone says, "Okay, that's pretty good." So the person is encouraged to write exactly the same kind of poem the next time, to try to make it better but do it exactly the same way. Three or four poems down the line, the person is in an awful rut. When I operate a workshop I ask the writers to go back for a while to beginning things. To get some options they have missed. And to learn things from reading, as well as writing. To read, also, with "intense observation."

Perhaps there's something missing in the way students read today.

Well, they read for content, not for the felt experience which is also in the writing. The question asked today is: What does it mean? Nobody says, "How does it feel?" One of the things I like to suggest is for a student to take an especially admired poem—say Yeats' "Easter, 1916"—and read it every morning for thirty days or so. Read it slowly and carefully. As though it were the only poem in the world. Then, you begin to learn how to read.

That's a wonderful way, too, of defecting the notion that a poem will fall apart under close scrutiny.


When we first corresponded about this interview, you were a bit reluctant to grant it. Do you feel interviews are invasive? Or have you been misrepresented in the past?

No, I've not been misrepresented, not seriously, but I feel interviews are opportunistic, and not every opportunity should be taken. Some company once wanted to do a videotape of me in my home—walk around and follow me—and wouldn't this be fine. And I said, thank you very much, no. They wrote and urged me again, suggesting that people who like my work would like to know more about me. And I wrote back and said that, if I've done my work well, I vanish completely from the scene. That's how I feel about it. I believe it is invasive of the work when you know too much about the writer, and almost anything is too much. I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together. So, I don't do many interviews.

A reviewer of American Primitive wrote that you find your primary subjects "outside the apparatus of the literary and high cultural heritage." Do you agree with that characterization?

As opposed to what? Low-culture, or no-culture? Rather a negative way to go about it, don't you think? But it sounds like a lot of the world is left out of that statement, so I'll just take the chance and say: Okay, sure I do.

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This section contains 3,154 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Eleanor Swanson