New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Dennis Sampson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
This section contains 559 words
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Critical Review by Dennis Sampson

SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 333-42.

In the following excerpt, Sampson asserts that House of Light "yields … to everything in nature that is holy."

What does it mean to have a vision in our time, "in this century and moment of mania," as Robert Penn Warren called it? Is it possible to speak any more, as Whitman did, of humanity as a whole without sounding pompous or political?

Mary Oliver's new book yields, as did Thoreau, to everything in nature that is holy. Some may find seeming artlessness and obsession with birds, beasts, and flowers absurd in her new work; she is not a formalist and is drawn almost exclusively to what is not human in her poetry. Oliver is disarming in her innocence and deft at calling up brilliant similes, a thoughtful and thoroughly empathetic human being. Watching a heron, she says "A blue preacher / flew toward the swamp, / in slow motion," a swan is "a slim / and delicate ship" and "moves / on its miraculous muscles / as though time didn't exist." She describes an oak tree at the entrance to a pond, "when the storm / laid one lean yellow wand against it, smoking it open / to its rosy heart," and, in "The Summer Day," after watching the grasshopper in her hand "moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down," she offers this final comment:

       I don't know exactly what prayer is.
       I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
       into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
       how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
       which is what I have been doing all day.
       Tell me, what else should I have done?
       Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
       Tell me, what is it you plan to do
       with your one wild and precious life?

One hears echoes of James Wright and Galway Kinnell, writers to whom Oliver would not resent being compared. Oliver risks sentimentality when love of the world almost gives in to emotions not won by the poem, but finally she is too wise to let this happen. "Lilies" ("I have been thinking about living / like the lilies / that blow in the fields") recalls Whitman's "I think I could turn and live with animals."

The poem concludes with this felicitous reference to a hummingbird:

       I think I will always be lonely
       in this world, where the cattle
       graze like a black and white river—
       where the ravishing lilies
       melt, without protest, on their tongues—
       where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
       just rises and floats away.

Pity sings a hideous and ultimately futile song to itself, as Oliver knows. "Make of yourself a light," says the Buddha in her "The Buddha's Last Instruction" before he dies. And Oliver does this. "Slowly, beneath the branches, / he raised his head. / He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd."

These may not be great poems, but they are awfully fine, wise even. Of the roses in "Roses, Late Summer" that "have opened their factories of sweetness / and are giving it back to the world," she scolds, as a Zen Master might:

       Fear has not occurred to them, nor ambition.
       Reason they have not yet thought of.
       Neither do they ask how long they must be roses, and then what.
       Or any other foolish question.

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This section contains 559 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Dennis Sampson