New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Stephen Dobyns

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
This section contains 552 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Stephen Dobyns

SOURCE: "How Does One Live?," in The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1992, sec. 7, p. 12.

In the following excerpt, Dobyns reviews New and Selected Poems and notes the consistency in tone and an "increased precision with language" over the thirty-year period featured.

Ever since Homer set Achilles brooding in his tent, poets have asked: how does one live? For Mary Oliver one lives by trying to learn how to love the world. For Carl Dennis one lives by learning how to reconcile one's hopes and ambitions with one's failures and shortcomings. For Stephen Berg, one lives by seeking redemption for one's adult nature: the frailty, fallibility and fear.

Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems, just given a National Book Award, joins together poems written over 30 years. One of the astonishing aspects of her work is the consistency of tone over this long period. What changes is an increased focus on nature and an increased precision with language that has made her one of our very best poets. Her new poem, "This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines" concludes with the description of the flight of the owl:

                          as death
                         rises up—
                god's bark-colored thumb—
              and opens the sheath of its wings
              and turns its hungry, hooked head
                    upon me, and away,
                         and softly,
         becomes the perfect, billowing instrument
                         as it glides
                      through the wind
                         like a knife.

There are certain qualities in this poem that one has come to expect from Ms. Oliver: the startling yet precise modifiers (the owl is "lamp-eyed," it is "god's bark-colored thumb"), the exact verbs (elsewhere in this poem the owl "pours itself / into the air) and the line breaks that move one along as easily as Tarzan used to swing from vine to vine. Much contemporary free verse strikes one as lazy. Ms. Oliver's lines and line breaks completely control the rhythm and the pacing. She forces us to read her poems as she meant them to be read. Perhaps only James Wright controlled the free verse line as well as she does.

Although Ms. Oliver's poems are mostly set in the natural world, it would be wrong to call her a nature poet. Nature for her is neither pretty nor nice. Beauty is to be found there, but it is a beauty containing the knowledge that life is mostly a matter of dying. The reason why the only true question is "how to love the world" is that the world is intrinsically unlovable, and one's temptation is to set down one's mortal burden and sink at last into the softness.

There is no complaint in Ms. Oliver's poetry, no whining, but neither is there the sense that life is in any way easy. As a result, many of her poems have as a subtext the teaching of how one lives. In my favorite of her single books, House of Light, she takes up the Buddha's last words to his followers: "Make of yourself a light." Her poems become her attempts to do just that, to make of herself a light.

This gives Ms. Oliver a public concern that differentiates her from many of her contemporaries. These poems sustain us rather than divert us. Although few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver, it is ironic that few poets also go so far as to help us forward.

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This section contains 552 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Stephen Dobyns