New and Selected Poems | Critical Review by Robert Hosmer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Review by Robert Hosmer

SOURCE: "Meditative Gazing on Contemporary Poetry," in The Southern Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 638-40.

In the following excerpt, Hosmer reviews New and Selected Poems and praises Oliver's work for its simplicity and clarity.

The work gathered in Mary Oliver's impressive New and Selected Poems spans three decades, from No Voyage and Other Poems to House of Light; in addition, it presents thirty new poems as well as five not previously included in any volume. And so this volume affords an opportunity to take the long view of this poet's fine work, savoring its many pleasures and assessing its considerable merits. This is a poet whose enduring preoccupation lies with posing apparently simple questions, the answers to which involve contemplation of the deepest mysteries of knowing and being. Though Oliver's verse echoes with the acerbic ironies of Dickinson, the singing cosmic consciousness of Whitman, and the serene playfulness of Edna St. Vincent Millay, her greatest kinship is with Elizabeth Bishop (neither one political or feminist or confessional) and William Blake, two poets whose deceptively simple questions provoked responses that often disclosed previously unnoticed realms; of the two, Blake's is the more powerful presence to emerge from New and Selected Poems, not because he is the only poet mentioned by name here but because his turning away "to a life of the imagination" ("Spring Azures") led him to pose gentle interrogatives of shattering significance. His presence is often palpable in Oliver's work, particularly when, as in "The Summer Day," she asks innocent questions ("Who made the world? / Who made the swan and the black bear? / Who made the grasshopper?") that generate even greater questions that, in turn, reflect scrupulously examined experience: "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?" From another poet, such conclusions would seem hopelessly trite and simple; from Oliver, they bear the simple and singular grace of the honest heart.

Even cursory study of Oliver's work reveals neither radical change nor startling departure (true, the narrative element diminishes, the landscape shifts from the Midwest to the Atlantic coast, and greater, though never radical, experiment with line breaks and stanzaic patterns emerges); rather, the panorama of Oliver's work exhibits an extraordinary and admirable consistency: simplicity, clarity, directness, sincerity (how dangerous to say it!), precision, discipline (her control of free verse is matched only by James Wright's mastery), a skilled use or repetition. Oliver achieves a rare, Zen-like clarity and economy; it can be no accident that so many of her poems bring traditions of Asian calligraphy and painting to mind.

Oliver's patient eye is trained on the natural environment where other creatures predominate, whether fauna (bears, owls, hawks, hummingbirds, swans) or flora (roses, lilies, marsh grass), and the effect is one of extraordinarily splendid profusion. Within such a landscape rests an unobtrusive poet who knows what another creature, the turtle, knows: "she is a part of the pond she lives in, / the tall trees are her children, / the birds that swim above her / are tied to her by an unbreakable string" ("The Turtle"). If Oliver's eye is patient, it is also fearless and far-ranging, scanning nature, unafraid of beauty that is harsh, unrelenting, and death-scented. In one of the earliest poems reprinted here, "Morning in a New Land," the narrator's stance and attitude are emblematic of the poet's throughout this collection: "I stood like Adam in his lonely garden / On that first morning, shaken out of sleep, / Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves, / Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift." This is precisely what Mary Oliver has been doing all these years—looking and listening from a place within, marveling at the gift, perhaps living what she calls, in "Entering the Kingdom," "the dream of my life": "to lie down by a slow river / And stare at the light in the trees."

With the passing of years and one collection after another, Oliver's voice has developed a deeper music, and her imagery has become more richly dense as she has sharpened the metaphysical edge of her questions (in "Questions You Might Ask," from House of Light, she asks, "Is the soul solid, like iron?"). Though death remains an ever-present reality, Oliver has neither given way to a fashionable pessimism nor soared into a superficial, unconvincing spirituality: the poems from House of Light and the new poems here are bound together by a consciously chosen spirit of affirmation, expressed nowhere more clearly than in "The Ponds": "I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing /—that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum / of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do."

The cumulative effect of Oliver's poems? Silence. The deep and embracing silence of amazed contemplation that graces the coda of "When Death Comes," one of her latest, and best, poems:

      When it's over, I want to say: all my life
      I was a bride married to amazement.
      I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
      When it's over, I don't want to wonder
      if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
      I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
      or full of arguments.
      I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

There is about Mary Oliver's poetry "a deep and miraculous composure"—the words are hers ("Three Poems for James Wright"), the pleasure ours.

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This section contains 890 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Robert Hosmer from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.