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Critical Review by Thomas R. Smith
SOURCE: A review of A Poetry Handbook and White Pine in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July-August, 1995, p. 28.
In the following review, Smith praises A Poetry Handbook for providing an incisive guide for students of poetry and notes an emphasis on storytelling and mythmaking in White Pine.
I have before me on the desk a stack of books nearly the height of my coffee mug, Mary Oliver's combined output for the past 15 years and all of her work she has chosen to keep in print. By most poets' productivity standards—a collection every five years or so is standard—this is prodigy. The titles—Twelve Moons, American Primitive, Dream Work, House of Light, and New and Selected Poems—evoke for the reader who has consistently followed Oliver's trail some of the most radiant moments in American poetry in recent decades. To that bright stack, we can now and White Pine, Oliver's new volume of poems, and A Poetry Handbook, her first prose work.
Imagine, if you will, the absurdity of completing a medical education without having attained a thorough knowledge of the parts of the human body—yet poetry students are not expected to learn the parts of the poem's body. A Poetry Handbook is Mary Oliver's response to this increasingly prevalent situation.
While students preparing for careers in music and the visual arts accept as routine "a step-by-step learning process" familiarizing them with the elements and vocabulary of their art, students of poetry are encouraged in the belief that they can write fully realized poems with little or no technical or historical understanding of poetry. Beginning to write in such a milieu, the student does not forge a true style, but
falls into a manner of writing, which is not a style but only a chance thing. Vaguely felt and not understood, or even probably intended.
In its mission to educate the student of poetry, whether reader or writer, beginning or advanced, Oliver's handbook lays down for a new generation basic principles of sound, tone diction, and form, and stands honorably beside earlier guides to prosody, including Babette Deutsch's Poetry Handbook, Harvey Gross's Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, and Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.
Oliver's prose is crisp and authoritative. Her discussion of Frost's sound-work in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is fresh and satisfying, and an excellent chapter on imagery can help poets of varying degrees of accomplishment sort the living image from the cliche in their own work. Her testimony to the awesome truth—as stated by Donald Hall—that "the new metaphor is a miracle, like the creation of life," is inspiring.
While intellectually admirable throughout, some passages in A Poetry Handbook are less passionate and lively than others. It may be fair to demand of Oliver's prose those qualities we expect of her poetry, yet comparisons are inevitable. A trio of closing chapters, on revision, workshops, and solitude, come as close as any in this book to Oliver's poetic fervor:
Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith, to use an old-fashioned term…. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.
The reader hungers for more, as well as a bibliography for further study.
Oliver remarks in A Poetry Handbook,
If the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers—has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.
Indeed, one of Mary Oliver's special gifts as a poet is the ability to awaken us to the beauty of the world and the responsibility that vision costs us.
The 40 poems in White Pine extend in often surprising ways Oliver's meditations on the appropriate relationship of human beings with nature, the rewards of attentiveness toward the world, and the inseparability of beauty and terror. As a practitioner of the "nature" poem, she is currently without rival; no poet in recent times has honored deer, pine trees, hummingbirds, spiders, and owls with the intense, sustained, and loving scrutiny she brings to even the least of her poems.
From the porcupine's dazzling, dark "gown of nails" to the breathtaking glimpse of an owl's open beak "clean and wonderful / like a cup of gold," Oliver's is a landscape distinctly feminine in tone, transformative and pagan, subtly touched all over by the hands of the Goddess, where hummingbirds wear "pale green dresses" and "sea-green helmets," where a doe startled in the pine woods on the hottest day of summer is "a beautiful woman" who rises up "on pretty hooves."
While White Pine is marked by a certain formal restlessness and experimentation (a third of the poems are prose poems), Oliver doesn't break faith or continuity with the line of reckless vision that flashes through her earlier books. If anything, she lives more deeply and riskily the questions that provoke sleeplessness at the end of the 20th century, as she writes in "Snails": "Who are we? What are our chances? Where have we made the terrible mistake we must turn from, or perish?"
The question of how to live, of course, raises the question of how to die, and some of the best poems here, such as "The Sea Mouse" and "I Found a Dead Fox," face the necessity and awful beauty of death with a fearless gaze. In "Williams Creek," we witness the dismembering of a buck's corpse by neighborhood dogs:
… it must be done—
without levity or argument—
as though it were a dance—
the only one
that could outwit winter—
as though the life of everything
were in it.
These are not comforting observations or thoughts, yet responsible membership in the community of the living depends on our making peace with them. If we necessarily make claims on the world's beauty and abundance, then the world necessarily claims of us a conscious and moral recognition of
… the hard
and terrible truth
we live with,
In this view (which is also the view of indigenous cultures), we are both eater and eaten; each death buys food, water, a place in the sunlight for a new life. Oliver's appreciation of the essential sacredness of the world's edible and voracious body aligns her with the planet's most enduring religious traditions.
In her prose poem about a boy, "William," Oliver applies the logic of that tradition to her own life: "Whatever he does, he'll want the world to do it in." In a time when the clinging selfishness of the old amounts to an undeclared war on the young, Oliver's generosity is bracing and much-needed:
But he is irresistible! Whatever he wants of mine—my room, my ideas, my glass of milk, my socks and shirts, my place in line, my position, my world—he may have it.
A persistent theme in White Pine, and in Oliver's work generally, is that of necessity—the human necessity of wrestling with questions of death and beauty, desire and surrender, and the animal necessity, to which we also must yield, of eating and being eaten. Yet it must be noted that a part of Oliver hesitates to accept such necessities as absolute. In the lovely title poem, she asks, "Isn't everything, in the dark, too wonderful to be exact, and circumscribed?"
William Stafford distinguished between the darkness of evil and the darkness of nature—in that second, good darkness things are not nearly as "exact" and "circumscribed" as the rational, disenchanted scientific intellect's fantasy of them. In nature at its most profound level, we apprehend the marvelous and inexplicable, to which story, religion, and myth are appropriate human responses. Finally, it is toward storytelling and mythmaking, those ancient disciplines of veneration, that the poems in White Pine lean:
… what happens
next we say what happens
next and why does it
happen and what happens
then because that has happened
lifting up the darkness
by that much.
In the prose poem "December," a deer with leaves growing from its antlers is Oliver's emblem of a world stranger and more sacred than we know: "The great door opens a crack, a bit of the truth is given—so bright it is almost a death, a joy we can't bear …"
This section contains 1,362 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)