New and Selected Poems | Critical Essay by Lisa M. Steinman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Essay by Lisa M. Steinman

SOURCE: "Dialogues Between History and Dream," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 428-38.

In the following review, Steinman finds an "almost romantic lyricism" in Dream Work that floats over a deeper personal perspective of the past.

Mary Oliver's Dream Work, the last book reviewed here, stands out when placed next to the three books discussed above [The Happy Man, by Donald Hall, The Walls of Thebes, by David R. Slavitt, and Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove], precisely because it seems to take no notice of any past or history. True, the cover of one of Oliver's earlier volumes, The Night Traveler, showed a portrait of Virgil; but even there Oliver's Virgil came by way of Blake. Dream Work, in fact, opens with the poem "Dogfish" in which Oliver writes: "I wanted / the past to go away, I wanted / to leave it, like another country." Later in the same poem, the personal past is similarly discarded: "You don't want to hear the story / of my life, and anyway / I don't want to tell it, I want to listen / to the enormous waterfalls of the sun." As in American Primitive, there is a sort of trick here. In the earlier volume, the apparently unself-conscious celebrations of the present and of the natural world, presented as if in a picture with no perspective or depth, are quite self-consciously entitled primitives. In Dream Work, the past rejected is nonetheless felt loitering under the surface of many of the poems.

Yet in both volumes Oliver's best poems are those of an almost romantic lyricism. There are more references in Dream Work to the nightmare side of vision, to "the dark heart of the story" ("The Chance to Love Everything"), or to "the dark song / of the morning" after a night in which, we are told, "in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie" ("Rage"). But despite the number of times darkness is mentioned, the dark is less detailed, less fully imagined, and less convincing than Oliver's primary subject, namely visionary experiences. If Slavitt's response to a flight of birds is to step back and explain he does not believe in redemption, here is Oliver on "Wild Geese":

      Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
      the world offers itself to your imagination,
      calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and excitng—
      over and over announcing your place
      in the family of things.

One might mistrust such epiphanic moments, wishing perhaps that Oliver had a bit more of Hall's restraint and a bit less of this yearning to merge with the world. Yet the poetry, in the iambs, in the careful mixture of statement and image, avoids sentimentality and is, in the final analysis, deeply moving. Here, in an epiphany built of the loss of such moments, is another equally powerful passage, from "Whispers":

     Have you ever
     tried to
     slide into
     the heaven of sensation and met
     you know not what
     resistance but it
     held you back?

The poem ends:

     … have you stood,
     staring out over the swamps, the swirling rivers
     where the birds like tossing fires
     flash through the trees, their bodies
     exchanging a certain happiness
     in the sleek amazing
     humdrum of nature's design—
     … to which
     you cannot belong?

This is clearly not the humdrum world that most of us inhabit; there is no sign of Hall's Martha Bates Dudley and Mr. Wakeville, of Slavitt's eye tests, newspapers and books, or of Dove's couple, living through the Depression and company picnics. The other poets reviewed here let other people into their poetry, people who live and have jobs in a recognizable world. Oliver's more solitary landscapes are not even wholly of the natural world. As with romantic poetry generally, Oliver's "world" is centered in the self, or in the self's quests. "The Journey" admits:

     … there was a new voice,
     which you slowly
     recognized as your own,
     that kept you company
     as you strode deeper and deeper
     into the world,
     determined to save
     the only life you could

Finally, the world into which Oliver descends is not the physical world these poems at first appear to celebrate. Dream Work is notable in part because it explicitly acknowledges that sensuality is not what Oliver is after. In American Primitive, perhaps disingenuously, Oliver wrote: "the only way / to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first" ("The Plum Trees"). In Dream Work, we read: "The spirit / likes to dress up … it needs / the metaphor of the body" ("Poem," emphasis added). It is admirable that Dream Work maintains the visionary lyricism of American Primitive while going on to examine its premises like this.

There are many ways in which Oliver's poems are the most immediately compelling of those reviewed here. And yet, by contrast, if Slavitt's over-explanatory discursiveness is irksome at times, it also seems to stem in part from an honest and tough-minded recognition, which we also admire, of what it means to be romantically inclined in 1986. The high romantic vein has always risked losing the world. For many of us, the poetry we want now will have to come (to borrow a phrase) from poets of reality. And we feel we have such poets when we read the way the seemingly unpoetic lives and language of Dove's couple or of Hall's awkwardly named, and precisely realized, individuals (Felix, Merle, Harvey) are given a place in poetry without being wrenched from history. At the same time, Oliver's poetry strikes a deep and seductive chord. It is, to quote Donald Hall from an early BBC interview, a poetry "that, if you leave yourself open to the language of dreams, is open to everyone…. You need not translate anything … you have to float on it." Perhaps, after all, the dialogue between history and dream—and between community and self—that we find when these poets are read together is what we really want from poetry.

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This section contains 974 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lisa M. Steinman