New and Selected Poems | Critical Essay by Mary Oliver

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of New and Selected Poems.
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Critical Essay by Mary Oliver

SOURCE: "Some Thoughts on the Line," in The Ohio Review, Vol. 38, 1987, pp. 41-6.

In the following essay, Oliver discusses the mechanics of poetry and how length and tone variations can result in a wide range of effects.


All manner of effects can be realized by the choices one makes concerning the line, and all choices are determined from a norm point, iambic pentameter.

The iamb is the paramount sound in any string of English words, thus it is the most fluid and natural sound. The pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our lungs, and is thus the line most suitable to our verse. By suitable I mean it fits without stress and yet makes a full phrase, so it gives off no particular message. It is the norm.

All deviations from the norm do emit messages. Excitement of all kinds, with its accompanying physical and psychic tension, "takes our breath"; any line shorter than pentameter indicates this. The reader is brought to attention as the shorter line reveals a situation which is in some way out of the ordinary. Tetrameter can release a felt agitation or restlessness, or on the other hand a gaiety, more easily and "naturally" than pentameter, and so on.

The longer line (longer than five feet) suggests a greater-than-human power. It can seem by its simple endurance—beyond ordinary lung capacity—grandiose, or prophetic. It can also indicate abundance, richness, a sense of joy. Underlying whatever freight of language (statement) it carries, it emits a sense of an unstoppable machine.

In free as in metered verse, a feeling of reliability and cohesion is important. In the opening lines of a piece—with whatever length of line and predominant kind of line-breaks or line-turns—an initial mood is created. Once this is set, the reader has a right to expect that the general tone and mood, created by these mechanical selections, will continue—or will change only for a purpose essential to the poem.

When the poet uses previous models (sonnets, blank verse, etc.), he or she is in charge of the arrangement of words and sounds within each line, and a rhyme scheme if it is called for, but the form dictates each turn. In the free-flowing, unmodelled poem, each turn is made according to the effects which the poet wants to achieve. Of these decisions, measurable length is only one. The point in syntax at which the line turns is another.

At the end of each line there exists—inevitably—a brief pause. This pause is part of the motion of the poem, as hesitation is part of dance. With it, the poet can do several things. Say the line is self-enclosed—not a sentence necessarily, but a phrase which is entire in terms of syntax, a logical unity. Here the pause works as an instant of inactivity, in which the reader is "invited" to weigh the information and pleasure of the line.

When the poet on the other hand enjambs the line—breaks syntax by turning the line before the phrase is complete at a natural point—it speeds the line for two reasons—curiosity about the missing part of the phrase impels the reader to hurry on, and the reader will hurry twice as fast over the obstacle of the pause because it is there—we leap with more energy over a ditch than over no ditch.

A third possibility is to repeat one type of line (say the self-enclosed) a number of times. Each line reinforces the reader's pace. A trusted rhythm, that primal pleasure, is swiftly achieved and the change, when it occurs, is therefore all the stronger.

Other or additional effects are achieved by the end sound at the point of turning. Feminine endings try to blur the pause; masculine endings are forthright; mute-ended words slam a gate.

Complete units of logic or syntax make use of the pause as indicated above, with additional resonances playing off the aura of certainty which attaches to complete statements and the incantatory spell which comes from repeated gestures or rhythms of any sort. This mood asserts itself even if the lines are phrased as questions—when the conclusion of the line matches the conclusion of the sentence, authority is released.

All these mechanical selections, it seems to me, work as described. They are not magical of course, but illusionary. They are not the poem, but its crafty underpinnings.


The tone of many contemporary lyric poems is that of personal disclosure. Person to person, the poet is talking to someone—often to you, the reader. Intimately, intensely, and smoothly. This being so, the sense of movement is crucial, and the poems flow on without a rattle—the line-turns are often chosen for important but small effects, like the changes of expression in conversation.

During the period when James Wright was letting books of bad poetry fall behind stones, when he and Robert Thy and others were investigating the "deep image," Wright's work changed significantly, as we know. Speaking now only of the mechanics of his changed work, I wonder if Wright did not discover during this time that a certain kind of language—heard all one's life but dismissed out-of-hand as anti-poetry exactly because it was so much a part of "real life"—could be incorporated with startling effect into the poem. I am thinking of such passages as the following:

     I am hungry. In two more days
     It will be spring. So this
     Is what it feels like.
            ("Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store")

Or the seemingly casual, vernacular opening to "Northern Pike":

    All right. Try this,
    Then. Every body
    I know and care for,
    And every body
    Else is going
    To die …

Or this passage:

     I had nothing to do with it. I was not here.
     I was not born.
     In 1862, when your hotheads
     Raised hell from here to South Dakota,
     My own fathers scattered into West Virginia
     And southern Ohio.
     My family fought the Confederacy
     And fought the Union.
     None of them got killed.
     But for all that, it was not my fathers
     Who murdered you.
     Not much.
                  ("A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862")

Here is a winging back and forth between the manufactured literary line, and the simple, even humble, cadence of vernacular speech. Clearly the word "scattered" is a literary choice, and its appearance reminds us that this is not a conversation though it sounds like one—it is still that formal thing, a poem. Yet the whole passage "works" because of the final two words, which are certainly not poetry—except in the context of the passage. What is forceful and gives pleasure is not just the use of the vernacular but its transformation. The unassuming phrase, as familiar to us as our own name, is worked into the mechanical structure and literary body of the poem, it is resurrected; it is changed utterly.

The conversational tone is not without precedent. "I will teach you my townspeople how to hold a funeral," wrote William Carlos Williams, and a lot else besides which displays an affinity, with rather than a difference from ordinary American speech, and thus invites us to listen with a natural rather than a separate kind of attention.

And now, what has happened to the line? It would be the devil's task to indicate strong and light stresses through the last quotation from Wright. The third sentence, the one containing "scattered," is fairly easy. But the others, difficult to scan, show different characteristics. So many words of one syllable, so much caesura, so many spondees. The rhythm is gone, the tension is all one stroke. By the old rules there is no determined result to such a line. We sense only a mood of intensity, and import. It is the unpretentious turned rhetorical, it is rhetoric that has unfolded as naturally as a leaf. It stretches the listening ear in a new way.

     My brother comes home from work
     and climbs the stairs to our room.
     I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
     one by one. You can have it, he says.
                          ("You Can Have It")

Here is a more recent example from a poem by Philip Levine, a wonderful example because of the tightness of the stanza in which the final phrase blurts forth with utter weariness and yet uncommon resonance. We are being told a story, mostly in the cadence of iambs with no more variation than speech naturally holds; but the spondees in line three prepare us, though we don't know it, for the sustained almost unscannable effect of the fourth line, in which there is no emphasis, but the totality of gut eloquence.

What Wright did so often and so well I see practiced in many recent poems. I sometimes hear from poets (and am not without the feeling myself) of their wish to speak less personally and more on behalf of the "people entire." Whoever that is. It is an interesting and difficult wish, and without easy solution. The use of vernacular phrases, I imagine, is connected to this ambiguous but restless desire.

Additionally, I think the poetry reading has had a real influence on the line, and especially the kind of line I have been describing. As a matter of course the poet now takes on the role of reader as well as writer. In my experience, the audience finds great pleasure in poems which so use our "real language," and the poet of course senses this. The academic audience is stirred by something different, the more general audience is moved by phrases so familiar and yet infused with new energy.

And what does one hope the words on the page will be, as the eight o'clock reading begins? Not only an indication of what to say, but of how to say it. The vernacular line—which in truth is more spoken than read—is apt to appear on the page in just that way. And line-breaks on the page which will work for reading poems aloud will work that way for the attentive silent reader also. Through the many possibilities of craft, the poem comes into its careful existence. And certainly the poet these days may thrill us still with finery, but just as likely with the simple cloth of plain speech which, in the conflagration of the poem, has also caught fire.

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This section contains 1,676 words
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Critical Essay by Mary Oliver from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.