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Poet Mary Oliver: a Solitary Walk

By Steven Ratiner / December 9, 1992

WHEN Mary Oliver talks about her work - something she is quite reluctant to do, fending off interviews and media proposals - there is an austerity, a quiet determination to her thought that brings to mind an earlier century. The discipline of her writing life might seem more natural in a time before every living room was plugged into the perpetual tide of images and ideas, when an individual cultivated the solitude and curiosity of the inner life.

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This is not to say Ms. Oliver's poems aren't thoroughly contemporary in style, voice, and motive. It's just that, during our conversation, I kept getting the idea that Emily Dickinson would have found her a most agreeable next-door neighbor.

As a young writer, Ms. Oliver was not crushed by the intense isolation and general lack of support peculiar to the poet's vocation. Nor was her equanimity dramatically altered when her book "American Primitive" burst on the national scene, winning the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. This November, her "New and Selected Poems" was honored with the National Book Award as well.

She continues to thrive on the simple necessities of her daily routine: time to be alone, a place to walk and observe, and the opportunity to carry the world back to the page. Like Emily before her, Mary Oliver focuses on the luminous particularities of experience, savoring the simple and the astonishing occurrences of the natural world for the wisdom embedded in beauty and for the mysteries hovering just beneath the glittering surfaces.

Her poetry is also an extended investigation into the nature of the self. But in her vision, the self is a much more open and encompassing concept than the succinct identities to which we affix our names. The "Mary Oliver" of these poems has rain passing through her, contains swans and gannets, pine groves and waterfalls, and the uncanny sense that, at any moment, the world is poised on the verge of speech.

Steven Ratiner: Reading your "New and Selected Poems," I was impressed by the utter consistency of the book. Even though it spans nearly three decades of work, it feels as if it were a single collection, one long unfolding.

Mary Oliver: Oh, that's wonderful. ... It's what I intended and would like it to feel like. If I started over, I think I just would write one book and keep adding to that book.

But certainly it's more than literary style that unifies the poems. What's the driving force that has steered you on one smooth path?

Well, style I guess is no more than the apparatus that you try for in order to say whatever it is you wanted to say. ... Emerson said that the poem was a "confession of faith." I think you have to have some sense of overall vision in your work, or upon what does the work feed? What does it mean? What does it matter? What's its impetus? I have always had that, that sense of vision. That wish to - what? Show, I suppose. ... The wish to demonstrate a joie.

How did you keep from the trap many younger poets slip into - the sway of imitation, the pull of literary fashion?

I think a couple of things. For one, I never, myself, was in a workshop setting. ... I was chronologically slightly before that era. I decided very early that I wanted to write. But I didn't think of it as a career. I didn't even think of it as a profession. ... It was the most exciting thing, the most powerful thing, the most wonderful thing to do with my life. And I didn't question if I should - I just kept sharpening the pencils!

You never had the insecurity of "Am I doing this right?"

Oh, I never have felt yet that I've done it right. (Laughs.) This is the marvelous thing about language. It can always be done better. But I begin to see what works and what doesn't work. I begin to rely more on style, which is, as I say, apparatus or method, than on luck, prayers, or long hours of work. I worked privately, and sometimes I feel that might be better for poets than the kind of social workshop gathering. My school was the great poets: I read, and I read, and I read. I imitated - shamelessly , fearlessly. I was endlessly discontent. I looked at words and couldn't believe the largess of their sound - the whole sound structure of stops and sibilants, and things which I speak about now with students! All such mechanics have always fascinated me. Still do!

But the solitariness that was at the heart of your discovery of poetry is largely ruled out by the university workshop model. Are younger writers missing this essential experience?