Poet Mary Oliver: a Solitary Walk
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What led you to your bond with the natural world? I'm assuming it began when you were very young.Skip to next paragraph
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Well, yes, I think it does or does not happen when one is young. ... I grew up in a small town in Ohio. ... It was pastoral, it was nice, it was an extended family. I don't know why I felt such affinity with the natural world except that it was available to me, that's the first thing. It was right there. And for whatever reasons, I felt those first important connections, those first experiences being made with the natural world rather than with the social world. I think the first way you do it, the first
way you take meaning from the physicality of the world, from your environment, probably never leaves you. I think it sets a pattern, in a way.
I was really intrigued by the poem "Picking Blueberries." It's one of those instances in your poetry where nature is clearly a mirror in which we can see ourselves from a fresh perspective. A deer stumbles across a young woman sleeping in a clearing and there is a moment of surprising intimacy. Before she finally retreats, you say: "the moment before she did that/ was so wide and so deep/ it has lasted to this day;/ I have only to think of her -/ the flower of her amazement ... to be absent again from th is world/ and alive, again, in another." The poem ends with that gentle question, "Beautiful girl,/ where are you?"
The speaker is saying, where is the girl of 30 years ago. Where is the girl that I was? What has time done?
It's a poem that tries to break down time, in a way. I almost never give the speaker of the poem a gender, so that the poem will fit as an experience to either a male or female reader. Many poets, especially women poets right now, are trying to write poems about their personal lives ... to share, as they say, with the reader. And I'm trying to write a poem which was not the experience of the reader but might have been. I use present tense a lot for the same reason. Every way that I can, I try to make it a felt experience. And so to use one gender or the other would make all readers of the other gender a little hesitant. But in this particular poem when I say "beautiful girl" it gives it away. But that is really all I meant. All young girls are beautiful.
And especially when you're an old girl, (laughs), then you remember that you were a beautiful girl once.
If it's clear which subjects you focus on, it's curious to me which subjects are wholly absent from your books. In the 100-odd poems here, there are precious few moments where you focus on personal history, family, or friends. I am surprised by the degree of distance you maintain in your writing. Is it simply a matter of privacy?
Well, I think there might be a couple of reasons. I do feel that knowledge about the writer can be invasive.
At the time I was growing up, literature was involved with the so-called confessional poets. And I was not interested in that. I did not think that specific and personal perspective functioned well for the reader at all. The women's movement - I did not join that either. I applaud it, and I guess I may even be part of it. I don't see it working very well in poetry. I see very good poets defeating their own poems with polemic. Not always, but too often.
Your nature poetry somehow takes in the whole matter of our living and our dying. In the poem "Poppies," you say simply, "of course/ loss is the great lesson." It ends with the lines: "But also I say this: that light/ is an invitation/ to happiness,/ and that happiness,/ when it's done right,/ is a kind of holiness,/ palpable and redemptive." Is that the motive behind your forays into the woods and onto the page?
Absolutely! Bull's-eye, to point to those lines! I think that appreciation is a very valuable thing to give to the world. And that's the kind of happiness I mean. And I can't go on with that because there's no language to talk about it. But that's probably very close to the center of whatever I feel spiritually.
"The Swan" takes on this idea directly as well when it says: "Of course! the path to heaven/ doesn't lie down in flat miles./ It's in the imagination/ with which you perceive/ this world,/ and the gestures/ with which you honor it./ Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those/ white wings/ touch the shore?" Do you think in some sense that becomes the measure of our lives, how we do honor to what we discover in this world?
Absolutely and totally. I do believe it. That's a poem in which every person, every reader can take his own measure and decide his response.