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New work from two poetry pros satisfies both ear and mind

Mark Doty and Mary Oliver locate the essence of poetry.

By Elizabeth Lund / April 15, 2008

Red Bird By Mary Oliver Beacon Press 96 pp., $23

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The best, and best-loved, contemporary poets do more than feel the pulse of the times or capture verbal snapshots. They also reveal something about the nature of poetry – what it is and why it resonates – that readers crave but don't find elsewhere.

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Mary Oliver and Mark Doty do just that, though in vastly different ways.

Mary Oliver, whose new book Red Bird is at the top of the poetry bestseller list, has always written about the natural world, serving more as a mirror than a commentator. Her imagery and experiences do most of the talking, and the result is poetry that feels clear and untainted.

This remains true in "Red Bird," her 12th collection in poems, as in these lines from "The Orchard":

all winds blow cold

at last,

and the leaves,

so pretty, so many,


in the great, black

packet of time,

in the great, black

packet of ambition,

The ambition in those lines is both that of the trees and the poet, and Oliver turns the mirror on herself in many poems, though not in a direct or obtrusive way. As in her previous book, "Thirst," the order and fragility of the natural world prompt her to consider both human behavior and the Creator.

When she describes a panther, for example, she moves easily from the "puffs of its feet," on which it stands or waits, to:

Because, Sir,

you have given him,

for your own reasons,

everything that he needs: leaves, food, shelter;

a conscience

that never blinks.

The subtle reference to God broadens the scope of the poem without undermining it or making the language feel self-conscious. The lines in this and other poems have a quiet, memorable power, as if the reader had overheard Oliver at prayer.

The strongest poems in "Red Bird" – and there are many – have a similar ease and grace. They feel effortless and they employ a subtlety and refinement that allow Oliver to tackle challenging subjects – death, the abuse of the earth – without sounding preachy or predictable.

Oliver's humanity shines through when she writes about love – for the ocean, people she has lost, and her dog Percy, who says of books, "I ate one once."

The poet gets in her own way, however, when she muddies her work with sweeping statements or political comments, such as:

We will be known as a culture that

feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the


These fall flat because they lack specificity and detail, which gives poetry so much of its power. They also ask readers to supply the emotion and resonance rather than the poet.

Oliver has far more impact when she does the hard work of helping others view the world through her lens. Yet where she acts as a "window" for her poems, Mark Doty holds a magnifying glass to his subjects. He uses language as a way to highlight a moment, elevate it, and unearth hidden depth and meaning.