Poet Mary Oliver: a Solitary Walk
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.
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?
It was central for me - I don't know if it was essential, really. It's the way I happened to do it. Also, I take walks. Walks work for me. I enter some arena that is neither conscious or unconscious. It's a joke here in town: I take a walk and I'm found standing still somewhere. This is not a walk to arrive; this is a walk that's part of a process. [Poet] Donald Hall takes short naps. Naps work for him, open the door to the "vatic" voice, as he calls it. Something else will work for somebody else, perhap s. It's a matter of trying everything you can try, just to see what will work for you.
And if we found you, standing transfixed, would that be the beginning of the poem? Would you begin to write right then?
Well, sometimes. I keep a notebook with me all the time - and I scribble.... You begin to get your felt reaction in a phrase, perhaps. But, you know, I've said before that the angel doesn't sit on your shoulder unless the pencil's in your hand. ... And in truth that [is only] given after years of desiring it, being open to it, and walking toward it.
The poet William Stafford describes his morning discipline, sitting at his desk, being prepared to receive whatever his imagination brings. But it seems your focus is on the prolonged work that takes place after that gift is received.
Yes, but I don't see how you can separate the pleasure from the work. There is nothing better than work. Work is also play, children know that. Children play earnestly as if it were work. But people grow up, and they work with a sorrow upon them. It's duty. But I feel writing is work, and I feel it's also play - bound together.
Yet you approach the task with a sense of great responsibility.
Oh, yes. It's my responsibility if I choose to do it, to write as well as I possibly can. I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us. We don't have to rely totally on experience if we can do things in our imagination. ... It's the only way in which you can live more lives than your own. You can escape your own time, your own sensibility, your own narrowness of vision.
In most of the poems, there seems to be a natural three-stage process in the experience. The first involves seeing, a careful scrutiny of the subject. But that seeing evolves into a deeper focus, a heightened awareness. Suddenly we become present to the moment. What is that seeing beyond seeing?
It's like an epiphany; I see something and look at it and look at it. I see myself going closer and closer just to see it better, as though to see its meaning out of its physical form. And then, I take something emblematic from it and then it transcends the actual.
Yes, that's just how I thought of the third stage in the process: transcendence. The poem "Gannets" is a good example. You begin with a clear-eyed description of the gannets diving into the water, coming up with the fish in their mouths. But suddenly this life-and-death confrontation is transformed into something else: "...and I say: life is real,/ and pain is real,/ but death is an imposter." The poem concludes in some other realm entirely, declaring that the fish "slide down into a black fire/ for a mo ment,/ then rise from the water inseparable/ from the gannets' wings." What is it like when the work extends beyond mere knowing?
Almost the best I can say is that I know when I have not done it. I know the sag of the unfinished poem. And I know the release of the poem that is finished.
I'd like to ask you about the choices, the large and small sacrifices you've made in order to have this work become a center in your life.
It was not a choice of writing or not writing. It was a choice of loving my life or not loving my life. To keep writing was always a first priority. ... I worked probably 25 years by myself. ... Just writing and working, not trying to publish much. Not giving readings. A longer time than people really are willing to commit before they ... want to go public or be published. Also I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Really? Never?
Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. ... I usually get up at five. Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there's no reason why they can't get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day - which is what I did. ... I don't know how to measure the life I lived during those years. I was certainly never in want, a nd I was never wealthy. I have a notion that if you are going to be spiritually curious, you better not get cluttered up with too many material things. ... It's a commitment, but it's also an unstoppable urge toward that life of the imagination. I don't think I have been bored one day in my life, you know, or an hour.
What led you to your bond with the natural world? I'm assuming it began when you were very young.
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.