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.
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
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:
you have given him,
for your own reasons,
everything that he needs: leaves, food, shelter;
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
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.
Fire to Fire, his new and selected poems, illustrates how he has done this over the past 20 years.
Striking imagery and a powerful imagination are two of his best tools, as evident in his earliest poems. When Doty writes about an Easter contest in "Ararat," for example (from "Turtle, Swan," 1987), he doesn't recall an egg, but an oval full of glorious possibilities.
What might have coiled inside it?
Crocuses tight on their clock-springs,
a bird who'd sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning's flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.
The descriptions are surprising yet spot-on, and the precise imagery provides the perfect balance for plainer, more conversational phrasing.
Doty seamlessly blends the two, allowing him to pull a reader into the poem, loosen his hold ever so slightly, and then pull him or her in deeper.
As his work matures, Doty becomes adept at balancing sharp, insightful observations with language that ranges from plain to "poetic." He isn't afraid to use words that are multisyllabic or heavy in the mouth.
Nor does he avoid adjectives that might sound precious or inflated in the hands of a less-skilled writer. In "A Display of Mackerel," from "Atlantis," he opens with:
They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales'
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
The lines work because Doty moves from a strong visual – fish – to a more abstract description, and then repeats the process in reverse.
He doesn't let the language get away from him and he continually surprises the reader, as he does a few stanzas later with "Suppose we could iridesce,/ like these, and lose ourselves/ entirely in the universe/ of shimmer."
By transforming an adjective into a verb, Doty helps readers see the scene with fresh eyes, just as he does when he broadens the image in the next three lines.
As "Fire and Ice" progresses, Doty becomes increasingly comfortable with long, layered narratives and complex subjects. The poems feel more intellectual, yet remain grounded in earthy subjects and universal emotions.
Doty never shies away from difficult topics, such as losing his lover and several friends to illness, or from the mundane. He doesn't just describe his dog in "Golden Retrievals," he views the world from the canine's perspective, including a comment on his owner's "haze-headed" behavior.
Doty satisfies the ear and the mind in much of "Fire to Fire." At times his poems become too abstract or overblown, especially the new work. That's when readers will most appreciate – and miss – his ability to reveal moments that they might otherwise have overlooked.
Yet weaknesses aside, both Doty and Oliver use their distinct lenses to illumine the human experience. That, along with their inimitable voices and visions, makes their work not just memorable but necessary.