Mary Jane Oliver: Profile

Poetic Influence

Her circle has been quite large and influential. I read about her in a poem by Weisse. The description of Oliver in Weisse’ s poem was intriguing enough to get me to look her up. I am so glad that I did.

Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her poetry collection American Primitive and the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. She was influenced by Whitman, Thoreau, Shelley, Rumi and Keats.

This is bio stuff that can be found in other places online easily enough. My poetry was affected by the way that she focused on the little things that beings in the natural world do.

For example, in her poem The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First, she talks about a little hawk, describing how it takes off into the air. She uses precise words like “green glass,” “the color of butter,” “slightly silvery air” and “brown leaves” to create this image in my mind. So I can clearly imagine what she has observed and has sparked her poem.

In her description, I notice that her point is to pay attention to the natural world to create a special spiritual connection. The other day, I stood beneath the oak tree outside and placed my hand on its branch. It moved and swayed in the wind, reminding me of its great life. I have been told that the oak is a species known as a live oak and has lived there for over 70 years. I live the oak but know that I am too small to matter to him. Or, maybe, maybe the oak tree has been waiting all of this time for someone to lay palm to branch and pay attention. He is beautiful and is home to many other creatures.

Life and times

She died in 2019 at the age of 83. She was born outside of Cleveland. She lived in a time when it was necessary to be a poet as today it is necessary to be a poet. She and her partner moved to Provincetown and they alternated between there and Hobe Sound for the rest of her life.

This looks a lot like the area about 35 minutes from where I live in South Florida, but this is where Mary Oliver lived in Hobe Sound.

Beside the Waterfall

Mary Oliver Poem

This poem is structured like a waterfall. It’s lines are arranged like the water cascading down. It’s great for me because you all know how I dig waterfalls. I have never seen a real one, but I am fascinated by them. Well, in this poem, each stanza begins further left than its second line. The third line is indented further and then so is the fourth line. This pattern repeats itself in each stanza, and when you look at the entire poem without reading its contents you see a visual of a waterfall.

Then you read the text! Wow! All kinds of things are described that fool with the central idea of a waterfall. There is a dog who has killed a fawn. Oliver describes how the dog whom she names Winston, like a cigarette, bites the head off of the deer and then looks up at her with kind eyes. Yes, kind. I had to read it twice too.

Little Cujo kills this deer, a fawn, which means that it’s a baby deer, and then looks up at her like nothing happened. What?

The entire scene reminds me of Oliver’s style of reporting scenes from the natural world as honestly as possible but without sacrificing the drama. Winston is just like that waterfall. It looks beautiful and “kind” but if one gets caught in its force, the water can drown and pulverize.

I love this poem.

Next week, I will talk about Joyce Carol Oates.


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