August 20, 2019

Remembering Mary Oliver

““Mary Oliver is saving my life,” Paul Chowder, the title character of Nicholson Baker’s novel “The Anthologist,” scrawls in the margins of Oliver’s “New and Selected Poems, Volume One.” A struggling poet, Chowder is suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. His girlfriend, with whom he’s lived for eight years, has just left him, ostensibly because he has been unable to write the long-overdue introduction to a poetry anthology that he has been putting together. For solace and inspiration, he turns to poets who have been his touchstones—Louise Bogan, Theodore Roethke, Sara Teasdale—before discovering Oliver. In her work, he finds consolation: “I immediately felt more sure of what I was doing.” Of her poems, he says, “They’re very simple. And yet each has something.”

Coming from Chowder, this statement is a surprise. Yes, he’s a fictional character, but he’s precisely the kind of person who tends to look down on Mary Oliver’s poetry. (In fact, the entire Mary Oliver motif in “The Anthologist” may well be a sly joke on Baker’s part.) By any measure, Oliver is a distinguished and important poet. She published her first collection, “No Voyage and Other Poems,” in 1963, when she was twenty-eight; “American Primitive,” her fourth full-length book, won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1984, and “New and Selected Poems” won the National Book Award, in 1992. Still, perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. None of her books has received a full-length review in the Times. In the Times’ capsule review of “Why I Wake Early” (2004), the nicest adjective the writer, Stephen Burt, could come up with for her work was “earnest.” In a Times essay disparaging an issue of the magazine O devoted to poetry, in which Oliver was interviewed by Maria Shriver, the critic David Orr wrote of her poetry that “one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” (The joke falls flat, considering how much of Oliver’s work revolves around the violence of the natural world.) Orr also laughed at the idea of using poetry to overcome personal challenges—“if it worked as self-help, you’d see more poets driving BMWs”—and manifested a general discomfort at the collision of poetry and popular culture. “The chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast, and not even the mighty Oprah can build a bridge from empty air,” he wrote.”

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