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Of Poets and Critics and the Passing of Mary Oliver

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

The outpouring of affection for poet Mary Oliver (1935–2019) in the days following her death has been remarkable. Some pretty big names in the literary world shuffled off this mortal coil in the past year, among them poets John Ashbery, Derek Walcott, and Donald Hall, playwright and poet Ntosake Shange, and practitioners in prose Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Amos Oz, and V.S. Naipaul. All were writers of distinction. None seem to have touched people as Oliver did.

My exposure to Mary Oliver is limited to chance encounters with her poems from time to time. This week I took a look at the sampling of her poems available online at the Poetry Foundation website. A few almost striking lines and images aside, nothing there inclined me to read further or more deeply. I came away largely indifferent to her charms. That is okay. Not everything has to be liked by or meaningful for everyone.

I do not have to be taken with her myself to recognize Oliver as a significant figure among poets of her era, just as I acknowledge the significance of other poets for whom I have little affinity, John Ashbery, James Dickey, Theodore Roethke, and Elizabeth Bishop, by way of example. This seems to be not enough for some of Oliver's admirers who bristle at any criticism or perceived slight. Nothing less than popular canonization is acceptable.

Ruth Franklin is a book critic and former editor at The New Republic who was interviewed by Robin Young on NPR's Here & Now, where Oliver was presented as a poet "who explored the connection between spirituality and the natural world":

[Her] poetry used simple language to observe the profound. She wrote about nature, but in those poems, she was also tapping into spirituality, mortality, redemption and optimism. Author Ruth Franklin (@ruth_franklin), who wrote a profile of Oliver for The New Yorker in 2017, says Oliver masterfully tapped into a "vein of desire" for plainspoken poetry—something not necessarily embraced by critics, but a style beloved by every day readers.

A kindred sentiment is expressed by Maria Shriver in her introductory remarks to an interview she conducted with Oliver for O: The Oprah Magazine: "Her work is uplifting and full of courage—it's about the natural world, but also about larger themes like love, survival, gratitude, joy—and it spoke to me."

Words like accessible and plainspoken are routinely invoked to explain Oliver's appeal to a wide and diverse audience, an appeal that is then presented as evidence of her accomplishment and importance as a poet. These elements may also account for the attraction her poems hold for individuals who look to poetry as a form of therapy. Oliver recognized this and addressed it with Shriver:

I think a lot of people—certainly Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—got therapy mixed up with the work they were doing, and that's a shame. I may be wrong, but it seems like they felt they could heal themselves through writing, and it didn't work. I don't usually mess around with what makes me unhappy when I'm writing. I want to write poems that will comfort, maybe amuse, enliven other people. I don't mean that the world is all great and wonderful. But I'm careful to—I try to keep the emphasis on the good and the hopeful.

This is a fair assessment that enlightened me as to Olvier's self-awareness and sense of what she was up to as a poet. It may not be all that far from Keats' " spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits," lines which have long given me comfort. We can find solace in poems, as Boethius found consolation in philosophy, but there is more to poetry than that. Truth is not always a comfort. Rimbaud found Beauty bitter. It is wonderful when readers find that the poems of Mary Oliver and other poets help them make it through darkness and get on with their "one wild and precious life." Maybe, though, it is the belief that we have hit on something that will save us that matters more than exactly what it is we hit on. Poems can unsettle us as much as they mend. Like any other therapy, poetry as therapy has its roster of failures. Poetry did not save Plath, Sexton, Hart Crane, or John Berryman, to name but a few off the top of my head.

Oliver's poems tend to be short, the language straightforward. Descriptions drawn from nature have an easy familiarity. Readers who find in their immediacy a source of uplift, spirituality, redemption, and optimism may have little need or desire for a literary sublime that Harold Bloom attributes to Shelley, defined "as an experience that persuaded readers to give up easier pleasures for more difficult pleasures" (Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why, p. 122). These more difficult pleasures attract us with their promise of a greater reward than might be had from the immediacy that comes with accessibility and plain speaking.

Another admirer of Oliver is Rachel Syme, a columnist for The New Yorker who writes about fashion, style, and consumer culture. Syme, like Franklin, is miffed by the failure of critics to give Oliver her due. "When Oliver died," she writes, "the first thing that I felt, after sadness, was a kind of roiling anger at her critics, who dogged her throughout her lifetime...calling her poetry simplistic, her verse plain." She and Franklin single out David Orr, poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review and professor at Cornell University:

In the Times, in 2011, David Orr wrote, of her work, "one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it"; he added, referring to Oprah’s poetry issue, which prominently featured Oliver, if poetry "worked as self-help, you’d see more poets driving BMWs." (Syme)

Syme goes on to raise the specter of "a subconscious (or even purposeful) misogyny at work in Oliver's critics," a generalized ad hominem smear even when qualified with the "perhaps." The story goes that when a young Allen Ginsberg asked William Carlos Williams if he had any advice he could give, older poet to younger poet, Williams looked out the window and croaked in his old man voice, "Lotta bastards out there." There are misogynists among them, and they should be held to account whenever they rear up on their hind legs, but not every criticism of a female writer by a male writer can be put down to misogyny. Even when misogyny seems to be present, I am not sure much is gained by dwelling on argument about whether someone is or is not really misogynist—or racist or homophobic, &c. Sometimes it is more fruitful to focus on the content and where and how it goes wrong than to get bogged down in armchair psychologizing and interminable wrangling about what darkness lies in someone's heart.

Just as Syme's instinct is to suspect a subconscious (or even purposeful) misogyny at work in Oliver's critics, I wonder if an element of the anti-intellectualism that runs deep as ever in American culture may play into this criticism of the critics. I must be careful here myself. This is not a defense or downplaying of the impenetrable jargon, pettifoggery, gibberish, and drivel that sometimes passes for learned discourse within the academy. Rather I want to stand up for a love of literature and devotion to learning that I hope, perhaps a shade naÏvely, is still to be found among the professors and students of our universities. Critical commentary is not always a matter of elitist fashion, highbrow snobbery, or despicable bias. Sometimes critique is based on honest difference of opinion and aesthetic sensibility.

It can hardly be claimed that Oliver was snubbed or given short shrift by the poetry establishment when she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and a National Book Award in 1992, and was recipient of an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, a Lannan Literary Award, the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Prize and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Poets and their admirers have carped about critics for as long as there have been poets and critics. Shelley went so far as to charge that savage reviews contributed to the death of John Keats. Byron, while no friend of Keats but nonetheless expressing sadness at the poet's death, countered that "he who would die of an article in a review—would probably have died of something else equally trivial." Keats was indeed treated harshly by conservative critics at Blackwood's Magazine and the Quarterly Review, who were motivated by their hostility to Keats' liberal friend Leigh Hunt, with Keats somewhat collateral damage. They dismissed him as a "vulgar Cockney poetaster" and "a copyist of Mr. Hunt; but he is more unintelligible...twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype" (quotes from Hanson, Keats). The unjust treatment of Oliver cited by Franklin and Syme is tame by comparison.

Byron related his own experience of a savage review, saying that he responded by drinking three bottles of claret and writing "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" (Hanson, Byron & Keats). This stanza gives a taste:

A man must serve his time to every trade

Save Censure—Critics all are ready made.

Take hackneyed jokes from MILLER, got by rote,

With just enough of learning to misquote;

A mind well skilled to find, or forge a fault;

A turn for punning—call it Attic salt;

To JEFFREY go, be silent and discreet,

His pay is just ten sterling pounds per sheet:

Fear not to lie, 'twill seem a sharper hit;

Shrink not from blasphemy, 'twill pass for wit;

Care not for feeling—pass your proper jest,

And stand a Critic, hated yet caressed.

Samuel Johnson, who did not shy away from rendering a rough critical verdict or several himself, said he would rather be attacked than unnoticed, "[f]or the worst thing you can do to an authour is to be silent as to his works." His advice: "Never mind whether they praise or abuse your writings; anything is tolerable, except oblivion."

David Orr's remark about Oliver comes not in a review of the poet's work but in an essay about an issue of O: The Oprah Magazine devoted to National Poetry Month, in particular a section titled "Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets" that is pretty silly. Orr felt obliged to make passing mention of Oliver because "roughly a fifth of the coverage" is devoted to her.

Franklin dubbed Orr's piece disparaging. That is not quite right. While he is not above making some cheap jibes, the essay is a serious attempt to take up the relationship between poetry and popular culture. In Orr's words:

The sad thing about "Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets" is not that the photos are a debasement of Art. The sad thing is that they capture an inevitable and impossible yearning. 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.

The piece is not a put-down of O, which Orr credits with "running an intelligent and professional book section under the direction of the former Publisher's Weekly editor Sara Nelson...using excellent critics like Francine Prose."

Orr wanted and failed to find in the O issue something that might narrow that chasm between its audience and the audience for poetry:

I wish, though, that they had found space for someone—not a critic, necessarily, just someone willing to be honest—to talk about the actual experience of reading a poem. Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people. Not where poems come from. Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember. Not what the people who write them are wearing. Just what reading one of them is like to one person. If the chasm is to be ever so slightly narrowed, it seems to me this is how it will be done.

Franklin argues that if anyone could bridge that divide, it is Oliver, citing her popularity and the therapeutic impact of poems that have "saved lives":

A few of her books have appeared on best-seller lists; she is often called the most beloved poet in America. Gwyneth Paltrow reads her, and so does Jessye Norman. Her poems are plastered all over Pinterest and Instagram, often in the form of inspirational memes. (Oliver's Critics)

I do not find this convincing. Oliver may lead a few readers to more difficult poets whose poems demand and reward repeated rereading. For that matter, attentive rereading of Oliver's poems might reveal difficulty and sublimity that escape notice on the first pass. As for a broader popular audience represented by the audience for the Oprah magazine, I have my doubts. I could be wrong.

I found Oliver more simpatico after reading Shriver's interview. There is greater depth to her than I have yet found in the poems, and I suspect more than is found by readers who do not see beyond than what is readily accessible. Maybe I should look further.

There are many ways to approach the writing of poems. The path chosen by Mary Oliver is honorable and she followed it well. Her poems touch many people who do not ordinarily read poetry and some who do. This is no small accomplishment.

I defer to that eminent critic Harold Bloom for a last word on why we read poetry:

...I know many people who continually recite poems to themselves in the awareness that the possession of and by the poem helps them to live their lives.
Help of that kind is provided by Emily Dickinson, whose intellectual originality allows her close readers to break with the conventions of response that have been deeply instilled in us. In this, she is Shakespeare's disciple. The supernal value of Hamlet's another strengthening of the reader's autonomy. Like Hamlet, Shakespeare's Sonnets are a perpetual refreshment in the pleasures of change in meaning, each time we reread.
There is a shock of recognition when we read Walt Whitman at his strongest. Poetry, at the best, does us a kind of violence that prose fiction rarely attempts or accomplishes. The Romantics understood this as the proper work of poetry: to startle us out of our sleep-of-death into a more capacious sense of life. There is no better motive for reading and rereading the best of our poetry. (How to Read and Why, p. 142)


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