Mid last year Mon pressed Oliver's collection, entitled Red Bird, into my hands. Mon told me that I had to read it!
It has taken me a while... but finally, I have read the collection. Now that I have finished it, I wish I had of read it sooner. Mark, Mon and Phillip are right, Oliver's poetry is wonderful to read!
I read Oliver's collection in one sitting. That is unusual for me; I generally only tackle about five poems in a sitting.
There is a simplicity to Oliver's poetry. Oliver uses simple language and images, with often a conversational tone, to explore multiple themes.
....The colour and warmth found in this poem is beautiful. Maxine Kumin has described Oliver as a “indefatigable guide to the natural world”. Indeed, as Kumin has identified, Oliver gives a great deal of attention to the natural world within her writing. In the poem 'Red Bird' Oliver paints a picture of the colours found in nature, of the passing of seasons and of the birds.
Still, for whatever reason—
perhaps because the winter is so long
and the sky so black-blue,
I am grateful
that red bird comes all winter
firing up the landscape
as nothing else can do. (1)
As well as this celebration of nature, Oliver describes a relationship between that world which we deem to be human and that which we view as animal. There is a human persona within the poem and it is through their eyes that we are viewing the red bird, as they feed all of "God's" birds (The entirety of 'Red Bird' can be read here).
Here we find another dimension to Oliver's poetry, in her exploration of the spiritual world.
One thing that I have enjoyed about Oliver's poetry is that while the spiritual that she explores is a Christian Spirituality, it is often able to be interpreted as spirituality with a little 's'. As it is a non-denominational spirituality that I believe in, I like that her poetry can be interpreted through this lens.
When Mon lent me this book one page had the corner folded over. Mon had marked the poem 'Percy and Books (Eight)'. Oliver has written a series of poems about her dog, Percy, where she again delves into a discussion about the relationship between the so called human and animal world.
Within this particular poem, Oliver humorously represents the relationship between a dog and its owner. The dog in this poem wants to be immersed into the splendor of the world outside, while the owner desires to dally in the world of books.
The poem begins: "Percy does not like it when I read a book" (29). It then describes the dog and the weather and sounds of the natural world, that can be heard from where both dog and owner sit. The owner pleads with the dog: "But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!" (29). Without ruining the joke, the dog is not convinced of the value of books.
While the simplicity of Oliver's imagery and language make it easy for a reader, or at least for me, to loose them self in the ideas and pictures that she has captured, is it enough to explore nature as beautiful?
I have had many discussions with Phillip Hall and some with Mark Tredinnick and Mon about just such a question.
In the 21st Century we are being faced with global warming, environmental disasters (both natural and human made), and the endangerment and extinction of various plants and animals. Is it, therefore, enough to celebrate nature and explore how the perceived 'natural' and 'human' world interact, or should representations of nature be exploring the bigger issues of global warming and the threats facing both the natural and human world?
In asking the above questions I am not suggesting that Oliver should necessarily be doing these things with her poetry, or that there is not a place for the celebration of nature in poetry, but I am questioning what is poetry's role in the world?
You can buy a copy of Mary Oliver's Red Bird from Amazon here.
Here is a great interview with Mary Oliver, exploring another of her poetry collections, A Thousand Mornings.
Here are some links to Oliver's poems that can be read, for free, online:
Mary Oliver reads three of her poems here.