Natural Poet: Environmental lyrics are more appealing than political verse

Red Bird
by Mary Oliver
Beacon, 96 pp., $23

In a land where few poets can make more than a pittance off their
verse, Mary Oliver stands as a commercially successful outlier.

it will never show up in supermarket checkout lines, her work always
tops the modern poetry bestseller lists at and in the trade
journal Book Sense. And while Oliver has spent a good part of her adult
life on college campuses, she never held a traditional tenure track
position or earned a college degree. Indeed, for the past seven years,
she’s supported herself entirely through writing. In all, she has
written almost 20 books and, although she’s produced a textbook and
innumerable essays, her output has remained largely metrical. And while
she’s won nearly every major award available to American poets, she’s
probably more popular on the high school level than in college, and
more popular still with the small but active poetry-reading public.

has an obvious, well-deserved appeal: At her best, Mary Oliver writes
genuinely good, truly accessible poetry. Most of the poems in this
latest collection concern her own impressions of the natural world. And
when she sticks to that topic, she ranks among the finest poets the
English language has ever produced. Whether she’s describing a
caterpillar’s transformation (it expressed itself into the most
beautiful thing) or describing her own mystical connection to birdsong
(I listen hard / to the exuberances of / the mockingbird and the owl, /
the waves and wind)—she almost always can

come up with striking, resonant images.

surprising, active verb formulation “expressed itself”—all the more
arresting on the page because it’s separated from the rest of the poem
with a blank line—expresses the wondrous nature of a squirmy bug’s
transformation into a thing of great beauty. Likewise, the
juxtaposition of the birds and earth forces in that second example
brings home the undeniable interconnectedness of nature.

all, Oliver’s poetry mixes two kinds of spirituality: interest in a
creator god, and an almost rapturous love for creation. This newest
collection overflows with a true, honest respect for all of nature. The
image of Red Bird—which pervades the collection—may sum up her view of
the world better than anything. In the final poem, the “Red Bird
Explains Himself,” the bird speaks for itself in profound terms:

If I was the song that entered your heart
then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,
and thus wilderness bloomed there, with all its
followers: gardeners, lovers, people who weep
for the death of rivers.
And this was my true task, to be the
music of the body.

more than anything else, outlines the essentials of Oliver’s
philosophy. Her odd juxtapositions of observations about lilies and
ravens work just as well as her recounting of things she saw while
walking. In other words, Oliver exalts a romantic—that is, emotional
above all else—sense of the natural world combined with a
transcendental love for the environment. God, although not absent,
remains a formal, distant deity while the natural world and the world
itself, along with the “ghosts of Emerson and Whitman” (Oliver’s
leading intellectual forbears), seem far more important than any
heavenly spirit.

She’s clearly earned her place as a poet
laureate for romantic environmentalists. Oliver observes with a great
sensitivity, and puts her impressions in verse in a way that few can
match. She’s almost never obscure but, unlike Ted Kooser—long the
unofficial laureate of the environmental movement—her poetry rewards
multiple, careful rereadings. She’s a perceptive, rigorous muse of a
modern environmental religion.

For those not given to
romantic reverence about the natural world, some of her ideas and
concepts may seem foreign. But to ignore Oliver on this basis would be
to deny the beauty of the psalms to those outside the Judeo-Christian
tradition, or the power of the Bhagavad Gita to non-Hindus. Oliver
speaks plainly, carefully, and beautifully for those who place
protection of the Earth above all other interests.

her observations of the natural world, however, Oliver’s craft fades.
True, she shows a modicum of real talent in comic verse about her dog
Percy. Whether she’s imagining Percy’s emotional advice, or hoping that
he could somehow convince the secretary of defense to end the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars, she’s funny and interesting if unapologetically

Some other parts of Red Bird don’t work as well. A
cycle of 11 linked love poems—quite possibly a eulogy for her recently
deceased life partner and literary agent, Molly Cook—overflows with
genuine emotion and love but falls flat in its poetic efforts to
condense and channel that emotion, sometimes resorting to crude
sexualized metaphor and occasional dead moments.

One poem, “So Every Day,” reads in full:

So every
I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth
of the ideas of God,
one of which was you.

well worded—”beautiful crying forth” has a nice ring—but “So Every Day”
presents little more than a passing thought that relies more on the
reader than the poet to provide emotion. Even in the context of the
poetic cycle, the thought she expresses never really gets finished.

when Oliver takes on politics in a serious way, her verse becomes
decidedly mediocre. One poem, “Of the Empire,” stands out for its sheer
loathing for a public that doesn’t always share her political views:

they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

problem isn’t stinginess of spirit—poets from Chaucer onward have
gotten enormous mileage out of hate—but, rather, banality. Oliver wants
readers to snap into lockstep agreement with her sweeping statements
rather than providing an emotional reason for doing so.

she does well describing nature, her efforts at political poetry show a
tin ear and obtuse sensibility totally out of tune with the wonderfully
sensitive muse behind her other work. Luckily, Oliver or her editors
seem aware of these limitations: The political poems are buried in the
middle of Red Bird, and the stronger environmental works open and close
it with vigor and force. As with most artists, Mary Oliver’s talent has
its limits. But her poetry is rigorous, beautiful, well written, and
offers genuine insights into the natural world. Even those who disagree
with her strong views should read it.