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Why I Wake Early

by Mary Oliver

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Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
The poet Mary Oliver is the Denny's Restaurant of American poetry: consistent and banal. One of the most compensated poets in America, she holds the Distinguished Poetry chair at Bennington College, has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and many big- money grants. She probably exceeds most contemporary poets in sales figures, enjoying a devoted multitude of fans.

Yet her literary reputation has never been of the highest order. The New York Times Book Review gave a recent Oliver volume a dismissive paragraph in "Books in Brief." Granted, the Times is notoriously biased against poetry, but other poets sometimes get regular full-page reviews. What's the trouble with Mary?

Oliver writes out of the Romantic tradition of devotional nature poetry (think Wordsworth and Keats). A pro-Oliver critic, Janet McNew, writes: "Why, we might ask, is so much important contemporary criticism in the romantic tradition unable to appreciate the kind of nature poetry that Mary Oliver writes?" Well, I'll tell you.

Listening to a nightingale sing on Hampstead Heath in 1819, or recollecting Lake Country daffodils in the tranquillity of 1807, as did Keats and Wordsworth, respectively, did not occur against the global explosiveness that backgrounds poetry in the 21st Century. Virginia Woolf said the world changed in 1910, and proceeded to write novels that recorded a new consciousness that was the subjective correlative of the change. A new world needs new prose and poetry; writers who ignore that call cannot but write in a minor vein.

Oliver's poetry has many fine qualities. A comparison of Oliver with another modern American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, derives aptness from the power of description and sharp focus both poets share:

From Bishop's "The Sandpiper": "He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,/ in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake. /The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet of interrupting water comes and goes/ and glazes over his dark and brittle feet."

Why I Wake Early is one of two books by Oliver published in 2004 by Beacon Press (the other being Blue Irises). One of the poems in it, "Bone", includes the lines: "the ear bone/ is the portion that lasts longest/ in any of us, man or whale; shaped/ like a squat spoon/ with pink scoop where/ once, in the lively swimmer's head,/ it joined its two sisters/ in the house of hearing...."

Yet even here Oliver falls short. The brief excerpt from Bishop's poem illustrates the barely-controlled volatility exerting its pressure on her every word, a subtle sense of dread that informs "hisses" as a description of a beach. The possibility of unredeemable atrocities is banished from Oliver's poems. In "The Best I Could Do" she writes of an owl:

"he did not make/ the least sound, simply stared/as though if he wanted to he could lift me/and carry me away--/one orange knife for each shoulder, and I,/aloft in the air, under his great wings/shouting/ praise, praise, praise as I cried/for my life."

Imagine shouting hallelujah as a big bird carries you away! That Mary! She's just so darn inspirational! Here's more:

"This afternoon a gull sailing over/ our house was casually scratching / its stomach of white feathers with one/ pink foot as it flew./ Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we/ only look and see" ("Look and See")

A more sanguine poet might also see that the Lord's gift to the gull was probably an infestation of parasites that caused it to scratch, but let us suspend cynicism and go on to the stars singing in "This World" where "the ants, and the peonies, and the warm stones" are "so happy to be where they are, on the beach."

For the reader who takes umbrage at the pathetic fallacy, no sublimity forthcomes from Oliver's assertion of the happiness of ants and stones; after all, how can we know? But more revealing of Oliver's selective vision is the absence of fishbones and carapaces, torn claws and struggling, overturned crabs from her poem. A. R. Ammons, walking the beach in his great poem "Corson's Inlet" saw "everywhere life under seige." Compared to him, Oliver is Mary Poppins.

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