He Starts To Read
So I indulged myself and bought it, Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems, Volume One. And opening it I was perplexed, as I have been before. I don't know the conventions of modern poetry books. But there is no introduction, by her or anyone else. The blurbs on the back are the only markers. No side door into this book. No shady walk where you could perch a while, study the house, watch how other people go in and out. You have to walk straight up to the front door. There's nothing to do but walk in and read the poems.
But at once, there's trouble. The book is backwards. The first section is called New Poems, though of course this is – by the standards of this queer unfamiliar world – an old book; the new poems are from (1991-1992). All right. The fans who had been following wanted her new poems right away; I'll just skip to the next section, and come back to the new poems at the end. I want to read her as I read Shakespeare or Shelley, from beginning to end.
But no, it's not set up that way. The whole book runs backwards, so that the oldest poems are at the back. Stubbornly, I go to the last section and read the poems from the 1960s, then back up to the poems from the 1970s. But I'm aware that the publisher and I – and maybe the poet and I? -- are at odds. They want me to read the poems from newest to oldest; I want to read from oldest to newest. I want front matter (where did she grow up? Where did she go to school? Who did she take as mentors?) and they don't think I should have it. I'm reminded of why I don't ordinarily like reading modern novels: I find it tiresome now to pretend that the author doesn't exist and that I don't have an ordinary human curiosity about her. I don't want to gaze at a well-wrought urn: I want to have a conversation. Or at least read a diary. I've been spoiled, maybe, by blogging. Or humanized.
She whispers. She's a very quiet poet: she stands there a long time beside you before she starts, and you have to attend, because she's not going to seize your attention. She's not going to frighten you, or entice you, or tease you. Just that quiet voice. In those early days, I see, she had been reading her Shakespeare and her Yeats. She has a lovely controlled iambic pentameter, the most unforced feeling American blank verse that I've ever read, maybe. I count out “Going to Walden” because I'm not quite sure: I think it's regular, but it's so idiomatic I have a hard time believing it.
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.
Sure enough. No more metrical liberties than Shakespeare takes. I could memorize this. And I see that the lines all begin with capital letters. Does she abandon that later? I skip backwards (forwards) a little, and sure enough, she changes over to the new style late in the 1970s. I have mixed feelings about the abandonment of capital letters at the beginning of lines. Sometimes I think it's caving in to prosification: the sentence rules the poem now, instead of the line. But other times I think it's simply sensible. After all, the line is already there, in front of your nose: you don't need another marker for it. The little hope that fluttered – that Oliver would prove a rebel to fashion in this matter – vanishes. She's not the sort to make a fuss about that kind of thing. Once again, I have the feeling that I'm childish, unruly, out of order, gauche, in the world of modern poetry.
But she has me. She has me at the second stanza of the very first poem I read. She's obviously drunk on Yeats, which is right and proper for a young poet in the 1960s:
Now of all voyagers I remember, who among them
Did not board ship with grief among their maps?--
Till it seemed men never go somewhere, they only leave
Wherever they are, when the dying begins.
I love this poem, I love all these poems, in fact, and I can see already why she would have recurred so often as a favorite poet among people in my circle. She's the quintessential second-wave feminist. She doesn't want entry into the masculine world of conquest and glory. She doesn't want to ditch Ariadne on the beach and go questing: she wants to pay the costs of sitting still in one place, and finding out what home might be.