mary oliver | redux (letters to the editor)

4 05 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 231| May 4, 2008

MARY OLIVER, REDUX (Letters to the Editor)

A little late in getting this feedback together, but some of it was still coming in at the end of last week, not to mention I seem to be working on so many fronts these days I have to remind myself each morning: “Okay, who am I today? and what must I do, say or show? and who the hell gives a damn anyway?”

Well, judging by the comments that follow some people do. This is what helps keep the fire going, and I thank you all for being there. And judging by the concern of all the comments, Marry O does indeed have her band of loyal readers…and a few critics.

I tried to stay out of this debate and let her critic speak for himself, and Oliver speak for herself through her own poetry. (Though I did lean a little toward Stevens at the end and what his 13 blackbirds bring to the table.)

Bearing this in mind, enjoy all that follows. Pay particular note to the three letters at the end, all by “A.” Followed by a Mary Oliver poem which I tagged on to the very end of this dispatch…for reasons of my own. Norbert Blei

Mr. Dempsey is entitled to his opinion(s) but they are definitely not mine. I guess I don’t agree with his personal poetical prerequisites i.e. that poems must take risks (whatever that means). I too enjoy haiku, Frost and Stevens BUT can’t poems also just give the reader a sense of enjoyment? I enjoy Mary Oliver, Robert Burns (possibly Dempsey would also), and even a bit of doggerel such as Ogden Nash’s “Purple Cow” now and then. And I almost forgot limericks (I even received $100 from Saturday Evening Post for a limerick I submitted to one of their contests). Bill

Norb: I am in complete agreement with your introductory remarks about the role (my hasty typing misspelled this as “tole”) of critics in our creative lives. The New Yorker has a regular writer, Schjeldahl, who has a marvelous command of English which he lavishes on the most empty drivel in the current art scene, making those untalented but opportunistic apes famous….and prosperous, while the rest of us, who have spent a lifetime learning something about our form, languish and ultimately disappear. One of the first guys I hired to teach in the art department at Marietta was just leaving that New York art scene, and he said it all depended on whom you know………… and he was using ‘know’ in the Biblical sense. Your effort to keep us in your inner circle aware of real writing is admirable, but it takes a powerful critic / agent to reach the buying public from whom, after all, our sustenance derives and upon whom our lasting fame would depend. C.P


I believe that it is precisely what Dempsey calls a “weakness” in Oliver’s poems that is actually the strength of her poetry. One doesn’t need to spend hours, weeks, years studying a poem. One feel it, drinks it in, embraces it. Good grief–why is Dempsey comparing Oliver with Wallace? Also, he admits that he is “predisposed to disliking” nature poems. Bad poems? I think Dempsey’s attack on Oliver is ridiculous. Moreover, Mary Oliver has brought many, many folks to poetry. Now what is bad about that? Cheers, Pat

Wow! That’s why I decide what movies to watch based on my own intuition, not what the critics say, professional and not. An interesting read, however Mary Oliver still speaks to me as deep, personal and true, at least for me, that I like very much. I guess I don’t care so much for the craft as the place a poem brings me internally. Bonn

I totally agree about Mary Oliver….I try to avoid reading her, or going to her readings. She is pernicious If you begin reading her and admiring her, as a few of my friends do…usually older poets like me, you will be infected with the trites in a way you have never been before, by a very professional, well loved poet who reads all over the country, For myself, my current favorite is Charles Simic I am going to a reading of his at Chicago Public Library this Sat and cannot wait to get there. Also James Merrill, but I find him much to dense for me at times… slogging through The Changing Light at Sandover.. Some chapters, I can do without…other sections are just marvelous. DT

Hi Norb:
I’m of two minds on Oliver—as I am on many poets. That includes myself. I’ve written some crap over the years. I think some of Oliver’s earlier work is very fine. But as this guy points out she’s gotten soft, too airy abstract, and a bit twee and goody-goody. On the other hand you could do the kind of hatchet job this guy does on a good number of Wordsworth and Shelly nature poems. Imagine how this guy would respond to Shelly’s line about falling on the thorns of life! I’m not fond of most critic’s work. I find that what what most of them are trying to do is show what witty, brilliant people they are at the expense of some artist. Best, Ron

Wow! Dempsey’s really full of himself, isn’t he? Maybe Oliver’s poetry speaks to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise read poetry at all. She’s a lot more interesting to read than the obscurity-for-obscurities-sake poetry that some writers seem to think makes them “real” poets. I like to read the Poetry Dispatch. It’s almost like hanging out in a bar or coffee house, back in the day, yakking about poetry, literature, the state of the world, etc. Fun and interesting stuff. :o) LHM

If you show stuff, you don’t have to tell it. Writing is a love affair with your reader. Jerry

Hi Norb,

I was not impressed by Jough Dempsey’s article. In fact, I think he is a lousy writer. He doesn’t make his points well at all. Here are some of his statements —

  • I believe that she knows a lot about poetry. So why are her poems so god-awful?
  • That Mary Oliver is a grossly overrated poet isn’t really the issue. She’s very easy to digest, and, since her poems take no risks, there’s little to offend in them.
  • This isn’t the usual creative-writing-program-produced pap—no, this is highly-crafted, meticulously-designed, carefully-thought-out archetypal creative-writing pap.
  • “Meanwhile the world goes on.” Really? It does? I mean, come on!
  • I’m not really sure what to “latch onto” in this poem, because the images (such as they are) are so vague and “first-level” – here’s a tip: just because you use the words “mountains” and “rivers” in your poem does not mean that they’re going to be in there. Those are just words. You have to do something with them if you want to make poetry.
  • Mediocrity Abounds!
  • The problem with “Wild Geese” is not that it’s vague, which it is, but that it’s completely spineless – what’s the message, ultimately, of this poem?
  • This is a nature poem with punch–with purpose. I understand, after reading it, why it had to be written.

This is crap (excuse my language)! His remarks — to quote him — “are so vague and ‘first-level’ ” . . . well, here’s a tip: just because you use lots of italics, exclamations, and question marks does not mean that a useful point has been made. I won’t even go into a critique of his ridiculous balloon metaphor. I am not writing this to defend Mary Oliver’s poetry. Maybe her poetry is good, maybe not. The problem is that Mr. Dempsey’s article is not enlightening one way or the other. Becky


Glad you ran this; it makes me sick that women, particularly, love this poem and consider it some kind of female anthem to freedom and goodness and God knows what else. This kind of mediocracy drives me mad because it affects all of us. We are slowly drowning in a sea of mud. D.K.

Ah, well, I’ve never pretended to be anything but a lightweight. “Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.” But I see Jough (how contrived is that? Joe? Juff?) Dempsey seems to be a legitimate critic. . . Best always, Carol


Jough Dempsey, Poetry Guru?
Re: Mary Oliver

Dear Norb: Here’s how I was going to start this out: I’m sorry, but just who does this guy think he is? And why should we care what he likes, or what he thinks is lousy poetry or great poetry? Anybody that spells his name Jough when it could be Joe is clearly suspect.

And then I realized that the whole subject needed a couple days reflection, instead of a quick shot from the hip. One problem with internet communication is that there’s too much of the latter, with writers easily eschewing reflection…to quote a review by Leon Wieseltier of the recent Martin Amis book in the Sunday times, we..”enjoy the moral element in contempt…splendidly unperturbed by the prospect of giving offense…”(and believe that)” an insult is an analysis.”

Which, I confess, was my first impulse. So on to the reflection part. It seems inevitable to me that our judgment and appreciation of poetry will be biased by the critical cast of mind, character, experience and way of thinking that we bring to it. In fact, this is so obvious, that we could take it to its extreme, and say that silly, sentimental people will love silly sentimental poetry, and miserable, depressed people will seek out dark and gloomy poetry, erudite pompous people with unusual ways of looking at things will love John Ashbery, etc. etc. – and declare it brilliant. So of course, we have to narrow things down, and define a generally accepted range of “good ” poetry, based on originality of insight, language, image, whatever. (too many people have tried to come up with this definition for me to jump in).

Okay, within that range – some readers will be drawn to poetry by the curmudgeons, the iconoclasts, the underdogs – it will ring their chimes, stir their empathy, cause that AHA of meaningfulness. And some will say “okay, but…” Some will “resonate” (I hate that word) to Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and some may not. I read it right away and confess that on first reading, I only appreciated #13. Now after several more readings, I am appreciating more. It’s almost to the AHA stage.

I think Dempsey chose one of Oliver’s weaker poems, and I don’t like his blanket dismissal. Lots of Robert Frost poems are bad too, and Walt Whitman, and (yes) those Beat poets that you like so much. I believe there’s a place for “highly crafted, meticulously designed, carefully thought out poetry” – and some people don’t care. My interests and mindset are, of course, aligned with hers, (except where she’s gone religious) and there are many of her poems that move me to an AHA immediately – and indeed on re-reading, they hold up. I am not a cult follower, but I do think that you guys who are so quick to dismiss, should allow for those of us with a passion for the lessons of the natural world to seek out a focus that speaks to us – without proclaiming superior critical taste.

After all, I happen to like Schoenberg and Shostakovich, Bartok and Messaien, and can’t abide Wagner and Strauss. But I wouldn’t say they were inferior, or that people who liked them were. (Oh, maybe I would). So much for my high-minded avoidance of contempt!

Keep it coming, it’s good to think about. A.

Oh – while I still had the Stevens book open, I read “Table Talk” – and there it was! The whole answer, laid out before us in so many fewer and better words! So here it is, to keep you from going to look:

Table Talk
Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.

And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush
Gray grass and green-gray sky?

What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:

Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.

It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.

Ha! A

Norb – here’s a small coda to what I wrote the other day on Mary Oliver. It’s sad. I was given her latest book for my birthday – and the one before for last year’s birthday. And I remember now how I was disappointed last year. And now again. Her latest works seem so simplistic – almost aimed at children. She’s sluffed off, maybe run out of things to say? They seem tired, worn out. Maybe the death of her partner has affected her creativity – or maybe it’s age. She is – for god’s sake – almost as old as I. But then – there was Stanley Kunitz. A.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light ”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal – a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I’m not needed
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

mary oliver | white geese

24 04 2008

Poetry Dispatch No.230 | April 24, 2008

Earth Day Week, April 2008:

MARY OLIVER: Good or Bad?

One way or another, if you put your life on the line in search of meaning and/or art: the critic is bound to eventually enter the scene and have his way with you. The longer you’re out there, the more work you have to show for it, the greater the chance ‘the critic’ (outside your own friends and family) will come along and either praise you to high heaven or damn you to hell.

“I think, therefore I am.” Yes, of course.

“I write (paint, act, make music, etc.) therefore I am subject to interpretation, damnation, edification, criticism, humiliation, etc.” you better believe it.

On the upside, if you’ve been hit hard enough, often enough, you learn how the game is played and either close your eyes and walk away from it forever, or foolishly waste time hitting back, trying to gain the upper-hand, the last word.

In a very few instances, you may actually learn something. But that takes a particularly perceptive critic.

What has all this to do with Earth Week? Nature Poetry? Mary Oliver?

You will have to figure that out for yourself.

Here’s an intriguing essay by Jough Dempsey of which may help.

It sent me rushing to my bookshelves to discover with delight once again, that rare sight of thirteen blackbirds living forever so perfectly in a poem by Wallace Stevens. Norbert Blei

You Do Not Have To Be Good (But It Helps) — A Look At Mary Oliver

by Jough Dempsey

Admittedly, I’m predisposed to disliking “nature poems.” Maybe it’s because many are facile, easy to write, and make the kinds of observations only an idiot needs spelled out in poetry. It’s not that a good nature poem can’t be written – it’s just that so many poets have written poor ones.

So I’m in a bit of a quandary when it comes to writing about a poet who’s made a career out of writing bad nature poems. Mary Oliver is technically proficient, and from reading her prose works about poetry (her A Poetry Handbook is probably one of the best introductory volumes about poetry ever written) I believe that she knows a lot about poetry. So why are her poems so god-awful?

That Mary Oliver is a grossly overrated poet isn’t really the issue. She’s very easy to digest, and, since her poems take no risks, there’s little to offend in them. The following is emblematic of what’s wrong with Mary Oliver’s poetry:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This isn’t the usual creative-writing-program-produced pap—no, this is highly-crafted, meticulously-designed, carefully-thought-out archetypal creative-writing pap. It takes a well-educated poet to write a poem this bad.

I was actually a bit hopeful by the first line. But then as I continued my enthusiasm waned, much like the steam driving this poem. It’s like a balloon with a slow leak, hissing along until the last lines push the air completely out, leaving a wrinkly piece of plastic on the floor, to later get caught in the gears of the vaccuum cleaner and cost $143 (U.S.) to repair, resulting not only in dirty carpets for the duration of the cleaner’s time in the shop, but also a small bald spot on the top of your head from where you scratched it trying to figure out how a balloon wound up in your living room…

Okay, maybe I got carried away with my own metaphor there. “Meanwhile the world goes on.” Really? It does? I mean, come on! The world does not call to me like wild geese. I’m not really sure what to “latch onto” in this poem, because the images (such as they are) are so vague and “first-level” – here’s a tip: just because you use the words “mountains” and “rivers” in your poem does not mean that they’re going to be in there. Those are just words. You have to do something with them if you want to make poetry.
Mediocrity Abounds!

The problem with “Wild Geese” is not that it’s vague, which it is, but that it’s completely spineless – what’s the message, ultimately, of this poem? “You have a place in this world and like the geese, are free because of your imagination!”

Assuming for a second that this is true, who needs to be told this? A useful tool for revision is to take a statement from a poem, and then state its opposite – if the opposite is ridiculous (i.e., doesn’t need to be said), you don’t need to make the original statement. This poem is like an advertising slogan, telling you that the company’s product is great. Of course it is. What else would they say?

The danger creeping into contemporary poetry (it’s been happening for years, but is growing) is the flattening of the image, the death of risk. Using nouns in a poem inserts an object into the poem, but for that object to become an image it must be acted on by the poet. Something needs to happen to the object. Here’s another little gem:

I was standing
at the edge of the field–
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors–
I was leaning out;
I was listening.

— from “Mockingbirds”

Like a sugar pill, this poem seems to be doing something, but isn’t, really. I’ll let her vagueness go for a minute and stop to shudder on the phrase “hurrying / through my own soul, / opening its dark doors–”

This is the kind of adolescent angst that would be barely forgivable if a teenage girl wrote it. Coming from Oliver, who should know better, this is shameful. Angst-ridden posturing doesn’t ever make a poet sound “cool” or “deep,” especially since referring to your “soul” as “dark” is hardly original, and usually the work of the shallow and simple-minded.

And again, what’s her point? As I click through her work in the archive I have a hard time figuring out why each poem was written. What is she trying to say? She seems to have a preternatural aversion to making a point.

Oliver’s poems lack the immediacy of haiku, the punch of Robert Frost, the gorgeous language of Wallace Stevens – here’s a snippet from Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird”:


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

This is a nature poem with punch–with purpose. I understand, after reading it, why it had to be written. This is what Stevens called the “occasion” of the poem – it’s the reason that should be readily apparent as to why the poet wrote the poem, why the poem needed to be written. Oliver’s poems are lazy, and unnecessary, because it may have been preferable for her to go shopping than write the poem. If a poem’s raison d’être is that the poet had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, one (such as I) really has little reason to read a poem that had such little reason to be written.

You’re just jealous.

I’m dumb-founded that anyone would not find these poems anaemic. Mary Oliver has won numerous awards for her poetry. Why is she so popular? I think it’s because her poems are weak – you can “take in” a Mary Oliver poem in one reading – and probably after simply hearing it once. As readers grow lazier, more poetry like this will continue to be written, and the worst of it, that which seeks to affirm life while slothfully numbing the experience of the poem so that no one gets offended, will win awards because to awards-giving bodies, it feels good to acknowledge poetry that’s both lackluster and easily digestible. Awarding Mary Oliver is lending legitimacy to the “poem as sound bite” that’s very easy to promote to young readers, because it’s “positive,” “uplifting,” and doesn’t take a lot of unpleasant thought to read.

Reading Oliver is an exercise in futility, and so is this article, really, because if you’re already not a fan of Oliver, I’m not going to set you against her, and if you are a fan, I’m not likely to change your mind. It’s okay. I’ll just hope that someday you’ll learn more about how a poem works, read some good poems, and will come to appreciate poems that don’t “give up their secrets” on the first read. You do not have to read good poetry, but given the choice, why read Mary Oliver?

Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of, an online poetry resource for both the Sharks and the Jets. In his spare time he enjoys ion beam lithography.

mary oliver | a settlement

15 10 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 62 | April 2, 2006

A Settlement by Mary Oliver

Look, it’s spring. And last year’s loose dust has turned
into this soft willingness. The wind-flowers have come
up trembling, slowly the brackens are up-lifting their
curvaceous and pale bodies. The thrushes have come
home, none less than filled with mystery, sorrow,
happiness, music, ambition.

And I am walking out into all of this with nowhere to
go and no task undertaken but to turn the pages of
this beautiful world over and over, in the world of my mind.

* * *
Therefore, dark past,
I’m about to do it.
I’m about to forgive you

for everything.

from WHAT DO WE KNOW, Poems and Prose Poems