Buy, Borrow, Bypass: The Call to Language (or the Mary Oliver Edition)

It was summer Sunday, streets mostly empty, curbsides surrendered to sun-glint. I had just moved back to New York after a year away. Exhausted from unloading boxes and retraining subway legs and feeling unsure about the job I was beginning the next morning, I was awake and out in a weekend AM following a friend’s recommendation to a church far from my Brooklyn apartment. And when I slid into a pew and looked down at the bulletin, there on the cover was Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” This brief meditation on nature and our place in it and the fragility and promise of our lives (here’s a link so you can discover it yourself) seemed both blessing and calling as I sat at the uncertain threshold of change.

Judging by a quick Google search, I’m not alone in having what I’ll call “A Mary Oliver Moment.” The internet is littered with nature photos underscored by an Oliver poem. A good friend of mine had her Mary Oliver Moment the summer after her divorce, on a backwoods trip with family and friends discovering inside an abandoned school bus a stack of carefully-crafted, hand-printed cutouts of Oliver’s “When I am Among Trees” (link). The poem’s message of confirmation–you can and must make your own unique, shining path through this life–secured it a permanent spot on her refrigerator, just as “The Summer Day” is now tacked to my front door for every morning when I head out.

In recognition of one of my favorite poets, here’s a quick look at three (plus) Oliver books for this week’s Buy, Borrow, Bypass.

American PrimitiveAmerican Primitive (poems)—Published in 1983, “primitive” is the right word for these poems of the American wilderness. There is beauty and thrill and wonder throughout but also in the best of the poems a slight stalking in the background, not exactly the feeling of being hunted but of nature peering back at you from the pages. There is the feeling of motion—no accident given Oliver’s long daily walks and her practice of writing while afoot—and also joy, the latter apparent in the collection’s first poem, “August,” one of my favorites and a good introduction to how Oliver uses lineation to recreate the experience of a moment on the page. Here it’s the weight of a berry in bloom, the stretch through barbed thorns, our small distinct selves moving through this wild world:

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark

creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

If you don’t have an Oliver book on your shelf, this is the place to start. (And for digital readers, the short lines of American Primitive should transfer well to the small screen.)

Verdict: Buy

A Poetry HandbookBUY AND BYPASS: A Poetry Handbook (1994) and Rules for the Dance (1998)—OK, here’s the moment in the post where I suggest the perfunctory bypass of a Mary Oliver book (not my favorite moment). But if you’re a general reader or beginning writer looking for an easy-reading but still substantial, instructive introductory guide to poetry, buy A Poetry Handbook and bypass Rules for the Dance. Handbook is full of one of Oliver’s major themes: The Call to Language. Oliver writes that “literature is the apparatus through which the world tries to keep intact its important ideas and feelings” and calls poetry “a life-cherishing force.” Handbook includes an overview of poetic elements: sound devices, lineation, forms, diction, tone, voice, and imagery along with discussions of the practice of writing. Everywhere Oliver honors poetic design, a focus on the particular (as opposed to the general), and the “urgent wakefulness” of language. While Handbook is more poetry introduction, Rules for the Dance focuses wholly on metrical verse and is a fine read, though for those seeking to engage more deeply in poetic lineation and sound I would recommend James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line.

The Leaf and the CloudThe Leaf and the Cloud (2000)—This book-length poem in seven sections is built around an occasional refrain: “This is the world.” And though this is a poem like all Oliver’s poems (perhaps like all poems) about how we fit in the world, the lens is how much of our lives depends on putting one word beside another. The pacing is different from American Primitive, with longer lines more likely to unspool across the wider-format pages. The voice is also more intimate in its personal statement and its reaching toward the reader. The opening section, “Flare,” captures some of this:


When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before [ . . .]

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

And find a friend or a library and borrow The Leaf and the Cloud, which isn’t quite my favorite Oliver but still full of moments like the above. And like Oliver’s poems, honor the gift—intricate physical mechanism and unique-in-all-the-world’s-long-history convergence of imagination and experience—the life to which you give voice.

Verdict: Borrow