Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Sunday Book Review, July 3, 2011: White Pine (Mary Oliver)

What should a poem do? What are you looking for when you read poetry? Are there certain poets you can count on for whatever it is you're looking for?

Madame L knows a few poems and poets she doesn't like: The Song of Hiawatha, anything by Wordsworth, likewise for Shelley, Keats, and Byron, not to mention Walt Whitman and most other poets from before, say, 1940.

Madame L suspects that her dislike of these poets stems from the fact that she was made to read them at an immature and rebellious and distinctly non-poetic stage of her life.

In spite of her early dislike for the poets introduced to her early on, Madame L often looks in bookstores for poetry books. What is Madame L looking for? She hardly knows. Yet she often finds some she likes. One poet she has enjoyed reading recently is Mary Oliver.

Here's part of the poem "In Blackwater Woods," from Oliver's book "White Pine":

On the hottest day of summer
I thought of a place
on a knoll
and under some pines
where a breeze might come
flowing out of the bog

so I went there

but a beautiful woman
who had thought of it first
was lying casually
just where I'd thought to lie down
don't move I said
but she rose up
on her pretty hooves
at the sound of my voice
and heavily
and with sorrow and with panic
she vanished into the trees.

Assignment: Write an essay about what you like or don't like about this poem. (Madame L is only kidding, although she hopes that you, Dear Reader, found something to like about it, something you might have been looking for in it, as she did.)

Mary Oliver's poetry collection "American Primitive" won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984, but she's still writing and publishing new poems, including those in "Why I Wake Early," 2005. Some of her  poems are available online. 

She also wrote "A Poetry Handbook," which Madame L has also enjoyed reading and which is available at for $8.15. has an entire page devoted to the life and works of Mary Oliver.

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