Mary Oliver on the Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive
By Maria Popova
“Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” James Dickey wrote. “The way to develop good taste in literature,” Joseph Brodsky advised, “is to read poetry.” Wordsworth believed the poetic form to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.” For Edward Hirsch, it requires “a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” But hardly anyone has captured the mesmerism of poetry more perceptively and, well, poetically than the inimitable Mary Oliver — winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, once described by The New York Times as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet,” and nothing less than a secular modern mystic of the written word. In her altogether magnificent 1994 book A Poetry Handbook (public library), Oliver teases apart the mechanisms by which poetry enchants us, exploring the magic of rhythm as not only the fire in the belly of poetry but also a gateway into a profound human longing.
Oliver considers the intricate courtship between poetry and the soul:
If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.
The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say — exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself — soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.
Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its own portion of your mind, the other responsible and purposeful part of you had better be a Romeo. It doesn’t matter if risk is somewhere close by — risk is always hovering somewhere. But it won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.
For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand. It comes before everything, even technique.
She goes on to explore the spellbinding power of rhythm:
The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.
And yet, as in life itself, much of the vitality in poetry comes from artfully disrupting the smooth cadence of that steady, predictable rhythm:
Lines of good poetry are apt to be a little irregular. A prevailing sense of rhythm is necessary, but some variation enhances the very strength of the pattern. The singsong poem is a dull poem. Variation wakes us up with its touch of difference, just as a cadence of drums in a marching band keeps two things going at the same time: a strict and regular beat and a few contrapuntal accents, flourishes, and even silences… Within the poem, irregularities may occur for the sake of variation; they may also occur because of stresses required by the words themselves, for accuracy, for emphasis, etc.
Rather than opposing forces that tear asunder the aesthetic experience, Oliver reminds us that these seeming polarities of rhythm and irregularity actually exist in the osmotic synchronicity that lends poetry its power:
The name itself — free verse — implies that this kind of poetry rose out of a desire for release from the restraints of meter, or the measured line, and strict rhythmic patterns… Free verse is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design. Is poetry language that is spontaneous, impulsive? Yes, it is. Is it also language that is composed, considered, appropriate, and effective, though you read the poem a hundred times? Yes, it is.
Above all, however, Oliver advocates for poetry as a sandbox for exercising that elusive yet essential willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery (a subject of which she has written beautifully) and make peace with the ambiguity of the unresolved — a concept John Keats famously termed “negative capability.” Oliver, with a spectacular simile, riffs on Keats:
Poetry cannot happen without it, and no one has talked about it more usefully and marvelously than Keats; his commentary is as up-to-date as a sunrise.
A Poetry Handbook is a fantastic read in its entirety, with ample wisdom not only on poetry itself but on all writing, the essence of which applies to just about every field of creative endeavor. Complement it with Oliver’s soul-stirring Dog Songs, one of 2013’s most wonderful books celebrating animals.
Hand-lettered illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Published April 10, 2014