The passing of Mary Oliver, and the subsequent news articles and social media messages about her, made me realize something about contemporary poetry. There’s so little joy in much of it.
The range of emotions and experience available for poets is limitless, yet the predominant themes in journals and books makes it seem like poets choose to spend more of their energy on the darker side of the spectrum. Now there’s a lot to be depressed about today and a lot to be upset about. Clearly social and political issues influence, and sometimes dominate many poets’ work. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Good writing, whether it concerns tragedy, anger, sorrow or grief, is still good writing. And as I said in a previous post, pain lends a poem a kind of emotional energy that’s useful for a poem. In fact, I think negative emotions are easier to drive than positive ones. But that doesn’t mean that every poem has to feel like a gut punch.
Mary Oliver could write grief, sorrow and tragedy as well, very well in fact. But she was also known as a poet of joy–one who actively sought out wonder and beauty on her daily walks. Nature is pretty even at being able to deliver metaphors for struggle and metaphors for success, yet more often, Oliver, maybe an optimist, chose to see the positive. She wanted to be impressed. And that’s kind of the point–both a poetry lesson and a life lesson. Consider the attitude expressed in these lines from her poem “First Snow”
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain–not a single
answer has been found–
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.
In my own poems I want to be open to the light more than the dark, and some days that’s harder than others, but seems worth the effort.
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