Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Re-Calling Oliver's Voice

Re-calling bits of Mary Oliver the last few days, her stated intentions with poetry - let the reader in, she says, as in, expanding the "I" material to a more complex, "we" state, one in which the speaker and the speakers' visions, sensations, experiences become identifiable to a larger body. Not a new concept, of course but the way in which Oliver illustrates this notion is what sticks.

In "The Poet's Voice," an essay found in Blue Pastures, Oliver talks about the "I" of modern poetry, juxtaposing it with the "I" of the classics. "Most simply put, the "I" of the contemporary poem is rather likely to be a reflection of the author of the poem."

Oliver contrasts this modern "I" with what she calls "poems of first instance," the ones that brought her to the poem, that drove her poetic voice. For her, those poems were by Whitman, Poe, Coleridge, Keats. And the difference?
The "I" of the old poem, I assumed, was not at all a "knowable" person, a person much like myself. It was at once two other, and more important things. First, it was an "I" wrapped in the mystery of the poem, and the authority of the poem's diction. It was elevated by the poetic forces within the poem and, at least for the length of the poem, it was infallible. And it was, even more importantly, a conduit between myself and the divine timelessness of the poem.

Key here is the idea of the "poetic forces" elevating the voice. This ties in neatly with her aphorism: "Always remember - the speaker doesn't do it. The words do it."

And elsewhere, she reminds the poet that the words must not overtake and drive the sense of a poem. Not words but ideas, in a slight twist from the Imagist credo.

Another offshoot of re-calling Oliver: my "poems of first instance." These were encountered as a high schooler and up until a year ago, I'd kept my battered English Literature text as a symbol, a token of introduction. Because inside its pages, I first met Wordsworth, "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;" and "My heart leaps up when I behold / a rainbow in the sky." And Shakespeare: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments." Also Blake, whom the nun called "crazy." (Tyger Tyger). My second year of college, I was given a thin-paged collection of dear ole Walt Whitman: "I think I could go and live with the animals / they are so placid and self contain'd." I still have this book, kept on a shelf now, its back broken and leaves falling out.

Oliver mentions meter in her essay, how the "newer" free verse poems were derivatives of the classics, how meter mingles in free verse, and how a poet's acquaintance with the pleasure of meter will likely show itself in the free verse composition. Diction too is significantly different in those old poems. They indicated "something other than the everyday."

The landscape of the new poem is mundane. Gone is the "world of fancy and myth, of pure imagination," and in its place, "the actual world."

And yet I miss those poems that opened mysterious and shimmering doors so easily into another world. Poems like "Endymion," "Christabel," "Annabell Lee," whose fabric extended nowhere but in the imagination and which, because reading them was a felt experience, verified for me in those first confrontations the power of imagination - the capability of the imagination - the immense and unchallengeable reality of imagination.

Oliver coaxes us to move beyond the mundane surface of our lives, dip into the "dark and lustrous place," and then report what we hear. It's a voice that certainly, all of us have heard at one time or another.

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