Mary Oliver is widely accepted as a master of the written word. Before her death in 2019, she published regularly and with plenty of acclaim. Winter Hours was published in 2000, in what might be considered a simpler American time.
Yet, Oliver keeps her writing simple despite the clanging bells of news events. Simple is a compliment here—she doesn’t get distracted or caught up in gimmicks. She focuses on her own life, and her relationship to the natural world around her.
In Winter Hours, she also presents essays on four poets: Poe, Frost, Hopkins, and Whitman. Her sense of literary critique was new to me. It’s unique to have a poet discussing another poet’s style and work.
I also appreciated her thoughts about the writing process. She says, “YEARS AGO I set three “rules” for myself. Every poem I write, I said, must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy, and it must have a spiritual purpose.” And goes on a bit later to add, “I want each poem to indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy (not my life—not necessarily!—but the life of my formal self, the writer).” (ebook, p. 24)
This perspective is meaningful to me as both a reader and a writer. The energy and purpose of the author affects me, as a reader. And when I’m reviewing, I want to be able to convey that feeling to my own readers. Without it being like childhood’s “whisper down the lane” game.
So much of Oliver’s work resonates with me. Maybe it’s because I’m over 50 now. But I think it’s more than that. I love the way each of her words is fully intentional. The amount of time she dedicates to the craft of her writing is obvious. And yet, she’s playful in her descriptions.
“Winter walks up and down the town swinging his censer, but no smoke or sweetness comes from it, only the sour, metallic frankness of salt and snow.” (ebook, pg. 93) What an image!
Read Mary Oliver if you’re looking for a picture of contentment. She may be privileged in the sense that many of us don’t experience contentment often. But whether you are striving or even feeling oppressed, you may find some calm and quiet in Oliver’s cadence and peaceful thoughts.
I’ll leave you with one more: “You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul.” (ebook, pg. 14)
Pick any of her works. But pick up Mary Oliver sooner, not later. You’ll be glad you did.
Great review, and I completely agree. I’m glad so many readers are discovering her work now.
Thanks, Linda. And thanks also for commenting. I’m so glad Mary Oliver was prolific. Everyone (including me) who’s late to the party has plenty of opportunity to enjoy her work.