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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




The importance of the natural world can be traced through time within the context of many disciplines, including science, religion, and literature, to name a few. Not only do humans rely on nature for survival, but many have learned to depend on nature for inspiration. During the early nineteenth century, American literature, under the influence of Romanticism, depicted nature as a source of “knowledge,” “refuge,” and “revelation” (Reuben). Works by male authors of the era—such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman—became instrumental in shaping contemporary and future writers’ ideas about nature. Specifically, American women poets of the nineteenth century and beyond have used nature to orient the poet’s place in the world by seeking the wisdom and escape that the natural world offers. Major female poets—Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Mary Oliver—all use nature as subject matter in a variety of ways, and a common link between these poets is their use of nature as metaphor in relation to the self.
    Similarities exist in how each poet develops message and content. For instance, word choice, symbols, and images provide several examples of how a reader can link these authors, with some associations stronger than others. However, a reader can reference each poet’s biographical information in an effort to unravel particular styles and stances. Whether or not the authors intended for their personal lives to line the poems like shelf paper, connections between the personal and poetic undeniably exist. Dickinson, Bishop, Plath, and Oliver share a common treatment of nature as metaphor that parallels biographical details about their lives. In addition, each poet portrays a distinctive desire to merge fully with nature in a way impossible to achieve while physically alive. A close reading of selected poems will result in a progressive portrayal of the American female poetic mind grappling with issues of spirituality, a sense of place, and identity as explored through nature.

Emily Dickinson: 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson led a unique life, held unconventional viewpoints, and spent the bulk of her later years devoted to writing poetry. She received an education from both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where her ideas about religion and society molded into those much different from the norms of her community. This nineteenth-century poet wrote much of her work under the unusual circumstances of seclusion, and Dickinson did not aspire to publish, even though she wrote over 2,000 poems and communicated with a select few about her work. She wrote in an experimental, original style, and her content complemented the form. Her poetic power lay in her ability to use an everyday backdrop to present complex ideas in sharp-edged, compact stanzas often following a rhyme scheme.
    Dickinson continually questioned and searched for meaning, and her poems can leave a reader with many unanswered questions. Throughout her poetry, she isn’t afraid to approach the world with honesty: “Despite Dickinson’s fanciful image and allegories, her poems insist on their own kind of uncompromising realism. They speak of the universal human effort to imagine experience in reassuring terms, but they do not suggest that reality offers much in the way of assurance…” (“Emily” 1042). While the poetic legend didn’t shy away from exposing nature’s unforgiving, unsentimental qualities, she also felt free to approach the subject with perpetual awe, trying to breach the boundary between human life and eternal knowledge. In a number of poems, she uses nature as metaphor for something separate from the self, ultimately exposing an illusive and invisible borderline. The qualities of the natural world she identifies and interprets are represented in varying tones through interesting symbols and word choice. She mirrors the ambiguity of nature in her own writing by leaving much unsaid and unexplained to the reader. She uses the uncertainty to her advantage in her sustained search for nature’s many revelations.
    In the poem beginning “I started early, took my dog,” the speaker narrates the potential and perceived benefit of merging with an emblematic sea by employing words and symbols with multiple meanings. Dickinson begins the poem with the mention of a domesticated animal. The “dog,” which is not mentioned again by name though perhaps included in a later “we,” offers an intriguing reference to an animal with both wild and domestic qualities; as the poem progresses, the speaker also assumes mixed characteristics. The sea, too, has varying layers of meaning, with mortal attributes of containing man and his myths, as well as a metaphorical representation of a retreat from life. The “sea is a traditional symbol of death,” and her capitalization of the pronoun “He” used to describe the sea supports the notion that death involves a higher power, God (“14” 86). The poem introduces the idea of the speaker and the sea being separate, even detailing elements of the sea as curious about the unknown: “The Mermaids in the Basement / Came out to look at me —” (3-4). Though the rhyming end words in four of the six stanzas establish an interesting connection between the speaker and the body of water, such as “Sea” and “me"; “Hands” and “Sands"; “Shoe” and “too"; and “Heel” and “Pearl.” In addition, the heavy use of dashes and lack of end punctuation complements the sense of disconnectedness in the text because of the abrupt stops while reading, a process which resembles the feelings of the speaker.
    While the speaker visits the sea, “Man” does interact with her, but without effect until the water begins to touch her. Dickinson controls the pace of the poem by using multiple dashes and specific description to guide the reader as the water touches the speaker both physically and spiritually. Also, her use of alliteration, assonance and consonance, repetition and rhyme creates a lighthearted tone that counters the action:

        But no Man moved Me—till the Tide
        Went past my simple Shoe—
        And past my Apron—and my Belt
        And past my Bodice —too—

Once again, the capitalization used allows “Man” to be representative of men in the “Frigates,” and it can also be representative of God and/or the afterlife when linked with “Tide.” The speaker “started” after the water threatened to consume her, just as she “started” at the beginning of the poem. This repetition marks a recurring action, though the speaker seems unable to complete her journey, perhaps because of fear.
    The words show the sea, the “He,” following, indicating that the speaker has turned around. Dickinson attributes a temporal value, which translates to eternal value, to the water following behind with “His Silver Heel” and an image of her footwear “overflow[ing] with Pearl.” While these descriptors establish an unusual tone, the water ultimately rejects the speaker by pulling away. The final stanza of the poem presents a unique depiction of the afterlife’s awareness:

        Until We met the Solid Town—
        No One He seemed to know—
        And bowing—with a Mighty look—
        At me—the Sea withdrew—

The sea can be identified as an impending source of escape, but the poem ends with a boundary between the speaker and nature established by a mutual understanding between both that one cannot merge with the other even if the speaker doesn’t comprehend why.
    Another poem exploring the mysteries of nature through the limited knowledge of a human lens opens “What mystery pervades a well!” This line describes an interaction between speaker and nature, with an idea of eternal separation concluding the poem. The six four-line stanzas lack significant punctuation and employ an ABCB rhyme scheme of exact, vowel and suspended rhymes; each stanza offers an experiential snapshot of the speaker’s journey. In this poem, Dickinson uses multiple elements of nature in metaphorical ways to describe the positions of humans. Specifically, the poem begins with an idea of wonder and confinement, as presented through a device used by humans:

        What mystery pervades a well!
        That water lives so far—
        A neighbor from another world
        Residing in a jar

Based on this stanza, an unseen boundary exists between man and the water encased by the earth. In addition, Dickinson compares humans to vegetation when she personifies “grass.” The speaker states that “The grass does not appear afraid…” and ponders the physical position of the “grass:” “…Can stand so close and look so bold / At what is awe to me” (9, 11-12). These lines reveal a common human fear of the unknown, as well as show the aggressive manner of those who believe they master nature. This leads to a further interpretation that perhaps Dickinson is questioning whether or not the “grass” has the ability to understand. Dickinson also shows the close discernable link between humans and nature by contrasting “grass” with “sedge.” Sedge resembles grass but has solid stems. The “sedge” remains distinct in the poem and is placed specifically by “the sea.” The superficial likeness pointedly relays the interconnected nature of man and earth.
    Dickinson switches to a human perspective to further explore the idea of fear. In the penultimate stanza, she relays the haunting and mysterious qualities of nature:

        But nature is a stranger yet;
        The ones that cite her most
        Have never passed her haunted house,
        Nor simplified her ghost.

In this excerpt, nature is used to symbolize both a “haunted house,” as well as the “ghost” that inhabits it. While nature might be portrayed as an inspirational harbor, it can also embody alarming qualities. The complexities of this quatrain are explored in Yuto Miyata’s article, “The Rejection of the Traditional Idea of Nature in Emily Dickinson’s Poems”: “The word ‘haunted,’ originally meaning to be visited by a strange form of a spirit, may imply that nature is haunted by an unidentified ghost. Perhaps this unidentified ghost is nature’s inner truth: it can never be revealed to man, though it has many outer aspects to be observed and to make man imagine what they stand for. Nature never permits simplification by Dickinson” (81). In addition, the notion of a home, where one resides, should be comforting. However, the home that nature provides is an unsettling rather than reassuring environment; in fact, this dwelling’s occupants are figures of death. Dickinson concludes the poem with an ironic statement that shows the knowledge of nature is actually lessened as one becomes more aware of its greatness: “That those who know her, know her less / The nearer her they get.” Even though the reader is given a succinct message at the end, it doesn’t dilute the speaker’s quest for understanding already presented. According to this poem, the mystery of nature will continue to evolve and increase as an individual becomes more intent on scrutinizing its mysteries. Consequently, the line the speaker seeks to cross in order to receive wisdom and a retreat seems to shift farther away with each step similar to the movement of a horizon.
    Dickinson’s treatment of nature is various and contradicting because it sometimes renders
an incredible beauty, and other times exposes a relentless, unforgiving enigma. The poet once said that “The unknown is the largest need of the intellect,” and nature is clearly an entity she considered a mystery (“14” 83). A reader can conclude that Dickinson perused the pages of nature as she would a text book, as she perhaps did the Bible, in an attempt to assemble the elements into a coherent story. Through her poetry, she captured her quest to understand the illusive natural world by portraying ambiguous journeys. Her unconventional perspective and life parallel her unusual writing style and content; accordingly, her life story is as easily identifiable as her work.

Elizabeth Bishop: 1911-1979

Similar to Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop also led a life different from the majority. While she did not commit herself to seclusion, this twentieth-century writer sought to live a private life. She had little to no contact with her parents during her lifetime. Her father died only months after her birth; when Bishop was only five, her mother was ill and placed in an institution, never to see her daughter again. Bishop spent her youth and adolescence living first in Nova Scotia, Canada, and then in Massachusetts. She attended both Walnut Hills School for Girls and Vassar College. During her time at Vassar, Bishop met fellow American poet Marianne Moore, and their relationship proved pivotal to the development of Bishop’s writing because of Moore’s stylistic influences and mentoring critiques. Bishop’s poetic process is lengthy, exacting, and complex, filling her lines with rich inventive images, and she published a mere 101 poems during her career. Her earlier writing style is formal, while she migrates toward more informal verse in later years.
    Bishop did not pursue a strong public persona, and this suited the poet well. She remained distant and hidden by choice, living a large portion of her life abroad as a foreigner. A reader witnesses a similar theme emerging from her poems. In Adrienne Rich’s article, “The Eye of the Outsider: Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, 1927-1979,” the feminist poet discusses her appreciation for Bishop’s perspective as presented by her collected work. Specifically, Rich is “concerned with her experience of outsiderhood, closely—though not exclusively—linked with the essential outsiderhood of a lesbian identity; and with how the outsider’s eye enables Bishop to perceive other kinds of outsiders and to identify, or try to identify with them” (127). One of the ways that Bishop portrays the status and emotions of an outsider is by using nature as a representative and comparative backdrop in relation to the self. The revered poet does so in a way that often portrays an idea of a human’s unnaturalness, or separation from nature, which reflects the distance from others that the poet herself embraced.
    “The Weed,” a surrealistic poem about the heartbreaking effects of love from Bishop’s first collection, North & South, shows a person’s physical and mental joining with nature that is aberrant. The symbolic title immediately prompts the reader to expect an intruder instead of something welcome, such as an exquisite flower. The poem, composed in an extended stanza, begins with the speaker in a horizontal position, as if time has suspended and the actual place is irrelevant, only the experience of the place matters. A loss of life prefaces the action presented throughout the text: “I dreamed that dead, and mediating, / I lay upon a grave, or bed, / (at least, some cold and close-built bower)” (1-3). The variables presented by Bishop can be viewed as disorienting, which allows the reader to adjust the “I” in the poem to a dream-like, static state. This static state resembles hibernation, where a figurative cocoon provides relief from the outside world.

        In the cold heart, its final thought
        stood frozen, drawn immense and clear,
        stiff and idles as I was there;
        and we remained unchanged together
        for a year, a minute, an hour.

Without a beating heart, without passions and emotions, the speaker is able to align with nature. The lines that follow show new life growing, which wakes the speaker from “desperate sleep.”    
    The awareness of a “slight young weed” emerging from her chest, having passed like an arrow through the heart, prompts a focused study of the foreign body growing from her, symbolized by nature. According to the poem’s speaker, all of this happens in darkness, so that the experience is felt rather than seen, almost as if Bishop attempts to tap into a sixth sense. Also, the implication of darkness demonstrates both the speaker’s inability to understand the true nature of this presence, as well as insinuates that the “weed” grows from darkness. Bishop chose for the speaker to remain mesmerized by the weed’s movement so that nothing is done to destroy or nurture it. Even though an excruciating encounter is retold, the speaker’s distance softens the ache. At this point in the poem, the reader’s response is similar to the poem’s speaker. A reader is able to appreciate the rendition of the experience, as well as to become entranced with the detailed journey Bishop creates. In describing the weed’s growth, she positions the reader face-to-face with it:

        The stem grew thick. The nervous roots
        reached to each side; the graceful head
        changed it’s position mysteriously,
        since there was neither sun nor moon
        to catch its young attention.

    The poet uses the “weed” as a metaphor for a growth of the heart and implies that the heart can nurture something unnatural in the dark. Bishop also indicates a permanent relationship between the heart and earth: “The rooted heart began to change / (not beat)…” (28). The metaphor becomes more complex when the speaker’s physical heart bursts and releases water that threatens to uproot the “weed.” The presence of water, which can be seen as something that washes and nourishes, perhaps as something that represents a baptism or rebirth, clings to the “leaves” and drips onto the speaker’s “face.” A revelation is contained in the small spheres of liquid, as revealed by the presence of “light":

        … each drop contained a light,
        a small, illuminated scene;
        the weed-deflected stream was made
        itself of racing images.

The water is something that transports, but the weed remains rooted in the “severed heart.”    
    The poem concludes with a conversation between the speaker and the “weed,” where the speaker now considers the weed a part of her body. This unity is expressed through personification and through the “weed” moving similar to how the speaker stirs earlier in the poem: “It lifted its head all dripping wet / (with my own thoughts?)” (53-54). The weed’s answer is that it will “divide” the vital organ again. Bishop’s heavy use of punctuation and specific words and descriptors allows the poem its precise rendition of an imagined, metaphorical experience that is distressing: “The pain of division is acutely present in some of Bishop’s earliest poems…” (Rich 128). In creating the image of a person connected to nature by something foreign and generally disliked, Bishop illustrates the idea of being an outsider while still linked to a whole.
    In “The Colder the Air,” also from North & South, Bishop personifies a season by creating a persona who is in control of winter. The poem is separated into three stanzas, each containing six lines, and follows an ABCBCA rhyme scheme. The controlled structure of this poem embodies the control that the subject of the poem possesses. Adrienne Rich summarizes the power of this poem’s persona: “The ‘huntress of the winter air’ has everything under control, having reduced the world to her shooting gallery, in an icy single-mindedness; the speaker of the poem does not have such power, and beneath its frigid surface the poem quivers with barely suppressed rage” (128). The poem’s title and opening establish the speaker’s position and command the reader: “We must admire her perfect aim” (1). The idea of admiring gives the impression that both the speaker and readers do this from afar, as observers rather than participants. The idea of admiring also indicates that the speaker of this poem perhaps covets the huntress’s control because a boundary prevents the speaker’s ability to harness it.
     Strong language throughout the poem describes an enviable state of perfection that seems boundless. Again referencing the title, “The Colder the Air,” uncovers an expectation that the temperature can continue decreasing even after it no longer registers on a human thermometer. Her images, in the second stanza especially, offer a vision of a world that is frozen for the huntress even as she continues to take “aim”:

        The chalky birds or boats stand still,
        reducing her conditions of chance;
        air’s gallery marks identically
        the narrow gallery of her glance.

Also, the huntress’s expertise is portrayed as if faultless and supernatural: “her game is sure, her shot is right,” “The target-center in her eye / is equally her aim and will,” and “Time’s in her pocket…” (4, 10-11, 12). The end words of the first stanza, as grouped by rhyme, offer a concise look at the speaker’s acute perception: “aim” and “same"; “air” and “everywhere”: and “sight” and “right.” The “huntress” acts autonomously, independently and remains effective, while residing in a mystical setting: “She’ll consult / not time nor circumstance. She calls / on atmosphere for her result” (13-15). This figure can stop time, stop life, and is a powerful female figure of nature whose capabilities are out of the speaker’s reach. The speaker’s persistence and ability to describe the traits show a sense of desire indicative of a separateness that cannot be overcome by anything human. Once again, Bishop’s position as an outsider is reflected by the content of her poem.
    Bishop’s poetry often utilizes natural landscapes and figures to offer contextual relationships between the people and objects presented in her poems. In many cases, this is accomplished by producing various metaphorical representations of the speaker’s self or desires that demonstrate an equal longing and inability to join the final sanctuary of nature. As in Dickinson's poetry, nature is considered a source offering wisdom, though the speaker is distanced from its purpose and meaning. Also, Bishop’s nature is an escape in a way that is more symbolic of the self, whether superficial connections are established or not. Bishop’s “outsiderhood” extends beyond her personal life into her poetry so that she and her speakers reside on the outskirts. Sylvia Plath, a poet alive during Bishop’s era, also reveals a self that is on the outside; and, similar to Dickinson, Plath’s speakers achieve the ultimate relationship with nature only through death.

Sylvia Plath: 1932-1963

Just over 45 years after her death, Sylvia Plath remains a strong, iconic American female poet of the twentieth century.     Compared to Dickinson and Bishop, she composed over 200 poems in her short lifetime. From a young age, her mother encouraged the girl to strive for academic achievement. This resulted in Plath’s attendance at Smith College and later, on a Fulbright scholarship, Newnham College in Cambridge, England. During her time at Smith College, Plath experienced mental problems that resulted in a suicide attempt. She continued to struggle with depression, and after her relationship with husband Ted Hughes failed, she committed suicide, leaving her husband and two small children behind. Much of her work paints a dismal worldview and presents a speaker who is searching for the peace of death. Specifically, she uses nature as a metaphor for self that demonstrates the poet’s struggle with her separation from nature due to her physical life.
    Plath’s confessional style produced bold content that successfully wove various themes and symbols throughout her work. Her earlier poems are more formal in structure, but the style of her later poetry parallels the free-flowing subject matter. Her growth as a poet is evident when reading the whole of her work, and Hughes witnessed her transformations first-hand: “Her evolution as a poet went rapidly through successive moults of style, as she realized her true matter and voice. Each fresh phase tended to bring out a group of poems bearing a general family likeness, and is usually associated in my memory with a particular time and place. At each move we made, she seemed to shed a style” (16). Throughout her writing, she presented an ambiguous view of life by depicting a metaphorical view of nature representing the self. By doing so, Plath depicts a physical existence that is not only separated from nature, but also rejected by nature.
    Plath’s poem, “I Am Vertical,” with a final draft date of March 28, 1961, compares the speaker to other vertically standing elements of nature and imagines the desired joining happening only through death. The poem’s title reads as a first line and is immediately answered with the speaker’s wish: “But I would rather be horizontal” (1). In one draft of this poem (located in the Lilly Library archives), the first line reads: “This upright position is unnatural.” Even though Plath chose a less-direct first line, the meaning remains the same. The complexity of position deepens when Plath points to other objects also standing that seem to tease the speaker with their shallow likeness. In the first of two ten-line stanzas, the speaker states how she is not like a tree or flower. Her description of the tree demonstrates its connectedness to the earth: “I am not a tree with my root in the soil / Sucking up minerals and motherly love / So that each March I may gleam into leaf” (2-4). Further, she attributes a bold nature to the flower. Several end words of the first stanza depict the features she admires in both trees and flowers: “painted,” “immortal,” “startling,” and “daring.” As with virtually all Plath poems, the overall lyricism is consistent and persistent throughout the poem, and it stands out specifically with lines like “Compared with me, a tree is immortal” and “Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,” which begins the second stanza (8, 11).
    This glimpse of a night sky filled with the stars’ “infinitesimal light” evokes an idea of eternity, and perhaps of an afterlife. As the speaker details her vertical life on earth, she feels ignored by the nature surrounding her: “I walk among them, but none of them are noticing” (13). The idea perpetuated up until this point in the poem is that she cannot merge with nature; therefore, she cannot truly communicate with nature. Through a reference to death, the speaker explains how she could join nature:

        Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
        I must most perfectly resemble them—
        Thoughts gone dim.
        It is more natural to me, lying down.

The poem concludes with the idea that the “horizontal” position would enable the speaker to be in “conversation” with the “sky.” The final and longest line of the poem links back to the first stanza and merges the natural world with the speaker: “Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.” With this closing line, the speaker shows how she moves from an unnatural stance to one that is finally one with nature in death. The poem’s content resembles Plath’s continual struggle with life, where the prospect of death felt much more natural than the prospect of life.
    “Wuthering Heights,” a five-stanza poem with a final draft date of September 1961, links to “I Am Vertical” through its treatment of nature’s tempting and rejecting character. The poem grabs the reader with the idea of fire in the opening lines and also shows its unreliable nature: “The horizons ring me like faggots, / Tilted and disparate, and always unstable” (1-2). In addition, the end words of this stanza can be used to interchangeably detail the horizons and the speaker’s self: “faggots,” “unstable,” “me,” “singe,” “orange,” “evaporate,” “color,” “dissolve” and “forward.” The second stanza shifts the reader’s view from “the distances.” Not only does the speaker feel assaulted and lured by the natural world, but the speaker also looks to the ground as a way of searching within:

        There is no life higher than the grasstops
        Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
        Pours by like destiny, bending
        Everything in one direction.

In drafts of this stanza (located in the Lilly Library archives), Plath used “irrevocable” to modify “direction” and used “mislead” instead of “invite,” which further attests to the deadly power of nature’s allure. Plath might have chosen to match the qualities of nature to the speaker’s own desires for death.
    This third stanza showcases Plath’s ability to entice our senses with strong images and sounds. She describes “sheep” as wearing “dirty wool-clouds, / Gray as the weather,” as well as says, “They stand about in grandmotherly disguise, / All wig curls and yellow teeth” (20-21, 25-26). This reference to age and progression of time contrasts the speaker’s inability to last forever, indicating that the sheep’s “disguise” is because it will come back again and again, looking the same. In addition, the reference to a “disguise” indicates the speaker’s feeling that the landscape is in some way trying to deceive her. The sense of sound produced by this stanza’s final line not only employs wonderful lyricism, but also creates an audible sound for the reader to experience: “And hard, marbly baas” (27).
    The final two stanzas close with references to the separation existing between nature and the speaker. As the speaker wanders across the landscape, she realizes the impression left by people is reduced to “a few odd syllables. / It [the air] rehearses them moaningly: / Black stone, black stone” (34-36). These words show a person transforming to something natural through death. However, the use of “Black” to describe the “stone” might indicate that even in death, something about the human still taints. The speaker expresses her feelings of separation from nature by recounting the pressure of the firmament: “The sky leans on me, me, the one upright / Among all horizontals” (37-38). The sensation created by these words is one of being pushed down, of being pressed toward the ground. In addition, she attributes a figurative state of immortality to the “grass” by stating that “Darkness terrifies it,” as well as casts the speaker as something horrible since a human’s mortality leads to darkness. The poem ends with an image of light produced by humans that, when considered with the statement about “grass,” can be read as a consolation to nature. This consolation is given value in human terms: “Now, in valleys narrow / And black as purses, the house lights / Gleam like small change” (43-45). While Plath casts nature as an entity wanting her demise, the speaker moves about the poem’s landscape knowing this. In this case, the speaker’s separation from nature serves to show nature enticing her but ultimately rejecting her without death, all of which can be interpreted as the speaker’s struggle with the decision of choosing between life and death.
    Following the tradition of Dickinson and Bishop, Plath uses nature to gain and reveal knowledge about herself through a metaphorical lens. Plath’s biological information paints a palpable picture of a woman suffering with a mental illness, and her poetry continually draws on this struggle. Plath’s use of startling images and brutal statements are just two ways that a reader can easily identify her work, and the timeless relevance of her ideas about life and death allow her poetry to sustain its meaning. In many poems, the natural world for Plath represented the boundary between life and death, and her poetry was a way to express her perception of this. Frieda Hughes, daughter of Plath and Hughes, composed a foreword to the restored edition of Ariel, where she discusses how she views her mother’s fate in relation to her work: “I think my mother was extraordinary in her work, and valiant in her efforts to fight the depression that dogged her throughout her life. She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress; she wasted nothing of what she felt, and when in control of those tumultuous feelings she was able to focus and direct her incredible poetic energy to great effect.” (xx)

Mary Oliver: 1935-

Mary Oliver is one of the most popular poets living today. She began writing poems as a teenager after becoming intrigued with poetry: “…what captivated me was reading the poems myself and realizing that there was a world without material substance which was nevertheless as alive as any other—the world of the imagination—into which one could go, and stay” (Olander 1). She spent her childhood and early adult years living in Ohio and resided briefly in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home, where she sorted through the poet’s papers. Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College but didn’t earn a degree. After she dropped out of school, she worked in various jobs that allowed her to write in the early morning hours. Numerous biographical sources reference the daily walks that Oliver takes near her home in Massachusetts, which provide subject-matter for her poems.
    Oliver uses plain language and unambiguous concepts to create her poetry. Her poems consistently express a sincere reverence and connection to the natural world, and her approach and tone is most like Dickinson in that she reveres nature in almost a religious way; however, her concepts are often unadorned. She writes in a variety of structural forms, varying line and stanza lengths, and often uses extended metaphors as a vehicle. Her usually sparse content is very much narrative and conversational, both in individual poems and as a collective whole. While Oliver did not include details about her personal life in her earlier work, her relationship with nature is shown through her varying speakers’ interactions. She uses nature as metaphor and taps nature because it offers a solace. Her speakers do not experience difficulty in blending with nature, (in fact express a need for nature), which emulates Oliver’s own ability to easily commune with nature. However, as with Dickinson and Plath, she recognizes death as the final relationship between herself and the natural world.
    In her poem “Singapore,” which was first published in House of Light, Oliver uses nature to represent happiness; within the context of the poem, happiness is an escape from what the speaker witnesses. The first of seven uneven stanzas orients the reader and provides a straightforward, yet harsh, description of the poem’s struggle:

        In Singapore, in the airport,
        A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
        In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
        A woman knelt there, washing something
        in the white bowl.

In five short lines, a reader is drawn into the text and shocked by the details. As if answering a reader’s troubled protest, Oliver changes the course of the poem to discuss nature. She lists several elements, which are then named a “happy place”: “A poem should always have birds in it. / Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings. / Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees” (8-10). The speaker forces herself to watch the woman working and also instructs the reader to watch the woman “washing the tops of airport ashtrays” (22).
    The speaker’s watchful gaze allows a certain beauty to color the circumstances. In fact, it is the way in which the woman works that enables the speaker to appreciate her movement. The working woman is soon described with details of nature: “She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river. / Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird” (25-26). The speaker’s internal ponderings tell us that she wants to see the beauty in the woman’s acceptance of her own life. In her article, “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver,” literary scholar Diane S. Bonds explains that the method seen in “Singapore” appears elsewhere: “…many of Oliver’s poems suggest an educative – to be more precise, a self-educative – process which has resulted in the speaker’s ability to move fluidly between individual consciousness and identification with nature” (5-6). The ugliness and beauty of the situation is separated when the speaker’s desire is explained: “And I want to rise up from the crust and the slop / and fly down to the river” (28-29). The poem ends with the notion that life is complex, offering both good and bad, and that happiness can appear in places and ways the speaker and a reader might not suspect. In addition, a complete blending of the woman and the natural world is presented:

        the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
        the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
        the way her smile was for only my sake; I mean
        the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

In the end, the beauty of the woman was exemplified by references to nature and, by association, offered an escape from the gritty reality.
    “Poppies,” which Oliver read in her April 2, 2008 reading at the Art Institute of Chicago, utilizes a vivid flower to depict nature as light/life, and represents death with darkness. The poem uses the brightness of the poppy to conjure flames, and the fire is not harmful when presented through nature. In fact, this fire is described with religious terms and presents the sensation of being lifted by the blaze:

        The poppies send up their
        orange flares; swaying
        in the wind, their congregations
        are a levitation

As seen in this first stanza, spiritual descriptors are used throughout the poem as the speaker describes her interaction with a field of poppies: “dust,” “miracle,” “light,” “holiness” and “redemptive.”     The nine four-line stanzas alternate between the beauty of poppies and the ultimate reality of death. As a way to create suspense with her form, she places end punctuation at the closing of only two stanzas. Oliver describes the “indigos of darkness” as being able to “drown,” in addition to the blackness of the sharp edge of death. Her description is enhanced by her lyricism:

        black, curved blade
        from hooking forward—
        of course
        loss is the great lesson.

    In the face of death, the speaker sees “an invitation” to “light,” which serves to offer a baptismal experience. The dazzling colors of the field of poppies allow the speaker to feel “happiness” and, linked with the other religious references in the poem, the speaker’s encounter is one of renewal:

        touched by their rough and spongy gold
        I am washed and washed
        in the river
        of earthly delight—

The poem ends with a challenge to nature, and the speaker seems unafraid to ask the question: “what can you do / about it— / deep, blue night?” The merging of nature in this poem is with the nature of the earth, which offers a heavenly experience. The speaker doesn’t need death to join nature; in fact, death is presented as being able to take some of the joy away. However, separation does exist because death is a final act of life. Oliver’s own embrace of nature connects to the enjoyment presented in the poem.
    Mary Oliver’s use of everyday language and concepts makes her poetry accessible to a wide audience. In fact, while her words can be sometimes overwhelmed by white space on the page, all blends together smoothly when read aloud. The poet takes the reader/listener on a detailed journey where customary, everyday experiences develop into intensely familiar, personal ponderings of life’s greatest questions. Mary Oliver’s presence in the literary world is refreshing, and her ability to sell out readings attests to her influence and recognition: “The appearance by the 71-year-old writer from Massachusetts, arguably the country's most popular poet, had sparked the fastest sell-out in the 20-year history of the hallmark literary series. The response was so feverish that Oliver ticket buyers and sellers moved into the unlikely realm of Craigslist with prices as high as $100 per seat” (Marshall). Her personal interest and attraction to nature mirrors the brave portrayal that a reader can see again and again in her work.

    Dickinson, Bishop, Plath and Oliver represent American women poets in a comprehensive and reflective way. Dickinson begins the tradition of how females utilize nature in their poetry. Her uncompromising perspective propelled her into a world that persistently questioned the presences filling nature. Her pursuit of answers might not have led to a full understanding of life, but her persistent process did embody fulfillment through her ability to participate in the quest. Bishop’s approach toward nature also questioned the physical and mystical attributes of the natural world, and her inquiries included treating herself as an outsider. While her technique earns her the praise of fellow poets, Bishop’s poetic personas are stronger than her own in real life. Her ability to create a landscape populated with unnatural or unreachable entities demonstrates the poet’s own feelings of being disconnected. Similar to Bishop, Plath treats nature as possessing something she wants but can’t have. Again and again, Plath’s speakers migrate through her scenery, enjoy being close to nature but ultimately feel rejected because of physical life. Plath separates the self and nature as a way to parallel the life and death choice she herself faced. Finally, Oliver is most similar to Dickinson in her reverence for the environment; however, in the poems presented, Oliver’s speakers don’t follow such a strong path of investigation or treat death as a satisfying end because of answers. In fact, the personas in Oliver’s poems are able to enjoy nature for the beauty it offers, even though it does leave much unanswered. Also, while her lines of demarcation aren’t as sharp as Bishop’s and Plath’s, she does recognize the ultimate union via death. She is the only poet in this group still living, and her poems continue a timeless tradition.
    While the American female poet has struggled for opportunities and recognition, today’s poetic landscape overflows with women authors. In many writers, a reader can identify the presence of nature and see that it is used in the ways established by our great authors. While the popularity of poetry has not infested our countrysides, perhaps it should in order to enable humans to understand more about themselves. As seen in the work of Dickinson, Bishop, Plath and Oliver, this understanding might allow us to better see the relationship between ourselves and nature. As Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, states: “Let us remember … that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”

Works Cited:

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Bonds, Diane S. “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 21 (1992): 1-15.
Davis, Thomas M. 14 by Emily Dickinson: with selected criticism. Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1964.
Dickinson, Emily. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961.
“Emily Dickinson: 1830-1886.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Expanded Edition – Volume 2. Gen. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. 1020-1042.
Hughes, Frieda. Foreword. Ariel: The Restored Edition. By Sylvia Plath. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Hughes, Ted. Introduction. The Collected Poems. By Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.
Marshall, John. "Revered Poet Shows Her Witty Side." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 5 Feb. 2008. 25 Mar. 2008 <http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/books/350095_oliver06.html>.
Miyata, Yuto. “The Rejection of the Traditional Idea of Nature in Emily Dickinson’s Poems.” Kyushu American Literature (KAL) 29 (1988): 81-87.
Olander, Renee. “An Interview with Mary Oliver.” The Writer’s Chronicle. 1 (1994): 1.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.
Plath, Sylvia. Plath Mss.—“I Am Vertical.” Ms. 1961, March 28. The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Plath, Sylvia. Plath Mss.—“Wuthering Heights.” Ms. 1961, September. The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Rich, Adrienne. “The Eye of the Outsider: Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, 1927-1979.” Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986. 124-135.
Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 3: Early Nineteenth Century and Romanticism—A Brief Introduction.” February 1, 2008. PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide. 3 April 2008 <http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap3/3intro.html>.
Wiman, Christian. "Poetry." Advertisement. Poetry.

© by Jennifer Yaros


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