What We Miss if We Pass on Poetry (Hint: Not Poems)

| 4/4/2008 5:37:45 PM

Mary Oliver and PercyMary Oliver is slight, silver-haired, and sweet-mother-of-mercy, as wily as the day is long. She’s superbly sharp and has impeccable timing, a bemused smile often nipping at the corners of her mouth. So as I sat, rapt, this past Sunday at the State Theatre, listening to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet read, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why wasn’t there a line around the block? Why don’t more people get fired up about poetry?                                          

Don’t get me wrong: A robust, enthusiastic crowd turned out for the event, which kicked off the Literary Legends Series, a joint venture of the Hennepin Theatre Trust and the Loft, Minneapolis’ literary center extraordinare. In box-office terms, I’ve no doubt it was a success. But Oliver’s reading was so damn good—so powerful, so lively, so entertaining and uplifting—that I yearned to fill a coliseum with people at her attention.

Oliver read from her new collection, Red Bird, from 2006’s Thirst, and from her memoir of last year, Our World, which pairs her prose with photographs by her partner Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. As Oliver read, the friends who had demurred to come rattled through my head, followed by people I hadn’t even originally thought to invite, but who I now was certain would have relished the reading too. Almost everyone who’d turned me down had offered the same (ahem, old) excuse: It doesn’t sound like my thing. I don’t really like poetry.

A bemused smile nipped at the corners of my mouth when Oliver herself sagely addressed the issue. “A long time ago, I realized that people who read poetry were pre-converted,” she said. “And that people who didn’t, rarely convert.”

“But,” Oliver continued wryly, “that anyone who has a curiosity to start a sentence would finish it.” So, sometimes, she challenges herself to craft windy, multi-line poems that, with a little help from creative punctuation, carry a reader along from start to finish in a single swoop. By way of illustration, she read “The Sun,” which begins with a simple question (“Have you ever seen / anything / in your life / more wonderful”) and then diverts into a circuitous celebration of the heavenly body. “Have you ever felt for anything / such wild love—,” Oliver wants to know.

Just when I thought my heart was going to burst, she concluded:

4/8/2008 1:03:41 PM

Mary Oliver spoke at the University of California at Santa Barbara this past year. I couldn't get in because it was sold out. Good news, yes?

Megan Rich
4/6/2008 7:09:31 AM

I have loved Mary Oliver since the first poem I read of hers, and through all the rest. I'm very happy to see a reviewer writing about what I also find the most important message in Oliver's work-- that is what lies underneath it, the learned assumptions about the world and its realities, bittersweet as they are. I wish I could have been there, too, but thank you for bringing it to life for me.

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