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

By Staff
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Mary 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:

“or have you too / turned from this world / or have you too / gone crazy / for power, / for things?”

Oh, and my heart did burst, but in a good way–in a very Oliver way. “I tell you this / to break your heart, / by which I mean only / that it break open and never close again / to the rest of the world,” she writes in “Lead.” It was that moment that made me wish I could share that evening at the State Theatre with everyone I know. Oliver’s humanistic approach to the world is exquisitely bittersweet, full of rich humor and mindful observation, equal parts joyful and sad.

We pay ourselves a disservice every time we dismiss poetry as a lump sum. Oh, I don’t like poetry. Really? None of it? It’s as strange a statement as saying you don’t like music (nope, not one note). But we don’t say strange things like that about music, because for the most part we’re equipped with sufficient acoustic literacy to recognize genres, make aesthetic judgments, and sort out what is pleasing from what is displeasing to our ears.

With poetry, such facility is hardly the standard, and that’s OK; I’ve no illusions about poems suddenly gaining top-40 appeal. But I do secretly suspect that somewhere out there, there’s a poem or a poet that would tickle everyone’s fancy, as instantly and effortlessly as you know that you love a certain song the first time you hear it play. Encountering a few poems, however, and then dismissing the entire field, seems a bit like scanning the radio for a few minutes and then deciding all this noise, this so-called music, is not for you.

The loss, of course, isn’t that people might miss out on poetry; certainly not everybody must have affection for every single art. It’s that the broad-stroke dismissal throws a hurdle up between people and great thinkers like Mary Oliver, whose work would otherwise most likely startle, electrify, and delight.

Julie Hanus

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