This is hard to say, because Unitarian Universalists generally treat Thou Shalt Adore the Poetry of Mary Oliver as a commandment, except that we don’t do commandments, but I need to confess. Oh wait, we don’t do confession either. (Though we ought to. That’s for another post.)
Never mind. The point is, I think Mary Oliver is mediocre. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I cringe when the lovely images are drawing to the inevitable conclusion, the moment when Oliver says “Look” or “Listen” and then starts asking us rhetorical questions. It’s like coming to the end of a fable by Aesop.
I am not a person who believes that poems should have morals tacked on to the end. In my experience, the best poems, the ones that eventually turn my life inside out and, like Rilke’s Apollo, inform me that I must change it, are rarely the ones that tell me in plain language what I ought to do. They are more likely to make me say “huh?” I have to read them many times before I dig out their deeper meanings, and when I hold one of those meanings in my hand I know it’s the first of many, that that poem will keep revealing more to me the more times I read it. Oliver’s poems are, in a word, obvious. When she says, or implies, “Look!” I want to say, “Hey, you’re the poet. Don’t tell me to look. Just give me something to look at, something so compelling that I don’t need to be told what to do, and scoot yourself out of the way so that I can see it.”
I once came across an essay on the internet that said better than I can why she isn’t a very good poet and, damn it, is too good not to be a very good poet, but the internet being what it is, I have no idea where to find it again. It expressed my central frustration with Oliver: that someone who can evoke the experiences of the senses so well with words, who seems so perceptive and grounded, who can see the world with clarity, and yet stops short of creating really complex art, is very disappointing.
However, the failings of her poetry make it an excellent source for liturgy. In a worship service, just as the hymns must be fairly simple to sing, the readings have to convey their meaning the first time, to listeners who don’t have another chance to go back and read them again or hear them again (though in our contemplative midweek services, we sometimes do each reading twice). They can be layered, but they also have to be very accessible. They can’t have a very big “huh?” factor. This is why I seldom use my favorite poems in services. Those require absorption; they require analysis and reflection, and many rereadings; then they take off the top of your head, to quote one of my favorite, profoundly “huh?”-inducing poets, Emily Dickinson. You often can’t get them on the first go-round. Or you might pick up something of their wisdom, but you’ll grab on to the easiest bit. Like that last line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which sounds like a moral and seems easy to grasp. But having grasped it, we still need to spend more time with the poem in order to have any sense of why, how, a headless torso can see us so penetratingly that we know we must change. At least, I did. Rilke’s language is easy (a German speaker once told me it is notable for its simplicity) but his meaning is not. Spend a little time with this poem and you may see what I mean.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Of course, you can use readings in a Sunday service that will have meaning on first hearing and then also repay further reading and reflection. But those are harder to find. The poems that offer most on the surface are seldom the ones that offer much more on reflection–that are, in short, great poems. Oliver’s poems are good liturgy for the same reason they are mediocre poetry. They deliver a poignant thought or a morsel of good advice for living, they do it with graceful language, they offer up images the mind can easily hold, and they have very little in them to distract the listener with “Wait, I didn’t get that bit.” They lead one with silken inexorability to a conclusion. That’s not what I look for in a poem, but it’s exactly what I need when I’m sitting in a worship service, or shaping one.