Poetry is prayer, it is passion and story and music, it is beauty, comfort, it is agitation, declaration, it is thanksgiving. Some poems are radiant and oracular, some are quiet and full of tenderness, like a letter written to a friend. Often poetry is the gate to a new life. Or, sometimes, the restoration of an old world gone. It brings new thoughts or the welcome remembrance of old ones. It offers simple pleasure, complicated joy, and even, at times, healing. Poetry does not work for everyone, but works for the many who open themselves to it. As the world changes from the long winter into spring, and everything takes on a freshness and a spiritual meaning, just so poetry can quicken, enliven the interior world of the listener.
Much of the work of the poet is a mystery, but the last labor is clear; it is the deliverance of the poem. Often this happens through a manuscript or a book, but it can occur in a vocal way also. Has everyone at some time looked up the original meaning of performance? It means, says Webster, “to finish, to complete.” The poem is meant to be given away, best of all by the spoken presentation of it; then the work is complete. Which makes performance sound, does it not, like part of the life-work of the poem, which I think it is. As if the poem itself had an independent life, or the endless possibility of its own life, in minds other than the poet’s, which I think it has.
When I step onto a stage to read poems, the anticipation and even the hope of the audience is palpable. The people sitting quietly in the chairs—they have not come to rest, but to be awakened. They have come for some worthwhile news.
But, as I say, there are other ways to fall into the enchantment besides the live reading. I once read a story about an old couple in New York City; the wife kept house, and the husband went every day to the public library and read, and copied into a notebook, the poems of Keats. He had fallen under the spell of the English poet—these were the poems he loved, and would have written if he could have written poems at all. His wife in the evening read his notebook, and found the poems astonishing and, also, thinking her husband had written them himself in the solitude of the library, she could not believe she had such good fortune, to be married to such a man.
Most of us do just this—we face the printed page; we are alone with the poem. Or we place the little plate called a compact disc into its player, let it spin, let the voice of someone give us the poem. So many voices and each so different! Elizabeth Bishop read in shyness; Eliot in a seeming mildness; Frost with a rolling iambic gruffness; Dylan Thomas, with his great Welsh lungs and his animation, with flourish, elation, and authority.
Poetry is neither purely music nor purely speech, but contains parts of each. Once, in the woods, a very young deer stepped from the trees and looked at me. I was sitting on a stone, and at first said nothing. Then I began to talk softly, but in a sing-song voice. And the fawn walked toward me. So magical is music, and a careful, kindly voice. When the fawn came very close I still sang, then stopped and was silent. Silence, after such speech, as after music, is filled with good vibrations, and the fawn stood very quietly for a few moments before it ran off.
This was and is my world—the world beyond all houses, out-of-doors, under the trees, in the dunes and along the shores of the ponds and along the shore of the sea. This is what I write about, and what the poems I read here are about. Partly, of course, they are about the particular perceiver of these things and places, or, more closely, the particular way I perceive the world and its elements. They are neither oracular nor authoritative nor, I hope, are they read either in shyness or a too sufficient certainty. We are all looking for answers. They are not answers. But they are, or anyway mean to be, evidence that the world has beauty, meaning, and holiness.
All our lives, at least seasonally, the redbird sings, and the oriole and the wren, and in April the ponds are reliably loud with the singing of frogs, and on long winter afternoons the snow-heavy wind whistles in the pines. But our own voices, the particular voices of those who are dear or important to us—or both—vanish utterly at the end of the season of life. And how thoroughly also are the sounds of a certain place gone when we visit it no more, though visual joys, sometimes with great clarity, may remain in the mind.
In Rajastan, in India, a man, a woman, and a child were singing outside a restaurant; I can still see them in their vibrant gypsy clothes, the man holding a stringed instrument somewhat like a guitar, but smaller and shaped differently, rather like a gourd. But I cannot hear anymore their loud brisk, joyful singing, a strange and powerful performance. How can this be, that the eyes can keep so many pictures, and the ears have no such reliable and comforting memory? It was perhaps the most exciting music I had ever heard; I think I might have followed it anywhere; but we drove on to the next town, and now in my ears there is nothing.
Of course, the ears are not always quite so empty as I describe them in this story. One can remember voices and almost hear them again a little, especially the intonation of a familiar voice at some pitch of emotion, angry, or frightened, or tender. But for me, at least, it’s a few syllables thrust into the air, and they are hard to hold onto.
Many years ago a friend and I used to go to the Old Met in New York, two or three nights a week sometimes. We would stand in the lobby and wait, and sure enough some svelte couple would come dashing out at the end of Act One, to a dinner or a party perhaps, and we—poor but audacious—would ask them to give us their ticket stubs. We were never refused, and invariably they were good seats: first floor, down front. Tebaldi, Tucker, Warren, De los Angeles! And then Tebaldi and the others sang at the Met no more, sang no more anywhere.
Well, the truth is that I wish I could live those years again, and enter into the presence of those live performances that meant so much to me. But I do not need to suffer the absence of their voices: technology, while it has invented some horrendous things, can claim much good magic also. So I can hear Tebaldi again. I can hear Dylan Thomas telling in his wondrous voice about a long-ago Christmas day. I can hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming that he had seen the promised land. What if that voice had vanished irretrievably—I think we would feel by that much less the long struggle up the mountain. As in history, as in art, so in life. Oh, what if one had no kept record of the voice of someone loved and now gone? What an extra dish of sorrow that would be.
For there is something heard in the actual voice that cannot be accrued from the printed page, though we read with care and excitement, even with a real falling-into-it passion. There is simply no “connect” as there is between listener and speaker. That, at its best, is almost touch. Nuances unfelt on the page hang in the air. So. Though I am an old-fashioned sort of person, who knows only the kind of blackberries that grow on bushes (for which my friends berate me), I can’t deny my own joy and appreciation at the salvation of voices otherwise vanished into the unknowable darkness.
Therefore, this second CD. I join the world. And ponder this fantasy sometimes—that one day technology will find a place in the dark air and bring back to us the voices of Keats, Shelley, Whitman, Emerson, Li Po, Rumi, Homer—anyone anyone wants to hear. Who knows…
“One of the astonishing aspects of Oliver’s work is the consistency of tone over this long period [of her career]. What changes is an increased focus on nature and an increased precision with language that has made her one of our very best poets . . . There is no complaint in Ms. Oliver’s poetry, no whining, but neither is there the sense that life is in any way easy . . . These poems sustain us rather than divert us. Although few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver, it is ironic that few poets also go so far to help us forward.”
—Stephen Dobyns, New York Times Book Review