Less is More: Some Thoughts on the Poetry I Read Last Year

In 2012, I read a smaller number of poetry books than usual. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because my interest in writing about music grew exponentially, or because I spent more time reviewing YA novels than I had ever before. Whatever the case might be, I still got to read some great work: Ocean Vuong's charming debut, Burnings; Karyna McGlynn's film noir coming-of-age story, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl; Patricia Fargnoli's meditation on aging, Duties of the Spirit; and Carolyn Kizer's collected works, Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000 (which is a dazzling brick of a book that I am still working through). I also revisited collections by Ellen Bass, Suzanne Cleary, Jane Hoogestraat, and Jan Heller Levi, among others. I enjoyed all of these books, but the one that really stood out to me this year was marked by such a singular simplicity of voice and purpose that I returned to it over and over: Mary Oliver's best collection in decades, A Thousand Mornings.

Say what you will about Mary Oliver: she is too religious, her poems too plain, her books repetitive. What cannot be argued, though, is that she has a gift for connecting with a wide audience. This is in part because she does not fear directness. She does not cater to the pretensions that might make her more of a "poet's poet;" she wants to have an eye-to-eye conversation with her reader, as in "I Happened to Be Standing," in which she tells the reader: "I wouldn't persuade you from whatever you believe / or whatever you don't. That's your business. / But I thought, of the wren's singing, what could this be if it isn't prayer? / So I just listened, my pen in the air." Sure, the ideas here are simple, but they are beautiful for this simplicity.

That poem also reveals a new development in Oliver's poetry: a move away from overt religiosity back toward a generalized, secular spirituality that has marked her best work. While there is nothing wrong with Oliver's Christian poems, her use of biblical symbols in books like Thirst and Evidence feels alienating and underwhelming (at least to me, as a reader who is skeptical of such images and ideas). Fortunately, in A Thousand Mornings, Oliver trades in those metaphors for less-is-more lyrical meditations and narratives that find her reveling in the natural world rather than religion.

Some critics might claim that Oliver's increasing casualness in her work shows a lax craft, but I think it shows a bravery. Whether or not it is easy to hide behind metaphor and heady language, Oliver favors a nakedness. She can question herself, and in turn helps the reader find common ground with her, as she does in "The Gardener," when she asks, "Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude? / Have I endured loneliness with grace?" before getting us out into the garden. And isn't that what the most enduring poetry does: create a common place for both the author and reader to meet each other? Is not this "less-is-more" approach perhaps richer in emotional breadth than it gets credit for? Impossible questions, I know, but what I can say is the book made me feel more alive and less alone, and for that I am grateful.  

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