Noted with comment

In an essay in the New York Times Book Review, David Orr provides snide commentary on a special poetry issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. Along the way, he offers the following snarky assessment of Mary Oliver’s poetry:

Roughly a fifth of the coverage [in O magazine] is devoted to Mary Oliver, about whose poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.

Now I know why my fellow religious liberals seem to like her poetry so much: it’s the equivalent of cage-free or free-range eggs.

14 thoughts on “Noted with comment”

  1. Jerk. I hate the NYT sometimes. Of all the Oprah magazine issues that are out there, this one was actually fairly intelligent. And the interview with Oliver was delicious.

    Her poetry is reverent, harsh, beautiful, somber. I don’t know who David Orr is, but I roundly dislike him. As of right now.

  2. Jean @ 1 — The worst part about this essay was that David Orr kept saying how important it was that Oprah was highlighting poetry, BUT… then on to some snide remark. It one of the worst examples of New York Slime snobbishness ever.

    On the other hand, I was a little creeped out to discover that O magazine included a fashion shoot with poets as the models.

    P.S. I don’t particularly care for Marry Oliver’s poetry, but then there are lots of people who hate Margaret Atwood’s poetry, so I figure it evens out.

  3. Mary was one of Anis Shivani’s 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers @HuffPostBooks last year. He said her “poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany. For example, 5 a.m., opossum, backyard, broken, it ran. Or 3 p.m., kitten, field, how real, peace. Only has to mechanically alter the variables, to get the same desired effect.” How true.

  4. Hey. Be nice to Mary Oliver. She writes some good stuff. A lot of the dissing of her poetry comes from very very jealous other poets. Cuz she’s famous and all that. And the disciples? Tell you NOTHING about the poet. Believe me. Nothing.

  5. One day I will blog about Mary Oliver. My short version is that she’s beloved by worship leaders for the same reason that she’s a mediocre poet: she tells you at the end of each poem, just like Aesop, what lesson you are supposed to draw from it. I actually think this makes her a real treasure for liturgists, because in creating liturgy you need things that a person can actually grasp on a single hearing. Let’s just not declare that because someone’s writing is useful in worship, it’s great poetry.

    I think we liberals like her for the obvious reason: she gives voice to our theology. That’s something hard to find amid the greatest religious poets. Donne? Herbert? Utterly sublime, and utterly Anglican. Dickinson comes closer, but is the polar opposite of “graspable on first reading.”

  6. OK, so I already said I don’t care for Mary Oliver’s poetry, but that’s my personal preference. Aside from that, she’s obviously good at the craft of poetry (Phil’s point notwithstanding, formulaic isn’t necessarily bad), and one “real”poet whom I greatly respect greatly respects her. And I think Amy’s right — she tells you what a poem means, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and makes a poem much easier to use in a religious service. I still don’t like her, but I hate Garrison Keillor, too, while respecting the fact that he’s good at his craft (and a pompous ass, but I digress).

    Crap, I meant to end this without being snarky. Sigh. Oh well.

  7. Actually, no, she *doesn’t* tell you what the poem means at the end of the poem. She does just the opposite — she usually ends with a challenge. Which makes you, the reader, have to go back through the poem, back through the experience the poem suggests, and deeply question your own interpretation. She does not make nature easy or light or inviting. Sure there are pretty images, but there’s a lot more going on than that. My real sense is this: she’s successful and success makes readers (who would be writers) envious and snarky. When really, they ought to be reading more deeply.

    Try reading this:

    As for Garrison Keillor. For the life of me Dan, I don’t know why you care about him so much. He’s an entertainer. Not a philosopher. And he does — gasp — get a lot of things right about the Midwest.

  8. Mary Oliver is probably one of very few above-average published contemporary poets, but she does seem overrated. I don’t dislike her poetry, but I don’t love it enough to buy her books, either. Oliver doesn’t compare to Gibran, Rilke, Sandburg, or many others. I generally like Margaret Atwood’s poetry, but she’s often a better novelist than poet. “Cat’s Eye” is amongst my favorite novels, and one of the books I would want with me on a hypothetical desert island!

    Having lived all my life in the upper midwest, I tended to react negatively to Garrison Keiller even before the UU Christmas controversy of 2009. Though I was somewhat amused by the book “Lake Woebegon Days” when I was 20 (probably because it reminded me of a few of my rural relatives), I was also slightly annoyed: to me, it’s hypocritical to pay for your Summit Avenue mansion in St. Paul with money you’ve earned making fun of your rural hometown. “Lake Wobegon” is essentially Keillor’s only topic, and soon becomes BORING as well as offensive.

    Even though she (unlike Keillor) treats her subjects respect, I feel almost the same way about Louise Erdrich, another writer who seems overrated. Most of what she writes is set in rural North Dakota/Minnesota, but she lives in Minneapolis.

    Garrison and Louise: if you’re going to make most of your money writing about rural areas, perhaps you should live there! It will keep your writing honest.

  9. Since no one else answered this implied question, I’ll just add to the discussion that David Orr is a distinguished professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College. No idea what his claim of authority is re. poetry.

  10. Yet a subjective opinion about a poet, or her body of work, does not offer anything interesting or substantial. Insulting comments – disdain for the poet, or simply rejecting her poetry – offered by anyone as though this comment implies some great authority, or is based on an understanding of poetry (which it is not) is nonsense and ignorance masquerading as intelligent insight. That is the problem with David Orr’s comment and Dan’s. They add absolutely nothing of worth to the conversation about modern poetics and Mary Oliver’s place within that conversation.

  11. I know nothing about poetry. Uh, well, I have edited a number of Taslima Nasrin’s books and helped protect Southeast Asia’s leading feminist from being killed by Muslim extremists. Santayana while in an Italian convent wrote for me to tell any of my Columbia University profs that this did not mean that he had moved from naturalism to supernaturalism (i.e., he couldn’t take lira out of the country so being treated by the nuns was economically pragmatic). And I had cocktails with a certain silver-haired Easterner who was not a farmer but told me that if ever again I saw the Iowa professor who interpreted “The Birches” as I had described he had done, “Tell him up your arse!” At John Ciardi’s recommendation, while I was book review editor of “The Humanist,” I was in on the hiring of Poetry Editor John Holmes (not the other one, the specimen that hired himself out). Ergo, as a self-confessed know-nothing, I look forward to reading any of Elizabeth’s poetry after reading some of the diverse comments about her.

    I write to tell Sarah Prager that she might want to check the following crib-notes that, as its founder, I wrote for Philosopedia:

    Today Sarah and Elizabeth are being married, according to the 12 January 2011 “The New York Times,” and I send them my sincere best wishes. Cheers!

    /s/ a gay Unitarian humanities humanist who was in a foxhole in 1944 and was at Stonewall Inn Uprising in June 1969.

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