January 12, 2011

LGBT Reading Challenge 2011: Swan by Mary Oliver

For my first book in the LGBT Reading Challenge 2011, I chose Swan, Mary Oliver's newest poetry collection. Unfortunately, to be entered in the monthly prize drawing, we have to read fiction or non-fiction, which I totally forgot about when I selected the book, but oh well. [Edit: Nevermind! It's all good!] Hopefully I can take a break from my novel research to get a good LGBT novel in before the end of the month! If not, no worries.

Anyway, to the review. Mary Oliver's poetry is not especially political. There are moments when politics shows up, but it takes the form largely of peace activism and war protest - I have read nearly all of her collections, and never seen an overt reference to issues she's faced as a lesbian. But I chose to read the book anyway because (1) she's my favorite poet, and (2) because I don't believe LGBTQ authors have to carry the political label all the time.

One of the things that has especially fascinated me about Mary Oliver is the way she uses the masculine pronoun (he) for almost everything - animals, plants, whatever doesn't have a concept of gender the way we do. I understand why she wouldn't want to use "it" (while I have no problem with that, I know that many people find it objectifying), as someone who cut her teeth on feminist rhetoric, I'm not really used to seeing late-twentieth and twenty-first century women writers using the masculine pronoun as the default. Often, it irritates me. I admit, I don't like it. I don't mind that she's apolitical, but I do mind that masculine pronouns are neutral to her. But that doesn't change how I feel about Mary Oliver's poetry as a whole, so I read anyway.

Unfortunately, I really didn't connect with Swan as I've connected with Oliver's other books. In the first poem, entitled "What Can I Say?," she writes:

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I'll say it again.

What bothers me not is that she revisits old themes - what I have always loved about her work is the emphasis on nature and peace, and I appreciate that she writes about both frequently. What bothers me is that her thoughts seem repetitive this time around. While in her previous books, Oliver has found the ability to talk about the same ideas in new ways, she does not appear to be thinking anything innovative this time around. Further, her style appears to lack a certain intangible spark that her other collections have had. I feel like she's more imitating herself than anything else. Whereas in her other books every other poem has lines bracketed or highlighted because they've overwhelmed me or spoken some truth, in this collection there are only three poems with such annotation. Whereas in other collections I have often been moved to tears, only the afterword, "Percy," makes me cry.

I feel almost guilty in writing this. Mary Oliver has been my favorite poet since 2004. She's something of an institution. But Swan simply lacks the qualities that made me fall in love with her work in the first place.


Hannah Stephenson said...

What a thoughtful, sensitive critique. Your respect for Oliver is totally evident here...I appreciate your respectful honesty.

Brighton Blogger said...

I must admit that I had never heard of Mary Oliver before. But then, I'm not really into poetry... Which collection(s) would you recommend for a first-timer?

Dorla Moorehouse said...

Either of her Collected Poems are great ways to start getting acquainted with the larger body of her work. As for individual collections, my favorites are Evidence and Why I Wake Early.