After reading two hundred and fifty-five pages of Mary Oliver’s poetry, I can firmly say that she prefers images of the natural world and portraits of non-human entities, and I don’t think that anyone would or could refute that claim.
In her images, we can see a slight difference from her earlier poems and her later poems. In the later poems, the narrator is not as closely integrated with nature as he or she is in the earlier poems. For instance, in the “Kookaburras,” the birds ask the narrator to be let out of their cages. The connection between the narrator and the birds is suggested by communication; however, the narrator refuses to let the kookaburras out of their cage. He or she says “no” and “walk[s] away.” From this negation, the narrator’s communication and connection with the kookaburras is diminished. This allows questions about the relationship between humans and non-human entities to arise: to what extent, if any, should humans interact with non-human entities? A question about duty can be raised from Oliver’s poem too: to what extent, if any, is a human’s duty to a non-human entity?
In the poem, “The Fish,” the narrator shows a full integration with nature when she or he catches and eats a fish: “the sea/ is in me: I am the fish, the fish/ glitters in me.” The narrator becomes a part of nature, not an individual entity separate from it. This connection to nature is also apparent in the poem “Sleeping in the Forest.” In this poem, the narrator cloaks nature in human clothing: “her dark skirts, her pockets/ full of lichens and seeds.” Consequently, the description of the narrator is the opposite. He or she is described in terms of natural imagery: “I slept as...a stone on a riverbed.” From this, we can see that the narrator is one with nature, and nature is one with the narrator. This is also illustrated by the last line where the narrator’s egocentric I “vanished at least a dozen times/ into something better.” The “something better,” I suspect, is the connection between the natural world and the narrator, but it is also the mystery nature holds. In the previous poem, the narrator mentions this mystery as one that we are “nourished” by.
A large portion of Oliver’s poetry is based on the same form:
Her lines are positioned in a downward falling quatrain that is done in syllabic meter.
From this type of form, the syllabic meter is the trickiest to spot, but it is there if we listen to her lines. For instance, in “Moccasin Flowers,” the first quatrain is
All my life,
I have loved
more than one thing.
Listening to the sound of the lines or counting the syllables in the lines, we find that the syllables waver up and down. This produces variety, and, I suspect, Oliver did this for more than one reason.
One last item on craft I want to mention: Oliver likes to use repetition. In many poems, the repetition creates an incantatory quality that is akin to other poets, including Ginsberg, Whitman, etc., but the use of incantation is closer to pagan rituals that celebrate the human and the non-human world.
Oliver is a consistent poet, and she is more consistent than any other poet that I have read. Her later poems contain the same forms and subject matter as her earlier work, except for her first published volume which focuses more on man-made stuff, particularly houses, than nature. By limiting herself to the same subject matter and same forms, Oliver may be doing herself and others a benefit because this allows her to hone her craft and find solid subject matter; however, at the same time, she limits herself to her own known forms and subject matter. This seems to me a paradox only the author can understand.