Thursday, October 15, 2009

To Love Many Things: Mary Oliver

Back in 2008, I wrote about the asexiness of the poem "Aimless Love" by Billy Collins. A reader, Tomatl, told me to check out Mary Oliver, especially her poem "On Love", and I finally did. I don't think I've ever read two poems that were more similar to each other than "Aimless Love" and "On Love". Apparently, Oliver is one of very few living poets that is avidly read-- a category in which Collins would also be included. And "On Love" isn't an isolated example of the importance Oliver places on love and intimacy that has nothing to do with sex, (traditional) romance or even other people. The book including that poem, Red Bird, is chockablock with love songs to ponds, foxes, rivers, trees, dogs, hills, and as the title suggests, every kind of bird that you can possibly think of. I think one of the things, if not the thing I love most about poetry is the fact that in that particular form, all kinds of love are equal. A poem about your lover isn't going to be considered any better than a poem about a friend (or a brick wall) just because it's about your lover. Writing a poem about your love of an owl is no more or less important than writing a poem about your love for baseball, God, or a woman. A lot of people think poetry is boring, but I think it's very subversive, and is allowed to commonly contain ideas that are rare elsewhere.

I've talked about it enough, so here's "On Love". Personally, I think it's nowhere near the best poem in the book, but I will be quiet now and let you judge:

I have been in love more times than one,
thank the Lord. Sometimes it was lasting
whether active or not. Sometimes
it was all but ephemeral, maybe only
an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people,
or anyway people beautiful to me, of which
there are so many. You, and you, and you,
whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe
missed. Love, love, love, it was the
core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart. And, oh, have I mentioned
that some of them were men and some were women
and some-- now carry my revelation with you--
were trees. Or places. Or music flying above
the names of their makers. Or clouds, or the sun
which was the first, and the best, the most
loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into
my eyes, every morning. So I imagine
such love of the world-- its fervency, its shining,
its innocence and hunger to give of itself--I imagine
this is how it began.

The epigraph of the book is a quote from Vincent van Gogh: "But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things".


The Impossible K said...

I agree. Not one of Oliver's finest poems, but I like it. I can't believe I missed your post on the Billy Collin's poem. He's one of my all time favorite poets! Poetry will always be one of my favorite passions, and this is one reason why- its subversive, but oh so beautiful! Thanks for sharing! :)

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

I completely see what you mean. If you said that outside of a poem, people would just stare at you funny, but it's something that needs to be said.

tomatl said...

I totally agree, it is by no means the best poem in the book. (I could never pick a favourite though!) I think it is a useful poem because she explicitly makes romantic love of people on par with her love for a piece of music or a specific place or tree. I think it is great to write an ode to trees, but super great to emphasize (now carry my revelation with you) that these loves are equal to what everyone considers the "standard" heteronormative love.

I tend to love intensely. I love my friends deeply, I mourned when my little sunflowers in my garden died. I've often wondered if asexual people have different (perhaps more intense) attachments to people or things in their lives than sexual people do?

Trix said...


Becky said...

That sounded pretty awesome to me. And there's even better ones? Ooh, I may need to buy that book.

I wrote a poem to a tree once. I didn't put in there any details about it being to a tree specifically, and then when I read it again later, I realized that someone who didn't know any better would think it was about a person. I thought that was kinda cool.