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Poet Mary Oliver: a Solitary Walk

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WHEN Mary Oliver talks about her work - something she is quite reluctant to do, fending off interviews and media proposals - there is an austerity, a quiet determination to her thought that brings to mind an earlier century. The discipline of her writing life might seem more natural in a time before every living room was plugged into the perpetual tide of images and ideas, when an individual cultivated the solitude and curiosity of the inner life.

This is not to say Ms. Oliver's poems aren't thoroughly contemporary in style, voice, and motive. It's just that, during our conversation, I kept getting the idea that Emily Dickinson would have found her a most agreeable next-door neighbor.

As a young writer, Ms. Oliver was not crushed by the intense isolation and general lack of support peculiar to the poet's vocation. Nor was her equanimity dramatically altered when her book "American Primitive" burst on the national scene, winning the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. This November, her "New and Selected Poems" was honored with the National Book Award as well.

She continues to thrive on the simple necessities of her daily routine: time to be alone, a place to walk and observe, and the opportunity to carry the world back to the page. Like Emily before her, Mary Oliver focuses on the luminous particularities of experience, savoring the simple and the astonishing occurrences of the natural world for the wisdom embedded in beauty and for the mysteries hovering just beneath the glittering surfaces.

Her poetry is also an extended investigation into the nature of the self. But in her vision, the self is a much more open and encompassing concept than the succinct identities to which we affix our names. The "Mary Oliver" of these poems has rain passing through her, contains swans and gannets, pine groves and waterfalls, and the uncanny sense that, at any moment, the world is poised on the verge of speech.

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