Attentiveness and Devotion

I confess I’m a fan of Mary Oliver, but my reading of contemporary poetry isn’t informed enough to have made me aware, before today, that someone could admit such a thing “unashamedly.” That word appears in Ruth Franklin’s review of Oliver’s latest bookDevotions, when Franklin declares her affection for Oliver in the face of criticisms levelled against the poet. The review is titled “What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand,” and although, by the end of it, I don’t quite understand what it is that Oliver’s critics don’t understand, I think it does a good job of at least pointing to some of the things I like about Oliver’s work.

“Oliver,” writes Franklin, “is an ecstatic poet in the vein of her idols, who include Shelley, Keats, and Whitman. She tends to use nature as a springboard to the sacred, which is the beating heart of her work.” She does this on the understanding that time is a limited resource, dwindling moment by moment and therefore continually increasing in value, so that to consciously and closely attend to something — to pay attention to it — is a devotional act, involves devoting a portion of one’s most precious and irreclaimable possession to something outside oneself. But Oliver’s attentiveness, and therefore her devotional practice, is twofold, insofar as she first devotes her attention to the natural world, as Franklin points out, and then devotes her attention to writing about her experience and articulating what it is that captured her attention in nature. Her lived experience and her literary output are two halves of the same habit of worship — or, better, her output is an extension of the experience, not apart from it — so that to read her poems is in a sense to partake of what has given Oliver the impetus to write them.

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