Mary Oliver: “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”

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What is so great about this poem is the beautiful thought rendered through indelible imagery. The owl descends, “like an angel, or a Buddha with wings” then alights “like a little lighthouse.” But it is this thought of light, consuming light — “scalding, aortal light” — that, paired with the fierceness of the predator, the white-on-white landscape she has painted, haunts us with the notion that in it we are “washed and washed / out of our bones.” The visceral fierceness of the language, and the pairing of the impartial act of predator to the impartial act of death, rendered through such strong — and such cohesive! — imagery leaves a lasting impression in our minds.

What is so great about this poet is how her keen observation of nature leads to transcendence. Here, and in so many poems, she seems to get inside the natural act through her deep meditation upon the subject, and from here she is often led to a kind of universal truth. Because it is borne out of such artistic integrity, this is not prosaic, sing-song truth to be printed on a greeting card. It is the visceral, stark, abundant or spare truth of the real natural world which she replants us firmly and gratefully within.

N.B.: I am ending the MondayPoem series for now. My first intention with this series was to bring poetry to people who do not otherwise feel they “get it.” On that point of the experiment I have had few comments to encourage this pursuit. Also, I wanted to use this as a means to engage with and explore my favorite poems. But I am doing this already, without an enforced frequency (i.e. weekly), and enjoying writing about new discoveries most. Finally, perhaps most importantly, I feel that to give proper critical treatment to these works I love would require much more space and a more formal tone than I want to take on this blog. Yet skimming the surface, I find myself starting to repeat myself about certain concepts and themes. So, it was an interesting experiment, and one I enjoyed — but for now I am putting it to rest

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William Blake: “The Tiger”

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What is so great about this poem is the way that it carries you along with strong, simple words and imagery, whisking you past moments of highly ambiguous meaning, delighting the senses. Having blasted our way through many of these moments with an almost nursery-rhyme use of rhythm and alliteration, we come to this spectacular moment:

When the stars threw down their spears, /
And watered heaven with their tears

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Wallace Stevens: the Emperor of Ice Cream

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What is so great about this poem is the way it feels in your mouth when read aloud (try it!) and the way it delights the senses — all the while evading much in the way of prosaic meaning. Yet despite its lack of solid, linear, non-symbolic meaning, the poem is profoundly assertive. Rather than examine the lush (concupiscent, perhaps?) language elements of this poem, I would like to take a moment to talk about the line breaks, and how the few artificially broken lines in the poem serve to strengthen the simultaneous sense of certainty and delight.

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B.H. Fairchild: “Old Men Playing Basketball”

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What is so great about this poet is that he demonstrates masterful observation and insight in to the poetic musicality of mundane subjects. What is so great about this poem is that it is an excellent demonstration of Fairchild’s gift — usually applied to blue collar work — in this case applied to basketball.

Fairchild chooses moments from the language of basketball: “pick and roll”, “fake and drive” as well as shows precise details about the “old men” from the VFW that in themselves give insight into their character without having to explain much: “army fatigues”, “house shoes”, memories of drive-in theaters. This is one of the great paradoxes of art: that specificity creates universality.

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