Monday, January 25, 2010

Long Poems We Like: from Mary Oliver's American Primitive

Following a trend I'm seeing in books I'm reading, Mary Oliver's American Primitive has several long poems tucked in among the shorter lyrics!

"The Lost Children" first published in Three Rivers Poetry Journal
"Ghosts" first published in National Forum

"Humpbacks" first published in Country Journal
"Little Sister Pond"
"Music" first published in Prairie Schooner
"The Gardens" first published in The Georgia Review

As you can see, these long poems were luckier than most to be published in journals. But they are by Mary Oliver.

Some elements of these long poems make them great:

narrative: a missing child, cross-cultural kidnapping and adoption, the discovery/exploitation of the Southern Plains, a whale-sighting trip, a day-hike, a seduction. Nobody could really call these narrative poems, they function on the lyric level. But framing these lyrics is action--the miles walked between the different scenes. And in many of these, the larger framework of the narrative connects the lyric to an expansiveness of scope: the lyrics get to comment on huge topics and make radical assertions about them: poems like "The Lost Children," which telescopes out from one child to children's role in the cultural conflict of the American plains as settlers displaced Native Americans, to the nature of losing loved ones and the response from those who lose them.
lyric intensity: an example from "Whale Song" shows these poems work, and work wonderfully, in the traditional lyric mode, in fact, it could almost be an ode in the final movement:

"Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,

its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire"

The full text of this poem is available several places online, although unfortunately I couldn't find it anywhere it hadn't been centered (yuck) so I won't link to it.

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