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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Blue Horses and A Poetry Handbook

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Jim McKeown
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Latest collection from the exquisite poet, Mary Oliver.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Mary Oliver is quickly becoming one of my favorite poets.  Her latest collection, Blue Horses pleases the eye and ear every bit as much as other works of hers I have read.

As is true of many of her poems, Oliver focuses on nature.  The selections in this collection, however, seem quite a bit more philosophical than most of the others I have experienced.  For example, the first poem in the collection, “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond,” exemplifies her style.  Oliver writes, “The slippery green frog / that went to his death / in the heron’s pink throat / was my small brother, // and the heron / with the white plumes / like a crown on his head / who is washing now his great sword-beak / in the shining pond / is my tall brother. // My heart dresses in black / and dances” (1). 

I also love the humor in some of her poems, particularly “First Yoga Lesson.”  “‘Be a lotus in the pond,’ she said, ‘opening / slowly, no single energy tugging / against another but peacefully, / all together.’  // I couldn’t even touch my toes. / ‘Feel your quadriceps stretching?’ she asked. / Well, something was certainly stretching. // Standing impressively upright, she / raised one leg and placed it against / the other, then lifted her arms and / shook her hands like leaves.  ‘Be a tree,’ she said. // I lay on the floor, exhausted. / But to be a lotus in the pond / opening slowly, and very slowly rising -- / that I could do” (7).

As always, Oliver’s poems contain vivid images, which take the reader onto the floor, on a mat, stretching.  She accomplishes this feat with the plainest of language.  I can’t get enough of her way with words.

When I found Blue Horses, I noticed a slim volume by Oliver nearby: A Poetry Handbook.  Originally published in 1994, I am sorry I took so long to find this explication of all the intricacies of poetry.  I found her Introduction highly informative.  Here are a few random lines.  Oliver writes, “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.  This is true also of painters, sculptors, and musicians.  Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person. // Still, painters, sculptors, and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques.  And the same is true of poets.  Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must be learned.”  Oliver says she wrote this book, “in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills -- that is options.  It is written to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things – an experience (or an idea or a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words.

Just a smidgeon over 200 pages, these two works by Mary Oliver – Blue Horses: Poems and A Poetry Handbook – are an excellent starting point for those curious about what makes a poem a poem and a handy guide for those who want to sharpen their skills.  Both 5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!