Upstream: Selected Essays, by Mary Oliver
Recently at services, when speaking about books with one of my friends, this poet’s work was recommended to me and it so happens that this was the first book that I picked of hers that arrived at the library. Given that I tend to read a good deal of poetry , it was interesting that the first book I read about this poet was a series of essays that, judging at least by the fact that these are nearly all compiled from other works, I may be reading again. While I consider this to be certainly a worthwhile book to read once and I think it gives a good impression of the poet’s mindset and her twin set of inspirations in the writings of others (particularly writers from the mid-19th century) as well as her own explorations of the creation of the New England area where she was raised. Now, I must admit that this is a bit of a mixed matter for me, since I tend to be irritated at the insularity of many New England writers (which is in evidence here), although as I am deeply influenced by the middle of the 19th century as well, I am influenced by different writers of that era.
This book itself is a bit under 200 pages and is divided into five sections, of which the fifth section is a single essay on the turning of Provincetown from a functioning working town to a touristy place. The first section contains four essays: “Upstream,” “My Friend Walt Whitman,” “Staying Alive,” and “Of Power And Time,” which frequently talk about the author’s childhood and the way she honed her skill in reading and writing over the course of her childhood and viewed the cruelty of people and animals. The second section contains three essays that examine the author’s interest in animal lives and shows the author as someone who is deeply concerned about the suffering of innocents in a world where to live means to kill. The third part of the book looks at the author’s relationship with writers like Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Wordsworth. The fourth part of the book then looks at the author’s interest in relationships with people and animals, including a couple of essays on birds. The book doesn’t have much in the way of the author’s poetry but it does include a lot of her writing about poetry that shows her appreciation of the works of others and how she developed her own muse.
I’m not sure, ultimately, how this book will relate to her body of work as a whole, since there are a few more books I am looking to read from the author. It is worthwhile to know the philosophy of a particular poet, but at the same time I wonder if that is necessarily a good thing here. After all, the author shows herself to be particularly fond of Transcendentalists as well as Whitman’s extreme length and his sensuality. In short, I found the author’s interests to be highly different from my own. We have fairly similar sensitivities to suffering, I would say, and certainly childhoods that isolated us from those around us (as seems common in poetic souls), but it does appear as if the author and I found different books and different sorts of thinking to relate to, so I am definitely curious to see whether her work as a whole is something I can relate to. Suffice it to say, though, that this book did provide plenty of interest, which is doing something right.
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