Book Review: House Of Light

House Of Light, by Mary Oliver

This book of poetry notes that its poet won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984, and in reading this book I am a bit puzzled as to why this was the case.  It should be freely admitted as someone who has read a bit of the author’s work [1] that this book is by no means a bad book of poetry.  Yet as someone whose diet of poetry is largely extremely good poetry (and by this I mean the poetry of William Stafford or the best of collections of war poetry and the like), this poetry comes off as somewhat repetitive.  Perhaps some poets can handle the bruising pace of reading that I conduct, but these poems appear not to be at their best when one realize just how often the poet talks about a very small selection of topics.  It seems quite possible that these poems are meant to be taken a few poems at a time, because to take them at one swoop exposes just how narrow the range of topics that these poems contain, and one can only handle just so many samey treatments of the same small symbols, especially when the poet does not include a great deal of detail to flesh out what she mentions.  Again, this was not a bad book, but was there really no better poetry book being written that year?  Is the state of American poetry that mediocre?

The book is about 80 pages long and is not divided into any sections.  The vast majority of these poems are nature poems, examining such denizens of creation as:  lilies, owls, hermit crabs, moccasin flowers, the swan, the kingfisher, some herons, pipefish, kookaburras, more lillies, snakes, fish bones, the oak tree at the entrance to Blackwater pond, more snakes, more herons, terns, roses, crows, trutles, a deer, the loon on Oak-Head Pond, foxes, finches, and a white owl that is apparently different from the owls talked about earlier.  Other poetry deals with questions of art, like when the author poses some questions to consider, reflects on a book of Van Gogh’s paintings that she sees in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and when she examines the art of writing, as well as the process of writing poems.  Other poems are travel poems about such places as Singapore, Indonesia, and so on.  Again, these are not bad poems, but if Jane Austen modestly suggested that to a critical male relative that her art was rather narrow in scope, Mary Oliver, one hopes, would be still more modest yet.

What is the context in which one judges a work like this?  The poems included in the book are certainly very artistically done, and even the text itself is viewed in an artistic sense.  One wonders if the poetess spent as much time (or more) on how the poetry should look on the page as she did writing the poetry itself.  Yet the specificity of many of the poems suggests that Oliver finds herself deeply isolated as a poet, at least here.  My favorite poem of the collection showed the author in a restroom of the Seoul Airport having an awkward interaction with an airport employee cleaning something in the restroom sink.  That is the sort of rich detail that would make her poetry more enjoyable to read, yet most of this poetry is cerebral and not fleshed out with a lot of detail at all, except perhaps for enough detail for the reader to know that the author read such and such a book and had something moderately poetic to say about it.  And if you are okay with moderately samey and highly cerebral poetry about nature that shows the author more than a bit isolated from the hustle and bustle of human life around her, this book will likely suit you just fine.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: House Of Light

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Balloon Pop Outlaw Black | Edge Induced Cohesion

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