Exploring the “American Primitive” with Mary Oliver

Where I come from, as far as the eye can see, there are houses. Rows and rows of houses all neatly organized on a grid, creating the suburban city of San Jose. Growing up, playing outdoors wasn’t a thing. Much of my youth was spent indoors with my butt planted firmly in my mother’s leather office chair, eyes fixated on the monitor in front of me. This fascination with technology, coupled with my ridiculously annoying allergies, placed a great strain on my relationship with nature. In today’s fast-paced technology-driven world, there isn’t time to stop and smell the roses.

Born and raised in the semi-rural suburb of Maple Heights, Ohio, Mary Oliver lived a much different life. A simpler life set in a simpler time. In the 1930s and 1940s, children played games under the sun and explored the woods near their houses. Parents left their doors unlocked at night because, after all, they knew everyone else in the neighborhood.

It is the daily happenings of this retrospective reality that Mary Oliver writes about in her Pulitzer Prize winning fifth collection of poems, American Primitive. Where other contemporary poets write about the now and the struggles we face today, Oliver reminisces about her childhood, drawing inspiration from it and writing about children, nature, and animals.

When assigned to read this collection by my English professor, I quite frankly wasn’t enthused. The prospect of reading dozens of poems about prickly bushes and furry squirrels didn’t have quite the appeal that the race and class conscious works of Sandra Cisneros or the poignant memoir-like poems of Yusef Komunyakaa had for me. So it came as a surprise to me that Oliver’s poetry resonated so much with me, someone who had no loving relationship with the very nature (pun intended) of her collection.

“But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.” – Mary Oliver (Interview with Krista Tippett)

Oliver’s way of writing poetry is so universal that it’s hard to not imagine yourself in the shoes of her speaker. Locations in the poem have few actual names; it is always “the sea” or “the woods” that Oliver writes about. She writes with a strong respect for nature, almost giving it a personified voice and reason. Rarely do the poems seem personal; the speaker could be anyone.

It isn’t a wonder that Oliver writes so reverently of nature when she says that she was “saved by the beauty of the world.” In American Primitive, Oliver writes simply and concisely, sweeping away the complications of modernity and contemporary times to go back to the roots of what makes us human – our primal connection with the earth.

If you’ve ever been interested in poetry, but were too intimidated to start reading, Mary Oliver’s work isn’t a bad place to begin. Start with her poems, “The Lost Children” and “Tecumseh,” which speak volumes about the history of our country and truly embody the title of her collection, American Primitive.

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