Mary Oliver who died last week was once described by the New York Times as “far and away, this country's best-selling poet.” One reason for that might be the unmistakable influence on her poetry of two pillars of American thought—Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James
Mary Oliver’s poetry is a pendulum; her lines sway from one state of mind to another, sweeping over her many souls. In some of her poems, one encounters an undoubting Oliver in idle, almost selfless surrender to the ways of nature. In others, she is restless, skeptical and acutely aware of the importance of her life’s work. There is a familiarity to each of the different selves which Oliver presents in her poetry. We can easily recognize her romanticist impulse for perfect harmony and the transcendence of experience. When her confidence in the universal order is shifted, and her practical mind prevails, she is again well known to us. Oliver’s poetic contemplation of the essential meaning of human existence follows a meandering path, and her various conclusions agree with those of various thinkers who came before her. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works have a powerful impact on Oliver—an influence the poet herself acknowledged. On the other hand, William James’s ideas have a somewhat more discrete, but nonetheless strong, presence in Oliver’s poetry. As her lyrical personae mirror both Emerson and James in different ways, the recognizable influence of these pillars of American thought contributes to readers’ familiarity with Oliver’s different selves and makes her poetry more accessible.
Oliver’s work is filled with both explicit and implicit homage to Emerson. She starts her volume of poetry, Upstream, a book of prose published less than two and a half years before her recent death at the age of 83, she concludes her essay "Emerson: An Introduction" with this personal disclosure: ", with an epigram from him: “The invisible and imponderable is the sole fact.” In I think of [Emerson] whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark." In her book-length poem “The Leaf and the Cloud,” Oliver reveals her preoccupation with the romantics: “I am so busy among / Shelley’s long poems, Plato, Godwin’s / Enquiry, Carlyle concerning / the failed revolution that bloody sorrow, and, / as always, Emerson” (emphasis mine, p. 34). “Always” indeed, one can sense Emerson’s presence in Oliver’s mind. The latter’s choice of nature as her foremost medium of introspection and poetic conception provides a silent connection between them. “Nature is a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths” (Nature, p. 37) says Emerson, and Oliver’s poems evolve within this “discipline” regardless what her ultimate sense of the “truths” is.
Oliver’s relationship with nature is more Emersonian when she tries to see the natural world through eyes untainted by experience. In these poems, Oliver seems ready to lose her self. She clearly aspires to share Emerson’s experience of a “transparent eyeball” as she declares that the “dream of [her] life” is to “learn something by being nothing / A little while but the rich / Lens of attention” (, p. 21). Here Oliver’s desire of nothingness is not self-disparaging; on the contrary, it is essentially self-confident in an Emersonian way: “A trust in yourself is the height, not of pride, but of piety, an unwillingness to learn of any but God himself. It will come only to one who feels that he is nothing” (emphasis mine, Selections, p. 9). In order to be able to communicate with the stars, or perhaps, in an effort to grasp the “imponderable… the sole fact,” Oliver even tries to unlearn her language: “Tonight, at the edge of the field, / I stood very still, and looked up, / and tried to be empty of words” (West Wind, p. 13). Like Emerson, and many other romantics before him, Oliver too has a strong conviction of the power of imagination and, like Emerson, she sees imagination as a window onto the transcendental. Emerson says, “Imagination is the nomination of the casual facts, —the laws of the soul—by the physical facts. All physical facts are words for spiritual facts, & Imagination, by naming them, is the Interpreter showing us the unity of the world” (Journals, IX, P. 127, quoted in Bishop, p. 120).
“Wild Geese” is possibly Oliver’s most truly Emersonian poem, echoing the nineteenth century thinker’s “Divinity School Address” with a similarly optimistic view of the universal harmony and our place in it. Here, Oliver also describes an interpretative role for imagination: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place / in the family of things” (, p. 14). If, as Emerson suggests (and Oliver seems to agree), one can understand the laws of the soul only by the naming of these laws by his imagination, Oliver’s resolution in the “Osprey” can also be seen as part of her quest of those laws: “… I could not resolve anything long enough / to become one thing / except this: the imaginer” (West Wind, p. 22). For Emerson, all one has to have is a “heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue” (“Divinity School Address,” Selections, p. 101) to develop an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul, and it will suffice to say “I ought” to participate in this hospitable order. Then one can, like Oliver, empathize with the turtle’s knowledge of what it ought to do to participate in nature’s clockwork, have a friendly conversation with the sunflowers, and levitate with the joy of being part of the universe: “And I too / once or twice, at least, / felt myself rising, / my boots / touching suddenly the tops of the weeds, / the blue and silky air — / listen, / passion did it, / called me forth, / addled me, / stripped me clean / then covered me with the cloth of happiness” (West Wind, p. 32).
When Oliver’s feet are off the ground like this, she has the least in common with William James. In the poems in which Oliver develops an Emersonian relationship with nature, one can see three distinct qualities that separate Oliver from James. First of all, Oliver’s choice of the natural world, rather than society, as her principle medium provides an important division between her and James, whose livelihood depends on social interaction. Secondly, Oliver’s aspiration to transcend the casual facts of nature by becoming a mere receptacle goes against the core of James’s belief that our thoughts are shaped by our experiences. Thirdly, James so values a continuous tension and the lack of guaranty for ultimate harmony that Oliver’s occasional habituation to an idle personal state within what she sees as perfect universal harmony spells, in a Jamesian context, only deplorable hibernation.
However, before discussing their differences, one should note an essential similarity between James and Oliver that precedes their separate quests of orientation: At an existential level, they both struggle with their sense of humanity and question life. “What reason can you give for continuing to live” (Letters, p. 62) asks James. “How does any of us live in this world” (Dream Work, p 22) wonders Oliver. They also acknowledge that they had feared for their mental health and contemplated suicide, and in the practical manner they chose to deal with their insecurity, they somewhat resemble each other. For example, moments of despair bring both James and Oliver to a quest for salvation through some version of faith. A frightening hallucination makes James cling “to the scripture-texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ etc.” to preserve his sanity (Varieties, p. 180), and Oliver calls for help when she fears she will follow the steps of Woolf, Schumann, Poe and others who committed suicide: “[L]ight of the world, hold me” (West Wind, p. 23). On the other hand, in a number of poems, we see Oliver emerge from her painful past as “determined to save / the only life [she] could save” (Dream Work, p. 39) or persistently build a shelter for herself (“I labor at it; / night after night / I keep going,” Dream Work, p. 42) or with a keen awareness of life-negotiating skills (“looking out for sorrow / slowing down for happiness / making all the right turns,” Dream Work, p. 86). These poems are a testimony to a willful and pragmatic personality, and in these qualities, Oliver resembles James. It is in the context of ‘nature versus the human-made universe’ and ‘the natural events versus human actions’ that I find both stark differences and some powerful connections between James and Oliver.
To go back to the three distinctions noted above, let us first look at the experiential aspect of Oliver’s turning to nature. In “Trilliums,” she reveals that she, too, “wanted to be easy in the peopled kingdoms,” but could not find “anyone that was shaped like [her],” and thus turned to nature (Dream Work, p. 10). This sense of alienation—perhaps rooted in Oliver’s being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and her life-long lesbianism, which she didn’t publicly acknowledge until she won the National Book Award in 1992 at the age of 57—is indeed very unlike the experience of James, who despite his occasional dark moods, has an extraordinary ease in the “peopled kingdoms.” For James, the human-made world, with its intensive personal interaction, acculturation and socialization is what makes life worth living. In fact, James, unlike Oliver, trusts other people’s capacity to share and understand his experiences: “[T]hought that with me outlasts all others… is the thought of my having a will, and of my belonging to a brotherhood of men possessed of a capacity for pleasure and pain of different kinds” (Letters, p. 53). In “having a will,” Oliver is, as noted before, similar to James, but the nearest she comes to “belonging to a brotherhood” is in her mind via an imaginary dialogue with her own “tribe” of artists, and in the final analysis they fail to give her the life-affirming advice she needs (“… I don’t forgive them / for turning their faces away, / for taking off their veils / and dancing for death,”— Dream Work, p. 34). James recognizes in himself and others a longing for “sympathy, a purely personal communication, first with the soul of the world, and then with the soul of our fellows” (Letters, p. 54). He also acknowledges his difficulty in conversing with the soul of the world (“[I]f we have to give up all hope of seeing into the purposes of God, or to give up theoretically the idea of final causes, and of God anyhow as vain and leading to nothing for us,”) and therefore friendships gain an existential importance for James (“we can, by our will, make the enjoyment of our brothers stand us in the stead of a final cause,”— Letters, pp. 53-54). Elsewhere, James concludes that “a man’s rank in the general scale is well indicated by his capacity” for “friendship (including the highest half of that which between the sexes is united under the single name of love)” (Letters, p. 62). Oliver, too, values love (“There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe,”— West Wind, p. 46) and occasionally talks about her relationship with her lover and companion, but in most of her poems we do not get the sense of a life shared with friends. In fact, Oliver, like Emerson (possibly with the exception of his Aunt Moody, his first wife, his brothers, and later in life, Henry David Thoreau), seems to have had limited intellectual intimacy with other people. Upon meeting Landor, Coleridge, Carlyle and Wordsworth in Europe, Emerson returns home to conclude “what the intercourse with each of these suggests is true of intercourse with better men, that they never fill the ear—fill the mind” (Selections, p. 14). Oliver’s poetry overflows with intercourse that fills the mind—an intercourse almost always with fauna and flora, and physical things of the universe, seldom with human beings.
This choice of nature—and hence, solitude—over society makes Oliver more Emersonian than Jamesian not only in itself as a choice, but also in its various consequences. Emerson, as noted, does not think he can learn much through people. “I will not see with others’ eyes” (Selections, p. 11), he declares; for him, the truth is “self-evident, self-subsistent. It is light… You don’t get a candle to see the sun rise” (Selections, p. 10). As much as he recognizes the value of one’s intellectual affinity with the ideas of, for example, Socrates, St. Paul and Milton (“[T]hey have lived for us as much as for their contemporaries, if by books or by tradition their life and words come to my ear,” Selections, p. 18), at the end of the day he believes that it is in “solitude,” away “as much from his chamber as from society,” that he can enter “an intercourse with heaven and earth [and that intercourse becomes] his daily food” (“Nature,” Selections, pp. 23-24). In many of her poems, Oliver takes a similar stance. In their solitude in nature, Emerson and, at times Oliver, seem to embrace a sense of reality that is independent and can be experienced independently from the faculties of man. This notion of “learning by being nothing” goes against James’s logic. For him, “Everything we know and are is through men. We have no revelation but through man… Your manhood shuts you in forever, bounds all your thoughts like an overarching sky—and all the Good and True and High and Dear that you know by virtue of your sharing in it” (Letters, p. 55). While Emerson believes in “the doctrine of perpetual revelation” and criticizes those who seem to think “the religion of God, the being of God, … [is] dependent on what [they] say of it” (Selections, p. 119), James finds that “[t]he idea … of becoming an accomplice in a sort of ‘Mankind its own God or Providence’ scheme is a practical one” (Letters, p. 55).
The concept of a person’s boundedness by his own personhood is central to James’s thought. This concept helps him accept ideas and beliefs as contingent on their holders. It also makes him skeptical of over-arching ideas and absolutes. Throughout his work Emerson celebrates the self; the criterion he applies to every object is “its relation to [him]self” (Selections, p. 16), yet his reverence to selfhood and self-reliance does not result in the same pluralistic embrace we see in James. For Emerson, there is an overarching truth—an “Idea according to which the Universe is made,” and he is “always watching for the glimmering of that pure, plastic Idea…” (Selections, p. 17). He calls it “moral perfection,” “the open secret of the universe,” “the soul of religion” (Selections, p. 15). In poem after poem, we see Oliver searching for this “open secret” and waiting for the moment of revelation; and occasionally, Oliver tells us that she indeed has been ‘levitated’ (West Wind, p. 32), her spine touched by “the unknowable” (West Wind, p. 36), or she has “chanced among quick things, upon the immutable” (West Wind, p. 63). Emerson describes moments of divine revelation as those of “the law of light” in “fits of easy transmission and reflection.” “[The soul’s law] is only superior at intervals to pain, to fear, to temptation, only in raptures unites herself to God” (Selections, p. 15) says Emerson, and Oliver echoes him in her aptly-titled poem “The Rapture.” After mentioning the sensation of being levitated, Oliver describes the moment as an “interval” quite similarly to the way Emerson portrays it: “I think / there is no other prize, / only rapture the gleaming, / rapture the illogical the weightless — / whether it be for the perfect shapeliness / of something you love— / like an old German song — / or of someone — / or the dark floss of the earth itself, / heavy and electric” (West Wind, pp. 32-33). Emerson sees an eternity in moments like these (“[D]o I not know the Now to be eternal, Selections, p. 15), and Oliver agrees: “… all eternity / is in the moment…” (West Wind, p. 3).
Ironically, it is in these passages where Oliver sounds the most Emersonian that one can also begin to detect the Jamesian in her. Oliver’s quest for an over-arching truth and her efforts to become nothing so that in a rapture she can receive it do not necessarily succeed; her aspiration to be transparent and empty of words may be very Emersonian, but the fact that these remain an aspiration brings her closer to James. In “Stars” (West Wind, pp. 13-14), when Oliver tries “to be empty of words,” for a moment she thinks she really can do it (“What joy was it, that almost found me? What amiable peace?”), but her language ultimately does not leave her (“Then it was over, the wind / roused up in the oak tree behind me / and I fell back, easily”), and toward the end of the poem Oliver gives up the idea of becoming a wordless audience. She resigns to a modest acceptance of her being—and even a pride in her language. In a very Jamesian ending to a poem which begins with Emersonian aspirations, Oliver asks, “What can we do / but keep on breathing in and out, / modest and willing, in our places? Listen, listen, I’m forever saying, / … / then I come up with a few words, like a gift./ … / Even as the stars have twirled a little, while I stood there, / looking up, / one hot sentence after another.”
Oliver’s thoughts on language deserve further attention and not only because her thinking and her work are inseparable from it; language also serves as a metaphor in expressing her Emersonian and Jamesian selves. When her Emersonian self prevails, Oliver questions the importance of her work: “I am touching a few leaves / … / And I am thinking? Maybe just looking and listening / is the real work. / Maybe the world, without us, / is the real poem” (, p. 17). However, in her Emersonian reverence to the universe, which includes a readiness to subtract herself from it, Oliver also preserves a respect for her work that has been clearly influenced by Emerson’s celebration of the poet as “the sayer, the namer, and [the] representat[ative of] beauty” (“The Poet,” Selections, p. 224). “Bless the mouth / for it is the describer. / Bless the tongue / for it is the maker of words” (The Leaf and The Cloud, p. 35), Oliver pleads. Yet in “Forty Years,” (West Wind, p. 26) —a poem celebrating her life as a poet—Oliver is still torn between her Jamesian (here, one can also say Emersonian) respect for her own writing (“not one page / was less to me than fascinating”) and her somewhat Nietzschean belief of falsity and inadequacy of language (“… language is not even a river / is not a tree not a green field / not even a black and traveling / briskly modestly / from day to day from one / golden page to another”). However, in “Three Songs,” Oliver is ready to acknowledge the human-made beauty of our words: “Language is, … not necessary, but voluntary. If it were necessary, it would have stayed simple; it would not agitate our hearts with ever-present loveliness and ever-cresting ambiguity; it would not dream, on its long white bones, of turning into a song” (West Wind, p. 17). And then in a moment of a truly Jamesian revelation — a moment that is in stark contrast to her Emersonian efforts of ‘nothingness’—Oliver tells us what does, and might always, separate human beings from the rest of the universe:
Would it be better to sit in silence?
To think everything, to feel everything, to say nothing?
This is the way of the orange gourd.
This is the habit of the rock in the river, over which
the water pours all night and all day.
But the nature of man is not the nature of silence.
Words are the thunders of the mind.
Words are the refinement of the flesh.
Words are the responses to the thousand curvaceous moments —
we just manage it —
sweet and electric, words flow from the brain
and out the gate of the mouth.
We make books of them, out of hesitation and grammar.
We are slow, and choosy.
This is the world. (The Leaf and The Cloud, p. 12)
Oliver’s ideas about work also provide interesting comparisons with James. For James, a meaningful life is a productive one; he believes “individuals can add to the welfare of the race in a variety of ways,” they can modify other people’s lives by inventing or creating something, and thereby be “in real relation to them—you have in so far forth entered into their being” (Letters, pp. 54-55). Unlike Oliver, who, at times, thinks what she does is not of much value, his capacity to “add to the welfare of the race” is existential for James, and he says it saves him from suicide: “The only feeling that kept me from giving up was that by waiting and living, by book or crook, long enough, I might make my nick, however a small one, in the raw stuff the race has got to shape, and so assert my reality” (Letters, p. 56). James’s determination to make his nick gives him an insatiable appetite to read, to learn languages, to meet and talk to people, to travel and see new things. His intellectual ambition makes him regret “the inert states of mind” his physical and mental condition puts him into (p. 29); his relatively slow pace of reading in German discourages him (p. 47), and when he travels he really wants to go to some place truly “peculiar:” “[T]o come [to Germany] is not much of an experience… To Travel in Italy, in Egypt, or in the Tropics, may make creation widen to one’s view” (emphasis mine, Letters, pp. 37-38). Emerson, as we know, had his share of traveling abroad, but he has a remarkably different approach to the educational and spiritual function of travel: “It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Traveling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans… The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home… Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places… I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from” (“Self-Reliance,” Selections, p. 164). Oliver, too, travels. In Singapore, for example, she sees a woman washing something in a toilet bowl, in a public bathroom. The disgust Oliver feels, and the woman’s beauty and embarrassment leave her wordless: “When the woman turned I could not answer her face” (, p. 8). In Jakarta, she sees a child “with a hideous mouth, / begging / and I knew the wound was made / for a way to stay alive.” She likens this experience to “a bead of acid” and “an explosion / in that nest of wires / we call the imagination” (Dream Work, p. 73). These poems suggest to me, Oliver, like James, feels that the peculiar she encounters in her travels indeed ‘make creation widen to her view’. Elsewhere, we see Oliver assume a somewhat Emersonian view of traveling and all ambitious activity:
Have I not thought, for years, what it would be
worthy to do, and then gone off, barefoot and with a silver pail,
to gather blueberries,
thus coming, as I think, upon a right answer?
What will ambition do for me that the fox, appearing suddenly
at the top of the field,
her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine,
has not already done?
What countries, what visitations,
would satisfy me as thoroughly as Blackwater Woods
on a sun-filled morning, or, equally in the rain? (West Wind, p. 7)
Oliver’s choosing forays into nature over foreign travel in this poem does not quite match Emerson’s preference to stay at home. While the latter needn’t move at all, the former must move and encounter. Oliver’s two selves make her as responsive as James would have been to the peculiar (the sharp-eyed fox), yet as satisfied as Emerson would have felt with the familiar (the blueberry bushes visited many times over the years) and this dichotomy brings me to the third element of difference between her and James, namely, tension versus harmony. As is the case in her oscillations between silence and language, here too, Oliver is torn between a romantic dedication to harmony and a pragmatic approach to tension. We know from “Experience” that, upon his son Waldo’s death, Emerson loses his sense of direction and his belief in the universal harmony is shaken. Soon after the boy’s passing, Emerson describes Waldo’s life in words that define for him the cornerstones of happiness: “Calm and wise. Calmly and wisely happy. The beautiful Creative power looked out from him and spoke of anything but chaos and interruption; signified strength and unity—and gladdening, all-uniting life…” (emphases mine, Selections, p. 208). James’s mind operates differently; for him to be happy, chaos and interruption are necessary in life, and achieving calm and unity is only possible, yet need not be guaranteed through tension: “I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, … he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive. …this characteristic attitude in me always involves an element of active tension, of holding my own, as it were, and trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guaranty that they will. Make it a guaranty—and the attitude immediately becomes to my consciousness stagnant and stingless” (Letters, p. 109). So the Oliver of the perfect harmony of the “Wild Geese” that burdens human beings with no responsibilities but to “love what it loves” (Dream Work, p. 14); or the Oliver in the “Spring” who “meant to live a quiet life… a life of mildness and meditation” (West Wind, p. 12) and in “Black Oaks” who does not “want to let go of the wrists of idleness” is close to Emerson, and not at all a kindred spirit of James. But what about the Oliver in “Clamming”—ever so aware of the tension between the quiet, sunlit shore and the “black, anonymous roar” of the turning tide (Dream Work, p. 259)? Does the same Oliver, in “Morning Walk,” not see, accept, and even admire the ocean’s emptying its pockets “shell by broken shell,” telling a “story of length only / about the wholeness of destruction” (West Wind, p. 29)? Does she not enjoy watching the wind scatter her papers from the desk as if “it is in love with disorganization” and writes “after such disturbance I sit, smiling” (West Wind, p. 57)? Is she not proud that she, like James, does not seek a guaranty, “has never taken good fortune for granted,” and has always “been ready at the iron door, / not knowing to what country it opens—to death or more life” (West Wind, p. 8)? And is it not also the tension of love (‘In one room after another, the lovers meet, quarrel, sicken, break apart, cry out,” West Wind, p. 53) that attracts her when she advises us to go for it (“sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming—then row, row your life toward it,” West Wind, p. 46) and invites her own lover as well (“Who made your tyrant’s body, your thirst, your delving, your gladness? Oh tiger, oh bone-breaker, oh tree on fire! Get away from me. Come closer,” West Wind, p. 47)?
Oliver seems to stand between James’s belief in the pragmatic use of tension and Emerson’s disdain of it: She can habituate herself to a perfect harmony, but she can also deal with tension, and at times, willingly so. One experience that almost always disturbs the calm is death; and Oliver, like James, seems rather comfortable with it. Their belief in continuity makes them courageous about mortality. For James, it is the continuity in the human-made universe: A person’s creative additions to it, his work and his off-spring. In a candid farewell letter to his dying father, James writes: “You are old enough, you’ve given your message to the world in many ways and will not be forgotten… All my intellectual life I derive from you… You need to be in no anxiety about your literary remains, I will see them well taken care of… We will stand by each other… try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us…” (Letters, pp. 116-117). Emerson, on the other hand, can never quite come to terms with the premature deaths of Ellen and Waldo. For him, “the event of death is always astounding; our philosophy never reaches, never possesses it; we are always at the beginning of our catechism; always the definition is yet to be made.” “As for the “death of another,” Emerson is again uneasy about a source of consolation: “In us there ought to be remedy… I suppose that the roots of my relation to every individual are in my constitution, and not less the causes of his disappearance from me” (Selections, p. 83). Oliver sees dying as a matter of fact: “[D]eath / that can’t be stopped (West Wind, p. 4),” and like James, her belief in continuity consoles her, but this continuity is not about children and works left behind; it is about the natural life that will go on after each of us dies. For her, “death too / is a carpenter” gnawing the body of a dead snake with “his helpers the shining ants” (West Wind, p. 9). She says she believes death “is the last wonderful work” (West Wind, p. 19), and it can be even glorious if she can go the way she wants with “no quibbling” and “broken but burning, / like a golden tree” (West Wind, p. 31). This embrace of death as a powerful, even beautiful, act of nature while still seeking to personally shape its circumstances is typical of Oliver’s inner variance. In her approach to dying as in her ideas about life, we again find her swaying between Emerson and James. For me, this tension between the romantic and the pragmatic keeps Oliver’s poetry active and alive. It also makes her voice more appealing and distinctly American.