Emerson’s Heirs: Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Oliver

Joyce Carol Oates Mary Oliver Crop

On first look few writers are as dissimilar as Mary Oliver and Joyce Carol Oates. The former is a poet of the woods and the creatures therein, the avowed disciple of Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir. Her reverence for the practice of quiet observation is expressed in diaphanous poetry and lean prose whose transparency invites the reader to enter the nave of nature to worship in awed silence.

Silence is not part of Oates’s credo. Her essays are of a piece with an extraordinary publishing career that has left no stone unturned and then fully examined in the literary equivalent of a geological survey, dense with evidence. If she has a thought, she does not merely suggest its possibilities, as Oliver might. If she used them, her footnotes would generate footnotes.

Yet two new collections of prose by these writers show they are not opposing candidates but actually spring from the same party: they are ardent latter-day Transcendentalists. They begin and end with Emerson’s notion that “the theory of books is noble.” Whether the pure experience that is transformed “by the new arrangement of [the writer’s] own mind” is that of viewing natural phenomena (Oliver) or falling under the novelist’s spell (Oates), what results is the transubstantiation that is literature. Once in story form, “it now endures, it now flies, it now inspires.” Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Oliver are running on the same platform.

They are two of the most notable of American letters’ old guard. Each has been publishing since the early sixties — half a century. They have certainly earned the right to reflect at any length they choose on the nature of inspiration. In Soul at the White Heat, Oates considers the origins of writing in voluminous detail and via every type of critical approach — review, reconsideration, instructional, public address, introduction — just as her scores of other books range exhaustively over genres and forms. Then there’s Oliver, the oracular poet of the natural world, whose essays are condensed, oblique. They present furtive glimpses of her passions, her predecessors, and how she experiences the divine through observation of the natural world. Upstream is as slender and suggestive as her poetry — and occasionally as maddening.

It is impossible to overestimate Oliver’s popularity as a poet. Across the land at any given moment a hundred yoga teachers are reverently reciting an Oliver poem during shivasana. Anyone who has a dog has had Dog Songs  eagerly pressed on them and likely went on to buy three more copies for their dog-loving friends. Aphoristic quotations show up frequently in the Facebook feed; yesterday mine included a line from “Of Power and Time,” an essay reprinted here: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Her exhortatory tone is stirring and reassuring at once, and similarly constitutes both her poetry’s strength and its weakness. This quality is also in large measure why she has risen to a reputation as America’s bestselling poet. Her poems are accessible in the way a hymn is accessible: simple language set at just enough of a syntactical tilt that it sets you off balance; in the subsequent moment of reorientation you realize something happened. In head, or in heart.

If that maneuver is sometimes powered by sentimentality, it is no deterrent to her worshipful audience. (“Mary Oliver’s poetry and prose is the closest thing I know to God,” goes a typical paean.) If that were all she had to offer, however, it is unlikely she would have won the Pulitzer Prize. The basic frustration of reading Mary Oliver is that you never know where she’s taking you: her poetry holds dual citizenship in two separate but contiguous regions, the mawkish and the visionary.

A significant part of the project of both these collections is to declare influences. Oliver acknowledges Wordsworth, Shelley, and especially Whitman. A discovery of her youth, his “oceanic power and rumble” was her compass and companion, while his “boundless affirmation” would guide the tone of future work. Her poems also clearly bear the deep impress of Dickinson, which shows up not only in the borrowing of the signal dash but in a compression of intense emotion. The fact that Oliver’s appointed literary guardians are over 150 years old can leave her sounding antique, or at least self-consciously mannered; sometimes a sentence is so overvarnished no amount of rereading will sand it free. “Of all American poems, the 1855 Leaves of Grass is the most probable of effect upon the individual sensibility. It wants no less.” Huh? And again: Whitman “stood in the singe of powerful mystical suggestion.” I’m going to look for some singe so I can see this for myself.

Where Oliver is simply vague (or vaguely simple), Oates is precise and thorough, erudite and all-encompassing. A substantial part of Soul at the White Heat (the title comes from a particularly unyielding Dickinson poem) comprises book reviews of such contemporaries’ work as Coetzee, Lorrie Moore, McMurtry, Erdrich, Atwood. To their appraisal Oates brings to bear every other book she has read, it seems, and that is a lot: there is little in the western canon that has escaped her omnivoracity. These are her influences — just about everything. Three hundred years of English literature flows through her as if she had a transfusion. Not for Oates the unparsable sentence or less than thought-through insight (though apparently Twitter is another matter). Melville, Dickens, George Eliot, James, Lawrence, Simenon, Updike; I could go on, and on, naming the writers with whose entire oeuvre Oates is conversant. Her prolificacy as a writer is often, and tiresomely, mentioned; her copious reading is at least as remarkable and, in tandem with her own production, nothing short of astonishing.

But that is how much Oliver too, loves books; it is clear they in some way make life possible. The apparent utter necessity of reading and writing — on par with eating and sleeping — is the revelation within every page of these collections. The books’ implicit question, made explicit in the title of White Heat‘s first piece, “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?,” is one that both writers have answered with a resounding “no.” This is why those reports of the death of the book are greatly, and laughably, exaggerated. People couldn’t go on without them.

Overtly, the two books display little crossover, except when both Oliver and Oates take up the case of Poe. Oliver maintains that an experiential lack of certainty “disordered” him, making him rewrite the same hopeless tale over and over again. Oates, in the course of situating him in the tradition of the gothic, says Poe’s predominant form is one of “psychic autobiography.”

This is where both writers reveal their most profound kinship: they believe one must look at what happened in the life of the person who writes in order to discover what compelled him or her to write. For writers, this is always the most pressing question, about their work as well as others’. Notwithstanding the ghosts of the New Critics shaking their chains in disapproval, Oliver and Oates set out to prove that writing is as personal as it gets.

I closed the covers on these two celebrations of the bookish life and moved to leave the café where I had been sitting. Improbably, too perfectly, as if she had been written into the scene, a tiny figure of a girl no more than six blocked the door. She had no idea where she was because her head was in a book. Eyes wide, she looked as if she would climb inside the pages if she could. I may have been witness to the sort of formative moment of which I had just been reading. Only one question remained — poetry, or fiction?