How many poets can pack a good sized auditorium, get a standing ovation before and after reading, get a sigh of group love and pleasure at the close of most poems? In America, in 2009, this can happen. Did happen last night here on Cape Cod when Mary Oliver came to the community college in Hyannis and read for an hour. She is now 73, she looked more elegant with a snowy pageboy hair cut and black pants and top than she does in the windblown photos that are on many of her books. She read many short poems, with slightly mumbled asides, many of them humorous, in between. The audience was of all ages from students to her contemporaries and clearly many knew many of the poems, many of the themes. New books were selling fast before the start of the reading.
True she is local poet, was headlined in the NYTimes Travel Section this summer as "The Bard of Provincetown". Possibly Maya Angelou is the only other living poet who has such a following, it is like the following Robert Frost had in his later years.
For a poet to be loved in this technological age is wonderful, and more wonderful as this is not a performer like the slam poets who are mostly showmanship and less depth. Oliver simply read, slowly with her own cadence and emphasis, her probing questions about the meaning of life and death, her beautiful images of the natural world, prodding toward focus and attention that she embodies and that is rarely expounded [outside Zen retreats] in this age of multitasking and overload and even adult ADD.
Who else writes of going to the woods well before dawn to sit quietly and wait for the deer to walk by, so quietly "one would have come into my arms" she felt --
who does that today? Only a poet who doesn't "know exactly what praying is" but does "know how to pay attention." She does not only write of what we easily call beautiful; she finds beautiful and wonderful what others cringe at: the blood beak of the owl, the snake in the grass, the road kill gray foxes she tenderly carried into the grass.
It was a beautiful evening when many people were paying attention to Mary Oliver.
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