Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Johnny Depp, Bill Clinton, and Mary Oliver: Popularity and Poetry

As I ate breakfast and read the morning newspaper, I noticed the front page and a couple of subsequent pages were filled with information about Johnny Depp’s visit to the area for filming of his next movie, Public Enemies. Depp depicts John Dillinger in this film, including a central scene involving Dillinger’s appearance at a local courthouse, for charges concerning a bank robbery during which a security guard had been killed, and eventual escape from the town jail in 1934. Because of a desire for authenticity, the film’s cast and crew will be on location nearby for the next week. Stories within the paper report how scores of fans had found spots for themselves behind barricades overnight as they awaited morning light and the anticipated arrival of Johnny Depp. Apparently, Depp finally appeared on the set for the first day of filming at about 11 a.m., stepping out of a black SUV to the crowd’s applause and cheers of approval. Additional pictures of Depp and the day’s events filled a newspaper centerfold.

Indeed, the only other news story competing for attention seemed to be a visit to the region by Bill Clinton as he stumped for his wife’s candidacy in advance of the state’s upcoming presidential primary. Although the newspaper did not include as many photographs of Clinton, a prominent article noted the popularity of the former president, who also was greeted by scores of supporters.

In both instances, the front-page importance of the news items and the extensive coverage given seemed to me determined by the personality of the individuals involved, their compelling celebrity charisma and uniquely attractive appeal to an audience of followers concerned with identifiable characteristics perceived as charming, as much as by the men’s particular accomplishments or the overall newsworthiness of the stories.

Coincidentally, after browsing through the rest of the newspaper, I picked up a copy of Mary Oliver’s American Primitive and her New and Selected Poems to review as I prepared for a conference discussion later in the day with a graduate student engaged in an independent project this semester on contemporary American women poets for which I have been advising her. Somehow, this week’s selection of Mary Oliver appeared appropriate today because of the recent level of celebrity Oliver has achieved, almost reluctantly, in literary circles.

Indeed, just last month newspapers reported the unusual phenomenon of Oliver’s popularity as a poet, so much so that her appearances in large facilities—like Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, which seats 2,500, and Portland’s Schnitzer Concert Hall, which seats 2,700—were selling out in record time. Tickets for Oliver’s readings were offered for sale online at prices up to $100, as one might find tickets for music or sporting events being scalped for sold-out events. For this reason, my student and others intending to attend Mary Oliver’s upcoming reading at the Art Institute of Chicago, benefiting the Poetry Center of Chicago, on April 2 purchased their tickets more than a month in advance.

According to the Poetry Foundation’s current contemporary best sellers list, Mary Oliver’s Red Bird sits atop at number one. Five other Oliver volumes—Thirst, New and Selected Poems: Volume One, New and Selected Poems: Volume Two, Why I Wake Early, and Blue Iris—also appear on the list of top thirty books.

Certainly, the seventy-two year old author has earned her status as the nation’s most popular poet. Her work has been recognized with numerous honors, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, throughout the forty-five years since her first publication, No Voyage and Other Poems, was released in 1963. However, perceptions of her poetry as continuing in the Romantic tradition—like that of her favorite poet, Walt Whitman—especially with its meditative focus on nature, have led readers to believe she represents a figure for whom personal expression in lyrical yet plain-spoken language can connect with a wider audience, perhaps almost in the manner Robert Frost once spoke so well to so many average American readers.

Oddly, throughout her career, Mary Oliver has offered her observations on nature most often in poems from which she excludes intimate information about herself, maintaining a fair amount of privacy. Stephen Dobyns once wrote: “Although few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver, it is ironic that few poets also go so far to help us forward.” She surely has not methodically sought celebrity by opening up herself publicly. In fact, over the years Oliver has been regarded by readers as something of a recluse who rarely grants interviews.

Only recently has Oliver been more outgoing and turned toward more overtly personal subject matter. As Susan Salter Reynolds commented in the Los Angeles Times a couple months ago in her review and profile of Oliver: “It is astonishing that she has been able to maintain such distance from her readers . . . It’s a quiet cult but widespread and fervid: Her poems pop up at many of life’s turning points, including death. Readers go to her for solace, regeneration and inspiration. Her name is passed between generations, with a knowing look.”

Just two weeks ago, eight of Mary Oliver’s poems were set to music by Ronald Perera for performance by a chorus accompanied by string quartet and piano at the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City. As the New York Times reported: “Ms. Oliver’s poetry, which has drawn comparisons to the work of Emerson and Thoreau, reveals an awestruck regard of nature that verges on the religious: ‘What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven,’ she writes in ‘I Looked Up,’ the fifth poem in Mr. Perera’s cycle. Her work also demonstrates a discerning eye and an ability to render vivid images with a few deft strokes.”

Critical evaluations of Oliver’s poems sometimes differ in their opinion of a distracting presence of sentimentality in some pieces or a seeming repetition due to a sameness of subject matter from one to another. Nevertheless, the work frequently rewards reading, and the general readership for her poetry appears to surpass that of any other contemporary poet. Audiences’ admiration for Mary Oliver may not compete with the widespread popularity of personalities like Johnny Depp and Bill Clinton in the number of followers or newspaper headlines generated; however, one must marvel at the affection for Oliver among many readers of poetry. On this spring morning, I cheerfully turned from those familiar stories about celebrities from film or politics in my local newspaper toward the delightful poetry of Mary Oliver, including the following concerning spring and the imagination:


In spring the blue azures bow down
at the edges of shallow puddles
to drink the black rain water.
Then they rise and float away into the fields.

Sometimes the great bones of my life feel so heavy,
and all the tricks my body knows—
the opposable thumbs, the kneecaps,
and the mind clicking and clicking—

don’t seem enough to carry me through the world
and I think: how I would like

to have wings—
blue ones—
ribbons of flame.

How I would like to open them, and rise
from the black rain water.

And then I think of Blake, in the dirt and sweat of London—a boy
staring through the window, when God came
fluttering up.

Of course, he screamed,
seeing the bobbin of God’s blue body
leaning on the sill,
and the thousand-faceted eyes.

Well, who knows.
Who knows what hung, fluttering, at the window
between him and the darkness.

Anyway, Blake the hosier’s son stood up
and turned away from the sooty sill and the dark city—
turned away forever
from the factories, the personal strivings,

to a life of the imagination.

Audio of a reading by Mary Oliver and an interview with her by Coleman Barks conducted in August of 2001 can be found at the Lannan Foundation website. At a separate web page, readers can find another Lannan Foundation audio of an October, 2006 reading by Oliver, as well as her conversation with Joseph Parisi.

1 comment:

Kate Olson said...

There's a lesson in here for creative writers, certainly.

A recent issue of _Poets and Writers_ had a longish article invoking the debate on what is to be done among writers, if anything, to combat the general decline in hours spent reading among Americans. I'm not sure what to think, or whether this drive to create or retain readers will/should influence the way I write my novel . . . but all of this does make writers like Oliver all the more fascinating for those of us who write & hope for publication. There are few writers, I think, with such charisma and universal charm, but perhaps there is also something to be said for writing that seems steeped in a roughly "national" tradition (of Whitman, Thoreau, etc)? Perhaps she is also a bit lucky--writing observations on nature at a time when the popular imagination seems eager to cherish the natural world?