I quickly found for myself two such blessings--- the natural world, and the world of writing: literature. These were the gates through which I vanish from a difficult place... And this is what I learned: that the world's otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within otherness--- the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books --- can redignify the worst- stung heart (14).
I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too (16).Oliver hands out little quips of advice in this section, also:
You must not ever stop being whimsical./// And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life (19).She also mentions several times how much she appreciates form and structure, not only in nature but in literature. Perhaps that is why I enjoy Oliver's poems so much--- she follows and uses an understandable structure when she writes.
Section two essays focus on Oliver's observations of nature. Here she talks about daily walks where she notices animals and birds. Section three contains four literary analysis essays. The first is about Ralph Waldo Emerson and, by extension, his famous book, Nature. I've not read Emerson but after reading this essay I want to give him a try. I love what Oliver has to say about him as a man and a writer.
The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are not part of it; rather, it is the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament. This is the crux of Emerson, who does not advance straight ahead but wanders to all sides of an issue; who delivers suggestions with a kindly gesture--- who opens doors and tells us to look for things ourselves. The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look--- we must look...(68-9).Her essay on Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass was of special interest to me since I just read it. I wish I had the opportunity to study Leaves of Grass under the tutelage of an instructor who understands its complexities but I will suffice with a few notes from Oliver here on the greatness of this volume of poetry.
Of all American poems, the 1855 Leaves of Grass is the most probable of effect upon the individual sensibility. It wants no less. We study it as literature, but like all great literature it has a deeper design: it would be a book for men to live by. It is obsessively affirmative...It offers a way to live, in the religious sense, that is intelligent and emotive and rich, and dependent only on the individual--- no politics, no liturgy, no down payment. Just attention, sympathy, empathy...Brawn and spirit, we are built of light, and God is within us. This is the message of his long, honeyed harangue (107-8).This section also contains essays on Edgar Allan Poe and on the poet Wordsworth. Both essays shed light on the writings and lives of these great writers.
Sections four and five contain essays on a variety of subjects: building a small house with her own hands, a bear's visit to town, more observations on nature, and a tribute to her hometown. My favorite from these sections is a reflection Oliver offers at the end of the essay on owls. She knows there is an owls nest someplace and she walks all over looking for it.
And I walk on, over the shoulder of summer and down across the red-dappled fall; and when, it's late winter again, out through the far woodlands of the Province Lands, maybe another few hundred miles, looking for the owl's nest, yes of course, and looking at everything else along the way (139).Mary Oliver reminds us in Upstream that it is not attainment of the destination but the journey that holds the magic, but we must stop and take note as we travel on. She encourages us "to discover awe and wonder in life's smallest corners" (book jacket).
All quotes from print edition of Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, New York, 2016.