The poet Mary Oliver on poetry and prose

The following is the Foreword, posted in its entirety, of Mary Oliver’s book, Long Life: Essays and Other Writing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), xiii-xiv. Oliver, an American poet living in the Northeast, is the winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Please enjoy.

I would rather write poems than prose, any day, any place. Yet each has its force. Prose flows forward bravely and, often, serenely, only slowly exposing emotions. Every character, every idea piques our interest, until the complexity of it is its asset; we begin to feel a whole culture under and behind it. Poems are less cautious, and the voice of the poem remains somehow solitary. And it is a flesh and bone voice, that slips and slides and leaps over the bank and out onto any river it meets, landing, with sharp blades, on the smallest piece of ice. Working on prose and working on poems elicit different paces from the heartbeat. One is nicer to feel than the other, guess which one. When I have spent a long time with prose I feel the weight of the work. But when I work at poems, the word is in error; it isn’t like any other labor. Poems either do not succeed, or they feel as much delivered as created.

Still, the endeavors of narrative, or the amble of descriptions toward thought, have their enchantments. And there are so many moods of prose—the explanation, the exhortation, the moral instruction, the comedy. And do not forget the fantastical story made buoyant with glitter and the shadows of glitter, too small and sweet, perhaps, for any other use.

We talk about poems turning the line—that magical device—but of course prose turns, too, where the paper is about to run out. Such steadiness! But the prose-horse is in harness, a good, sturdy, and comfortable harness, while the horse of poetry has wings. And I would rather fly than plow.

I have written two books about writing poetry, and this is not another one. I hoped to shun that subject altogether. I have failed, but only very briefly and I hope in a sporting manner. In time I will keep silence altogether. Poets must read and study, but also they must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, or we might just as well copy the old books. But, no, that would never do, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you each morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?” This book is my comment.

One more thing I want to mention before the pages actually begin. Writing poems, for me but not necessarily for others, is a way of offering praise to the world. In this book you will find, set among the prose pieces, a few poems. Think of them that way, as little alleluias. They’re not trying to explain anything, as the prose does. They just sit there on the page, and breathe. A few lilies, or wrens, or trout among the mysterious shadows, the cold water, and the somber oaks.

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