The poet Mary Oliver with Ricky, one comforting presence in her new collection, “Dog Songs.”
By DANA JENNINGS
Published: October 6, 2013
Mary Oliver has spent most of her life with a mind ripe with poems — and with at least one steadfast dog by her side. It seems fitting then that her latest collection revels in the carrying on of dogs. “Dog Songs,” out from Penguin Press on Tuesday, is a sweet golden retriever of a book that curls up with the reader, with 35 poems and one essay about the dogs who have shared Ms. Oliver’s days.
Angel Valentin for The New York Times
The poet Mary Oliver, with Ricky, a Havanese who plays a part in her latest collection, “Dog Songs.”
Ms. Oliver is that rare thing in our culture: a best-selling writer of poems. Her previous collection, “A Thousand Mornings,” was a hardcover best seller last year, and “Dog Songs” has already bounded as high as No. 2 on Amazon’s poetry list (behind a 99-cent Kindle edition of Poe).
Asked about it in a recent phone interview, Ms. Oliver sounded as bewildered as anybody: “Best seller? That part I can’t get. It amazes me.”
She has an inkling, though, about why the ordinary readers who buy her books fasten on her poems. “People want poetry,” she said. “They need poetry. They get it. They don’t want fancy work.”
At 78, Ms. Oliver, whose first book arrived in 1963, is the kind of old-fashioned poet who walks the woods most days, accompanied by dog and notepad. “Dogs are perfect companions,” she said. “They don’t speak.”
Her poems’ titles make it clear that nature suffuses and sustains her work: “White Heron Rises Over Blackwater,” “Truro, the Blueberry Fields,” “Old Goldenrod at Field’s Edge.” As does this from “Mindful” in the 2004 collection “Why I Wake Early”:
I see or I hear
that more or less
The poet David Rivard, who teaches at the University of New Hampshire, said he believes that Ms. Oliver’s popularity dovetails with the fact she writes about the outdoors. “As a nature poet, Oliver feeds people’s love of a certain pastoral tradition in poetry,” Mr. Rivard, whose latest collection is “Otherwise Elsewhere,” wrote in an e-mail.
Besides nature, Ms. Oliver’s muses include the poets Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov and Pablo Neruda, and, of course, dogs — a mob of dogs — many of them coursing and chorusing through “Dog Songs”: Bear and Ben, Ricky and Lucy, Luke and Percy.
And the book transcends its dogginess. It’s also about love, impermanence and the tears in things. As Ms. Oliver asks in “School,” “How many summers does a little dog have?”
But why write a book of dog poems? Enough canine lit has come out in recent years that a shelter should be built for those tomes that have been neutered and remaindered. Ms. Oliver sheepishly admits that the idea for “Dog Songs” came from her publisher and agent.
Still, she addresses the dog-poetry question in her essay “Dog Talk”: “They are a kind of poetry themselves when they are devoted not only to us but to the wet night, to the moon and the rabbit-smell in the grass and their own bodies leaping forward.” That Ms. Oliver has a book of dog poems will surely make the poets and critics who sneer at her work howl. Though she has won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, her verse splits the poetic microcosm — a world in which a best-selling poet is always below suspicion.
Typical of the howlers is the poet and critic David Orr, who once wrote of Ms. Oliver’s work in The New York Times Book Review, “One can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” When asked about those allergic to her work, one could almost hear Ms. Oliver shrug over the phone: “It’s a kind of eliteness among academics.”
Mr. Rivard wrote, “There are some people who believe that plain-spoken language is always a sign of simple-mindedness, or worse, of a middlebrow, uncool character.” He added: “At her best, she’s a fine poet, one whose work I admire. When she’s not on her game, the work feels too easy.”
The California poet R. M. Ryan, whose latest book is “Vaudeville in the Dark,” said: “So many poets obscure the world. Mary Oliver clarifies it.”
In a sense, her poems, with their charity and lyric clarity, can provide the kind of solace that dogs give. ”I think they are companions in a way that people aren’t,” Ms. Oliver said. “They’ll lie next to you when you’re sad. And they remind us that we’re animals, too.”
Most of her tail-shaking companions got to spend their splendid ephemeral summers in Provincetown, Mass., where Ms. Oliver lived for 50 years, though she has just migrated to a town on the southeastern coast of Florida. She declined to be more specific because she’s a poet — in another cultural rarity — whose starry-eyed fans show up uninvited on her doorstep like strays.
“One time a stranger came to the house and asked if I was Mary Oliver,” she said, laughing. “And I said, ‘No, I’m not Mary Oliver.’ “
She grew up in Maple Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland, and even as a child she had a dog with whom she tripped and tramped the woods. “Her name was Tippy, and she had white at the tip of her tail,” Ms. Oliver said. “She was a puppy who showed up at my great-aunt’s door, and she made a gift of her to me.”
Then there was the dog whom Ms. Oliver once gave as a gift. Before her partner of 40 years, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, died in 2005, she told Ms. Oliver, “I want a little dog that I can hold in my arms.” She craved what Ms. Oliver calls “a bundle of longing” to see her through. That bundle was Percy, a frisky bichon frisé named for the poet Shelley.
She and Ms. Cook once had as many as four dogs, a couple of cats and a rabbit, but these days Ms. Oliver is down to Ricky, a plucky Havanese who punctuated our call with his friendly racket. “Ricky loves me,” she said. “And the Havanese have such a wonderful sense of life.”
But love does have its needs. When Ricky’s charm couldn’t get his mistress’s attention, his need escalated. As our talk ended, Ms. Oliver exclaimed: “Good lord! This dog is ripping up something!” Then she laughed.
Ms. Oliver’s pleasure in Ricky’s antics again evoked “Dog Talk”: “Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 7, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Scratching a Muse’s Ears.