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Our Sentimental Poet?
Mary Oliver in an Age of Excess
Debra Dean Murphy

Sentimentality is a charge leveled easily and often in these cynical times. We accuse poets, preachers, even politicians of what Oscar Wilde called “the luxury of an emotion without paying for it” (196). But what is it exactly? Accusations of sentimentality are routinely left unexplained, as if—like the old line about pornography—we simply know it when we see it. Interestingly, Flannery O’Connor thought that pornography was a particularly salient example of sentimentality (148). Wilde’s quip suggests that sentimentality is both a shortcut and an indulgence—a foreclosing on complexity and a pleasure-taking in feeling for feeling’s sake. Such excess—whether the sentiment is pity or love, anger or fear—tends to bypass rigor, bend toward hyperbole, and traffic in its own gratification. A movie on the Hallmark channel, for instance, or a country song on the radio may elicit tears but almost always dishonestly, since these forms of “art” routinely trade in stock plots and characters, even as they congratulate us for feelings they have supplied. Unsentimental art is not opposed to feeling, but evokes it by drawing us into complex encounters with the messy truth of existence, rendering worlds that deepen our shared humanity and refuse to cheapen our emotional lives.

The Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, whose work I both admire and am sometimes exasperated by, is often accused of sentimentality. In a 2016 essay in First Things, for example, Benjamin Myers argues that Oliver’s poetry can be like “the smooth pandering of liberal mainline sermons” and is often sentimental in a way akin to the “deadly heresy of Gnosticism, which prefers airy spiritualization to God’s actual creation.” Myers sees in many of Oliver’s poems “yet another self-congratulatory emotional gesture” and depictions of the created order that are “flimsy” and “phony.” These are sweeping claims, and part of what I will argue in this essay is that grandly dismissive critiques of sentimentality are often themselves sentimental. My own view is that much of what Myers criticizes in Oliver is not so much sentimentality as artlessness—clumsy syntax, word choices that fall flat on the ear and the tongue, and what another critic, Gyori Voros, calls “a pattern of mannerisms: the tic of disbelief, the empty intensifier, the beatific generalization.” 

My aim is not to challenge each of these complaints directly, nor to address Oliver’s more general reputation among some critics as a poet lacking depth. Her substantial body of work is decidedly mixed, inarguably uneven—a hazard, certainly, for anyone in any field whose published output spans more than half a century. But her most well-known poems, in my view, are not her best poems. By taking a brief look at some of the latter (along with a bit of her prose), one can detect, I suggest, Oliver’s own awareness both of the lure of sentimentality and of particular ways of naming the world that seek forthrightly to avoid it.

The Complications of Sentimentality

Before turning to Oliver’s work I want to note briefly three questions that emerge in any sustained consideration of sentimentality. First: If emotion cheaply wrought is a sure sign of sentimentality, what or where is the tipping point? Accusations of sentimentality often assume that the line between pathos and melodrama, between emotional truth and emotional manipulation—and the crossing of such a line—is easy to see (and thus, presumably, easy to avoid). But is it, always? There are places in Oliver’s poetry where the transgression is apparent, where she edges toward sentimentality and then awkwardly indulges it. At other times she seems to set the sentimental trap only to skillfully, and sometimes playfully, avoid it. 

Secondly: What are the connections between sentimentality and gender? That is, how are assumptions about masculinity and femininity encoded in the definition of sentimentality and its deployment as a putdown? It is uncontested, for example, that soap operas and romance novels routinely succumb to sentimentality but what about military parades and professional hockey games? While I will note some examples of how this phenomenon plays out in Oliver’s work, it is also worth considering how sentimentality and gender operate together in all kinds of texts and contexts—literary and otherwise. The “muscular” style of a young, energetic male preacher, for example, might be thoroughly sentimental yet rarely described in such ways, while a seasoned female priest’s truthful preaching, summoning an honest emotional reckoning in the hearer, is falsely charged with sentimentality.

And, finally, as briefly alluded to above: Can the condemnation of sentimentality itself be sentimental? I suggest it can. Criticizing a work for short-circuiting depth and complexity with a snappy, self-gratifying dismissal can mimic the same affective indulgence it intends to call out. “The anti-sentimentality stance,” novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison notes, “is still a mode of identity ratification, arrows flying instead of tears flowing” (127). In this age of excess, of the voracious, indecorous consumption of everything from celebrity trivia to stories of suffering, the sentimental dismissal of sentimentality is one form of a pervasive, aggressive tendency toward fault-finding: the readiness not only to assail the trite, the saccharine, the emotionally self-indulgent but also to relish the attack itself. In regard to critical responses to Oliver’s work, this seems to be the most tempting temptation of all.

“Such hints of gladness

Mary Oliver’s poetry is characterized by an attentiveness to the created order that one favorable critic has described as a “capaciousness of being that forms the bedrock of compassion” (Zona, 123). For more than forty years, she has explored the fields and woods, ponds and seashores near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, practicing patience and giving voice to the desire for a kind of ecstatic identification with all she encounters:

I want to flow out
across the mother
of all waters,
I want to lose myself
on the black
and silky currents…
(Oliver, “White Night,” 27-32)

Devoted readers see in Oliver’s work the kind of honesty and wonder that Polish poet and novelist Jerzy Peterkiewicz has named as “the childlike capacity to live in the gratuity of the present, to attend to and rejoice in pure particularity” (101).

Her detractors catalog a range of faults. Along with sentimentality, she is charged with anthropomorphizing the natural world and assuming a posture of awe and envy that both distances her from nature and assumes too much intimacy. Many of these complaints coalesce in the criticism that Oliver is insufficiently autonomous in her observations of the natural world and her rendering of it in her poems. She gives in, some say, to a temptation common to the serious naturalist: the “pathetic fallacy,” a term coined by the nineteenth century art critic, John Ruskin, to describe (and deride) the attribution of human qualities to the non-human world. For some poets and scholars of poetry, ecological engagement must necessarily preserve the boundary between observer and that which is observed; nothing less than the integrity of one’s art (and the integrity of the world) is at stake.

Claims of anthropomorphizing in Oliver’s work are backed up by allusions to lines in any number of poems. They include egrets with “such faith in the world” (“Egrets,” 26); goldfinches “having a melodious argument” (“Goldfinches, 1); the “freedom-loving” hummingbird (“Empty Branch in the Orchard,” 6); and trees that “give off such hints of gladness” (“When I Am Among the Trees,” 4). This assigning of human behaviors or characteristics to non-human creatures almost always—no matter the literary genre—leads to the charge of sentimentality, of a child-like projection of feelings and motivations which is said to diminish both the art and the artist. It can be that. Mary Oliver is sometimes guilty of that. But it is more complicated than that.

The epigraph that opens Oliver’s book-length poem The Leaf and the Cloud (vii) is an extended passage from Ruskin’s multi-part work Modern Painters and is part of his lengthy meditation on the veil as a metaphor in works of art of his era.1 The epigraph not only inspires the title of Oliver’s poem, it also implies some familiarity with Ruskin’s sensibilities. (Oliver writes a good deal of poetry and prose about several nineteenth-century figures, including Van Gogh, Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Emerson). While Ruskin’s insights served his own purposes as an art critic of the Victorian era and most historians consider his legacy mixed, Oliver’s citing him suggests, even if obliquely, that her own work is informed by his well-known suspicion of too-romantic a view of both human nature and the natural world.

More important, though, is how Oliver uses the vision Ruskin casts of the world we inhabit—what is known and unknown, seen and unseen—to craft a poem that seamlessly traverses these domains (metaphorically that of the leaf and of the cloud) with both tenderness and clear-eyed resolve. In the epigraph, Ruskin alludes to “the earth’s gloom of iron substance.” In Oliver’s poem, the speaker describes her mother as “the blue wisteria” (2) and “the mossy stream” (4)—the inverse of anthropomorphism—and as one who “did not always love her life, / heavier than iron it was / as she carried it in her arms, from room to room…(“Flare,” 6-8). Her father “was a demon of frustrated dreams / was a breaker of trust…who “followed God, there being no one else / he could talk to” (“Flare,” 14-16; 18-19). Later in this segment of the poem as the speaker describes burying them both and giving them “the kiss of courtesy, / of sweet thanks, / of anger, of good luck in the deep earth” (32-34), she also says she “will not give them the kiss of complicity” (35). The reason for this “is not lack of love / nor lack of sorrow. / But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry” (29-31).

Oliver’s allusion to Ruskin’s “gloom of iron substance” suggests that she uses this trope to say something, a little predictably, perhaps, about the hardness of life and of human hearts, but also about a resolute (iron) will that still makes room for love and sorrow and gratitude—for a softness that is not sentimental but is wise, alert, and hard won. No shortcuts here, no self-indulgence; rather a spare, eloquent accounting of the complications of life and love and family relationships that acknowledges beauty inside suffering, and compassion as a companion to grief and regret.

In an essay called “Flow,” Oliver writes:

Now it’s March, the bluebirds are skating the air. Now it’s April and the whales have come home. The finbacks and the humpbacks and the rare right whales, arriving along the coast, coming into the bay, sometimes into the harbor, their massive length and weight, churning and breaching as though they, like us, know playfulness. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot, he maketh a path to shine after him, said Job, who, I fear, could not know that there is also a reasoning and a gentleness in these mountains of flesh (6).

This passage is an easy target for critics who police the prohibitions against sentimentalizing animals by making them seem human. But it is also, I submit, a testament to what dog lovers and young children and careful readers of Scripture know: there is a kinship among all creatures. And while such connections are mysterious and in many ways little understood, it is not always foolish nor sentimental to name this kinship—and our longing to deepen it—in words that are familial and borne of an intimate, patient, loving attentiveness.  Animal behaviorists tell us that what we know of the inner life of non-human creatures is what we can infer from their behavior, and that our observations and interactions create a context for interpretation (our behavior is part of the equation, too). The astute observer—whether she is a primatologist or a poet—concludes neither that other animals are just like us nor that an unbridgeable gulf divides us. The too-eager accusation of anthropomorphism when Mary Oliver describes a humpback whale as playful (and the concomitant charge of sentimentality) is itself a sentimental claim that betrays an unreasoning skepticism.

Recall also the earlier point about gender: the idea that to condemn a poem or painting or novel as sentimental is often to operate within the philosophical bias of reason over emotion and thus to privilege—however unwittingly—terms associated with the ideals of masculinity. Within such a framework sentimentality is deemed (though rarely outright named) “womanish”: “indulgent, cheap, shallow, self-absorbed, excessive” (Knight, 418). Sentimentality then is not merely a literary or artistic defect but a moral flaw, and one linked to “feminine” traits. As Deborah Knight contends, sentimentality has often been characterized as “destructive of the finer and more noble aspects of the self…[it] is a femme fatale, only she wields a contagion rather than a gun. Masquerading as an innocent, and working on the inside, it is the undoing of the rational self” (418). This is subtle, of course, in how it manifests in art criticism (and thus all the more pernicious), but it is interesting that a poet like Wendell Berry, for instance, whose work is akin to Oliver’s, is rarely accused of sentimentality. Yet there are examples in his poetry that fit the standard criteria outlined above. These closing lines of his gorgeous poem “Her First Calf” are as anthropomorphic as any in Oliver’s corpus:

After the months
of his pursuit of her, now
they meet face to face.
From the beginnings of the world
his arrival and her welcome
have been prepared. They have always
known each other. (13-19)

Berry’s speaker describes with unembarrassed tenderness the first moments between cow and newborn calf, yet, unlike similar poems of Oliver’s (I think of the last lines of “Ghosts” in American Primitive), his poetry generally dodges the sentimentality charge.

In his essay on sentimentality, Myers compares Oliver’s poem “Green, Green Is My Sister’s House” to Robert Frost’s “Birches.” Both are about trees—climbing them, swinging from their branches, generally delighting in them. Myers suggests that Oliver’s poem is “ruined” since he has never known “a completely welcoming tree.” She “ignores reality, and so the joy she finds in the tree rings hollow.” “Compounding the sentimentality,” he goes on to say, “is the Peter Pan syndrome inherent in the scenario of an adult climbing trees.” Frost, on the other hand, idealizes childhood “only as a paradise lost” and “presents a grown person in a real world, not the ever-child of Oliver’s perfectly hospitable nature.” It is not possible here to go deep into each of these poems but a few things are worth noting. First, I think Myers is right to conclude that Frost’s is the better poem. But the weakness of Oliver’s is not in a turn to the sentimental but in a notable artlessness—weak repetitions and ponderous syntax—and in how the speaker’s desire for transcendence draws attention away from the poem’s very earthy subject (the tree who is “a sister to me”), diminishing the kind of descriptive power that might make this desire ring true for the reader. Secondly, the crux of Myers’s dismissal of Oliver’s poem is in what he perceives as childishness which, in the discourse of sentimentality and gender, is often synonymous with “feminine” or “womanish.” We are back to the kind of condemnation that thinks it needs no explanation; it is simply assumed that the reader shares Myers’s supposition that this woman-poet is an “ever-child” and so her poem—unlike Frost’s—cannot be a serious one. Myers’s own withering dismissal mimics the qualities he condemns in Oliver: indulgent, cheap, shallow, self-absorbed, excessive.2 And, thirdly, Oliver has a wonderfully insightful essay in Winter Hours about Frost in which she notes, among many perceptive observations, that “so often it seems that Frost is about to float away upon a lilting cadence, or barge away in some desperate rage, and then he reins himself in; there is the wondrous restraint, the words that are rich and resonant: dark and deep (52-53). This reveals, I suggest, Oliver’s own awareness of what the temptation toward sentimentality entails—whether it’s a shortcut to adoration or anger—and the rewards for resisting it.

“She took me back tenderly

When Oliver writes about playful whales or a welcoming tree that claps her green hands and shakes her green hair, the worry that she is sentimentalizing these creatures and natural objects is understandable. And, as noted earlier, she isn’t always successful in avoiding the sentimentality trap. But her body of work as a whole seems to me less about eliciting an easy emotional response in the reader and more about chronicling her own attempts to embody, as theologian Douglas Christie has said about the contemplative life generally,

the capacity and willingness to become small, to acknowledge the primacy of the living world, to open oneself completely to the life of the world, and to do so without any aim beyond the simple pleasure of the gesture itself: such unselfconscious simplicity and innocence can become the foundation of a more responsive and reciprocal way of being in the world (341).

Simplicity and innocence, which are often watch-words in the vocabulary of sentimentality, are habits of being for Oliver that invite her readers into a relationship with the created order that is, paradoxically, complex and knowing. That is, to “become small” is to learn to inhabit the vast world and to discover with delight something of our vocation within it and responsibility to it.

Oliver’s work also, like the foundational poetry of Scripture, acknowledges and celebrates our rootedness in the earth, the quite literal connection between human and humus, Adam and adamah (the Hebrew word for “ground”). Her poems then are not “arguments” for how to treat something called “nature” or “the environment,” nor are they naïve in their understanding of the world and of the ecological destruction we have wrought and the catastrophes that likely await us; they are, much more interestingly, occasions for the transfiguring of the imagination and a summons to love. In this she shares something of the sensibility of biblical theologian Richard Bauckham, who explores Scripture’s idea of “the community of creation.” Bauckham’s vision of humankind as fellow creatures with all other created beings is a challenge to the traditional view of humans as masters and dominators of creation. Similarly, Oliver routinely explores the kinship that binds all things together:

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
(“Sleeping in the Forest”)
 

This “vanishing” is central, I suggest, to understanding that Oliver is not indulging her own gratification (a key warning sign of sentimentality) but is, instead, becoming small, becoming invisible, even, that she might take her place with humility and gratitude in “the neighborhood of nonhuman residents” (Kimmerer, 56). When the speaker ascribes memory to the very earth—“she took me back so tenderly”—I am reminded of the work of plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer who notes that it is all in the pronouns: “Saying it makes a living land into ‘natural resources.’ If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice” (56).

Memory also matters for the one who would inhabit the earth in kinship with all other creatures. In Oliver’s poem, “The Sea,” the speaker, while swimming, remembers the primordial existence shared with all living beings who emerged from the ocean’s maternal embrace:

Sprawled
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! (14-20)

I take Oliver’s use of “nostalgia” here to be in keeping with the early clinical understanding of the term: acute homesickness. It names the longing, as nature writer Paul Gruchow has observed, “to be rooted in a place” and to recognize that “we cannot know where we are now unless we remember where we have come from” (7).

Mary Oliver’s deep love for the world, her child-like capacity for wonder and delight (which is not the same as childishness), invite her readers not into emotional indulgence but into “the harvest of presence,” poet David Whyte’s term for “an achieved state of both deep attention and self-forgetting” (19). In poem after poem the speaker submerges or diminishes self that the world—perhaps a single, shining leaf or the valentine-faced owl in the orchard—might emerge more fully, more sharply rendered, more deeply known. Self-forgetting is not mindlessness; it is the mindful acceptance of an invitation: “the world offers itself to your imagination…announcing your place / in the family of things.” (“Wild Geese,” 15; 17-18) And despite complaints that Oliver is a sentimentalist (and too much a romantic), she readily acknowledges what is simply a given: the world presents to us always and at the same time both beauty and destruction. There are, Oliver writes in Long Life, “machinations that lie beyond our understanding—that are not even nameable…The beauty and strangeness of the world may fill the eyes with its cordial refreshment. Equally it may offer the heart a dish of terror. On one side is radiance; on another is the abyss” (24).

The destruction and terror we have brought on ourselves and onto our fellow creatures—warming temperatures and rising oceans, for instance—are not addressed overtly in Oliver’s poems. In prose, though, she has stated her views plainly:

My work doesn’t document any of the sane and learned arguments for saving, healing, and protecting the earth for our existence. What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing, and it neither begins nor ends with the human world (Winter Hours, 99).

My hunch is that as Oliver has witnessed the increasing degradation of our planet over fifty years of writing poetry, she has simply lived out a thesis recently proposed by writer and farmer Fred Bahnson: “The more urgent our ecological crisis becomes, the slower our art must proceed.” In hundreds of poems that have taken readers into the tides of Cape Cod, into its rivers, swamps, and ponds, its forests, fields, and neighborhoods, Oliver has been our companionable guide, our patient teacher, revealing to us our vocation to be present to the world around us, to take the time it takes to learn the creatures to whom we are kin, to honor, even as we take joy in, their singular worth:

And somewhere the blue damselfly
sleeps in the reeds
it flew back to when it left my wrist
its tiny lungs
inhaling, exhaling, its eyes
staring east where the summer moon
is rising,
brushing over the dark pond,
for all of us, the white flower
of dreams. (“Little Sister Pond,” 51-60)

This is the hard, beautiful work of love. This is the antithesis of sentimentality.

Debra Dean Murphy is associate professor of religious studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She is the author of Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms (Cascade, 2015) and Teaching that Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education (Brazos, 2004).

Endnotes

1 The epigraph reads: “We have seen that when the earth had to be prepared for the habitation of man, a veil, as it were, of intermediate being was spread between him and its darkness, in which were joined, in a subdued measure, the stability and insensibility of the earth, and the passion and perishing of mankind. But the heavens, also, had to be prepared for his habitation. Between their burning light,—their deep vacuity, and man, as between the earth’s gloom of iron substance, and man, a veil had to be spread of intermediate being;—which should appease the unendurable glory to the level of human feebleness, and sign the changeless motion of the heavens with a semblance of human vicissitude. Between the earth and man arose the leaf. Between the heaven and man came the cloud. His life being partly as the falling leave, and partly as the flying vapour.”

2  Karen L. Kilcup has traced Frost’s connections with women writers who are often categorized (and dismissed) as sentimental, and argues that to fully appreciate Frost’s achievements, it is necessary to recover and name the power of his affective, emotional voice as it both counterposes and collaborates with his more familiar ironic and humorous tones. Kilcup’s work problematizes both facile understandings of sentimentality and claims that Frost neatly transcended his romantic inheritances.

Works Cited

Bahnson, Fred. “Sons of Noah.” Image. Summer 2015. https://www.imagejournal.org/article/sons-of-noah/. Accessed 22 March 2017.

Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010.

Berry, Wendell. “Her First Calf.” Collected Poems 1957-1982. North Point, 1985, 149.

Christie, Douglas E. The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford, 2013.

Frost, Robert. “Birches.” The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems. Henry Holt and        Company, 1969, 121.

Gruchow, Paul. Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Milkweed Editions, 1995.

Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams. Graywolf, 2014.

Kilcup, Karen L. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition. University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the  Teachings of the Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Knight, Deborah. “Why We Enjoy Condemning Sentimentality: A Meta-Aesthetic Perspective.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 57, no. 4, 411-420.

Myers, Benjamin. “The Sentimentality Trap.” First Things. Nov. 2016. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/11/the-sentimentality-trap. Accessed 17 February 2017.

O’Connor, Flannery, Mystery and Manners. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Oliver, Mary. “Egrets.” American Primitive. Bay Back Books, 1983, 19.

__________. “Empty Branch in the Orchard.” Evidence. Beacon, 2005, 25.

__________. “Flare.” The Leaf and the Cloud. Da Capo, 2000, 3-4.

__________. “Goldfinches.” Owls and Other Fantasies. Beacon, 2006, 7.

__________. “Green, Green Is My Sister’s House.” A Thousand Mornings. Penguin, 2012. 49.

__________. “Little Sister Pond.” American Primitive, 64-66.

__________. Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. Da Capo, 2004.

__________. “Sleeping in the Forest.” Twelve Moons, Bay Back Books, 1979, 3.

__________. “The Sea.” American Primitive, 69-70.

__________. “When I Am Among the Trees.” Thirst. Beacon, 2007, 4.

__________. “White Night” American Primitive, 54.

__________. “Wild Geese.” Dream Work. The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986, 14.

__________. Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Peterkiewicz, Jerzy. The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language. Oxford, 1970.

Whyte, David. Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Many Rivers Press, 2015.

Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis and Other Writings. Harmondsworth, 1986.

Voros, Gyori. “Exquisite Environments,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 1996. http://parnassusreview.com/archives/400. Accessed 19 February 2017.

Zona, Kirstin Hetelling. “’An Attitude of Noticing’: Mary Oliver’s Ecological Ethic.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, vol. 18, no. 1, 123-142.

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