One of the essays in the book is about Robert Frost. Other essays deal with Poe, Hopkins, and Whitman. In a brief essay, she writes convincingly about Frost as a poet who on the surface appears to be writing about how all is right, yet subtly reveals that all is not right. His works are lyrical and perfectly formed, Oliver states, but the meaning behind the form defines an ever-present discomfort with the world. Oliver writes:
So often is seems 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. And there is also that other restraint: the impending rhyme-match and the line length that must reach, not never overreach, its companions.... Whatever the painful and unresolved interior of the poem, the poet has kept his balance, and we can too. Balance, restraint, steadiness, a controlled and reasonable tongue, and an eye that never fails to see the beauty of things whatever else it sees -- these are victories. Whatever disappointments and woe Frost felt, he rocked him way through them and made the perfect cages of his poems to hold them.
This renders "the woods are lovely, dark and deep" in a different perspective, doesn't it?
In another essay, titled The Swan and preceding a poem with the same title, Oliver writes of her rules for acceptable poems:
Every poem I write...must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy, and it must have a spiritual purpose.... I want every poem to "rest" in intensity. I want it to be rich with "pictures of the world". I want it to carry threads from the perceptually felt world to the intellectual world. I want each poem to indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy....
I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader's part in an implicit author-reader pact.
Following this brief essay is the poem The Swan. Oliver writes that it has some of these qualities, but in fact it has all of them. To quote a few lines (unfortunately, I don't know how to reproduce the indentions as published):
Said Mrs Blake of the poet:
I miss my husband's company --
he is so often
Of course! the path to heaven
doesn't lie down in flat miles.
It's in the imagination
with which you perceive
and the gestures
with which you honor it.
I think that Oliver is absolutely correct on this requisite interaction of the reader with the text. And it isn't limited to poetry alone. She writes: "The poem in which the reader does not feel himself or herself a participant is a lecture, listened to from an uncomfortable chair, in a stuffy room, inside a building...The point is not what the poet would make of the moment but what the reader would make of it." Oliver succeeds in meeting her standards for a poem with "The Swan". It indicates "a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy" and it also rests with intensity and causes the reader to think about the non-flat, non-linear miles in the arc of a life and to contemplate what are the gestures which honor that.
My experience with Oliver's poems has been limited. I'm not sure that I'd recommend this book as the starting point for someone with no exposure to Oliver, but it does provide a glimpse into Oliver as a writer without bogging down in memoir-esque trivial details, revealing too much about the writer that might persuade one to confuse the writer with the speaker in her poems. Nor does it overwhelm the reader with theory or explication that might send one fleeing rather than to the nearest volume of Oliver's poems to read more from this gifted poet. Mostly what I like about this book is that it provides insight into how a poet regards other poets' works as a reader as well as how the poet envisions readers of her own work.