Thursday’s Poem 4/23/09

Mary Oliver – “Meeting the Fox”

When I met the fox today – such living
gold in its eyes –
neither of us
moved though only

one of us was instantly taken up with
admiration. Its legs were
braced in their motion
of sudden stop,

its ears were pricked forward
to hear what my language might be,
but I said
nothing, there was no word for the

hope I had that we
could be friends. Behind it
the hillside, then the woods,
then the entire universe.

I stood as still as a rock.
I didn’t know what to do.
Then I thought, oh well,
why not try, and I

held out my hands
in friendship, and instantly,
with a sharp bark, a very
decisive negative,

on its narrow and elegant feet,
back up the hillside
and into that other world
it flew.

Commentary
I think that for the next few days, I’ll be posting nature-oriented poems.

I have ambivalent feelings about Mary Oliver. On the one hand, her often admiring and vivid descriptions of nature appeal to me. On the other hand, her language and form don’t really impress me. Her choice of line breaks seems arbitrary, and I detect little or no sense of rhythm or sonic motifs. Her poems are more like flash fiction/vignettes in line breaks than poetry.

All that applies to this poem. Still, I like the “living gold” in the fox’s eyes – she has a good sense of selecting evocative detail like that. And I like “its ears were pricked forward / to hear what my language might be”; although sometimes her poems do seem to lack depth, I do think she has moments like this that offer something more than literal description. It is as if the fox’s simple act of being alert to sounds of danger or identification mean something more than that by phrasing it this way; the use of “language” implies some intangible connection between human and fox.

Then she goes on to the failure of language to capture the experience, and the sense of cosmic significance in this trivial meeting by imagining localities being part of larger realms.

And yet, at the end, the fox rejects this idea of connectedness, barking his “decisive negative” at her offer of friendship. And though the speaker imagines them both part of a larger universe, he flees to “that other world.” These things do make me think about nature in more than one way. I agree with many of the criticisms of Oliver’s work from a literary point of view, but I don’t agree that she oversentimentalizes nature. She does have a loving gaze toward it, but I think that, in moments like this, she recognizes the difference between her attitudes about nature and the reality (or the attitudes of non-human beings).

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3 Responses to Thursday’s Poem 4/23/09

  1. Angele says:

    I wouldn’t characterize Mary Oliver’s attitude toward nature as necessarily sentimental, but I do think that she glosses over nature’s less lovely aspects–the harshness of animal life, its red-in-tooth-and-claw moments.

    The speaker’s desire in “Meeting the Fox” and other Oliver poems–to befriend or to merge emotionally with a wild animal–reminds me of a number of children’s books in which a lonely child manages this feat (“The Yearling” and “My Friend Flicka” come immediately to mind). This, I think, is one source of Oliver’s popularity.

    On to the poem. I like the speaker’s awareness in this poem of the irony and inevitable defeat of her “…hope I had that we/could be friends” and the precision of her description of the fox:

    “…such living
    gold in its eyes –”
    ……………….
    “Its legs were
    braced in their motion
    of sudden stop,

    its ears were pricked forward…”
    ……………….

    “…a sharp bark, a very
    decisive negative,

    on its narrow and elegant feet,
    back up the hillside
    and into that other world
    it flew.”

    I agree with you that Oliver’s choice of line breaks SEEMS arbitrary, but I see them as quite deliberate. If I were reading “Meeting the Fox” aloud, I would read it with ragged breaths–as if the excited speaker had rushed to tell her encounter to a friend. Oliver is not concerned with rhythm or sonic motifs; as you said, “Her poems are more like flash fiction/vignettes in line breaks than poetry.”

  2. staringatangels says:

    On the line breaks – I don’t think her lines are natural or, at least in this poem, made to be said in ragged breaths: “its ears were pricked forward” and “on its narrow and elegant feet” are quite mouthfuls.

  3. Angele says:

    I didn’t say that Oliver’s line breaks were “natural,” only deliberate.

    I’ll try reading “Meeting the Fox” aloud with ragged breaths the next time we meet, as a challenge. “…[O]n its narrow and elegant feet” can’t be any more of a mouthful than “She sells sea shells by the seashore.”

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