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Mary Oliver Nature Poems

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1. Discuss the way Oliver's nature poems can be read as political- questioning the hierarchies and dualisms underpinning Western cultures.

Mary Oliver’s poems that explore nature can also be read as political as they question the dualisms and hierarchies that form strong foundations in Western cultures. Through the emergence of the patriarchy (a Western ideology) over 5000 years ago, traditional epistemological paradigms of Western society have been based on dualisms. Through patriarchal ideology the world is ordered into dualisms, or opposed pairs of concepts. In these pairs one concept is positioned to be superior to the other, and this ‘other’ is usually discriminated against or marginalised. Dualisms that exist in Western cultures are the opposed concepts of male from female, culture from nature, spirit from matter and mortality from immortality. Oliver’s nature poems are political in the way that these Western dualisms are portrayed and the criticism of the hierarchies that evolved from such dualisms. The traditional nature of the Western paradigm creates a hierarchy of values based on dualisms. The hierarchy, in order of most importance, begins with god, then man, woman, children, animals, finishing with nature last. Mary Oliver, as a poet who celebrates the natural world and forces, challenges such Western hierarchies that have a distinct anthropocentric view. “Gannets”, “Spring”, “Lilies” and “Some Questions You Might Ask” explore these dualisms and criticise the hierarchies that underpin Western cultures.

The dualism of culture as opposed to nature, and the resulting hierarchy of humans believing themselves superior to nature according to Western epistemological paradigms, are criticised through Oliver’s nature poems, in particular “Spring” and “Lilies”. The first few lines in her poem “Lilies” displays the persona’s desire to return to nature, “I have been thinking/ about living/ like the lilies”. This introduction is a common element in many of her nature poems, providing an ecological answer of an interrelated community and challenging the old pernicious myth that humans are independent of nature. Through the speaker of the poem, the audience is drawn to the nature of lilies and the simplicity of their existence. When the poem reaches the sixth quatrain the contrast between nature and culture is evident in the lines “When van Gogh/ preached to the poor/ of course he wanted to save someone-/ most of all himself”. Through this passage Mary Oliver criticises the importance that humans place on the individual, highlighting the way that Western culture overstates the importance of humans in the great cycle of being. This anthropocentric view is what has led to the hierarchies prominent in western society. In “Lilies” Oliver questions our importance as humans and offers the idea to the reader that we have a role, just as the lilies do, in the central biotic community. The last stanzas in her nature poem “Spring” endorses this notion; “Whatever else/ my life is/ with its poems/ and its music/and its glass cities,/ it is also this dazzling darkness”. Oliver celebrates nature through the oxymoron of ‘dazzling darkness’ portraying the bear as both beautiful and destructive, embracing all of its qualities and its role in the ecological community. Through the persona the idea of returning to nature is endorsed as the structural hierarchies of western cultures and the Western ideology of anthropocentricism are questioned. Oliver also questions the way in which humans and nature are viewed by Western ideology as polar opposites when in the end they may be linked to a point where there is little difference between the two. This is certainly made clear in her nature poems “Spring” and “Lilies” where Oliver portrays the belief that humans are not above nature, but another part of the central biotic community.

In the nature poems “Gannets” and “Some Questions You Might Ask” Oliver questions Western culture’s creation of the dualism of spirit from matter. Through Western epistemological paradigms spirit and matter are viewed as opposing concepts. Oliver questions this Western paradigm by portraying the idea that they may be one and the same. This is seen through the ecological view that all matter or organisms are “…patterns, perturbations, or configurations of energy”. In Western society the anthropocentric view creates the idea that the soul is limited to humans, however such notions are challenged by Oliver in the poem “Some Questions You Might Ask”. In the closing lines of the poem the persona questions the idea that souls are limited to humans; “why should I have it, and not the camel? / Come to think of it, what about the maple trees? / What about the blue iris? / What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?”.

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