Saturday, September 12, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 7: Mary Oliver's hymn of praise, "Happiness"

The next work of praise I'm going to discuss is a poem I love, “Happiness” by the U.S. writer Mary Oliver. The poem appeared in her book American Primitive, which won the Pulitzer Prize. You can read the poem here.

One thing I admire about this poem is that Mary Oliver resists the temptation to say too much. A lesser poem might use the image of honey to draw a facile parallel to the sweetness of life. Mary Oliver includes that as a subtext in the poem, but it never becomes saccharine. 

Mary Oliver
Praise has a tendency to get sentimental or gooey, and she never crosses that line in this poem, except maybe with the words “perfections” and “shining” in the final lines: “the perfections/ of honeysuckle and roses and clover,” and in “day after shining day.” Even that last line is an image, though, and not a judgment.

One lesson from Mary Oliver’s poem is: when you are praising, avoid overstatement. It will sour the sweetest writing. In some of her other poems, Mary Oliver cannot resist the temptation to wax rhapsodic and personify the smallest daisy. I’m not convinced that’s her strongest suit.

Another thing that is interesting in the poem “Happiness” is that there are major changes in the space of this poem’s twenty-eight short lines. Here's how she portrays the bear initially, for instance: “Black block of gloom." There is not much to like about this bear at first. 

I think it’s important that this is a she-bear. The aggression we often associate with bears seems somewhat lessened by that detail. But this bear is aggressive in the way it disrupts the bees’ hive.

There is a turning point in the poem where this bear seems to become more likeable: the stanza break. That break is not only a pause, it’s a change in many other ways. Once the bear finds the honey, the bees’ sweetness seems to infuse the bear. The imagery portraying the bear transforms at that point in the poem. The bear becomes like the bees. It acquires wings, and seems almost like a big, furry angel.

Notice also how the sounds of the poem change. Mary Oliver starts with the hard consonants of “Black block of gloom.” Then she progresses to the clunky but inoffensive short vowel sounds of:

down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.

Even though the sounds are not terribly welcoming, we do have the image of “the rugs of her arms,” with its warmer, domestic connotations. Less fierce than the “Black block of gloom,” for sure.

Finally Mary Oliver adds in the longer vowels of roses, clover, float, sleep, and sheer. She also uses the softer sibilance of “sleep in the sheer nets” and “day after shining day.”


What do you think of the title of this poem? Is “Happiness” too obvious a moral to draw? What if Mary Oliver had decided to name it something less thematic, such as, “Bear in Honey,” or, “In the Forests of Maine”? How would that change the poem? Wouldn’t she then have to add something so we understood the theme? I think the reason she chose such a thematic and didactic title is so it would stay out of the way for the rest of the poem. The title becomes a lens for us to see through without interfering with the poem’s beautiful sounds and imagery. Yes, Mary Oliver;s poem is about “Happiness,” but she describes it through a very specific incident with its juicy details.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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