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Eternity in the Moment: William Blake and Mary Oliver

Jennifer Davis Michael

Abstract


Of all the modern and contemporary poets who have been influenced by Blake, Mary Oliver might seem an unlikely heir. We think automatically of the visionary system of Yeats, the pugnacious lyricism of Roethke, the prophetic excess of Ginsberg, or the erudite obscurity of Geoffrey Hill. We certainly don’t expect to find Blake’s challenging and transcendent poetics echoed in simple verses that celebrate the “god of dirt,” the messy world of vultures, skunks, and pond scum. On the other hand, Oliver’s deliberate invocations of Blake prod us to look again at his attitude toward nature and the physical body. Even her most “naturalistic” poems, like the one above, are steeped in the language of art: the butterflies’ wings are “pages” like those of Blake’s illuminated books, their energy the “agitated / motions of the mind.” For both poets, the human mind marks the border between the material and spiritual worlds, and the poet’s task is to awaken the reader’s imagination toward some purpose. That purpose generally is not made explicit but rather grows organically out of the visionary experience: an experience in which “ordinary” perception is suspended.

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