We are three for three when it comes to holding book club meetings on the same night as massive rain storms! Still, that did not dissuade eight of us from gathering at Susan Strom’s house in Oakland last week to discuss Why I Wake Early, a collection of poetry by Mary Oliver. Everyone seemed to like the book, and we all recognized our own feelings and reactions in some aspect of Oliver’s work. We praised her ability to find beauty in the seemingly mundane. For example, she describes the act of freshening a vase of flowers in a way that turned a chore into an artistic performance.
Most of the poems focused on Oliver’s experiences in the natural world, often describing things encountered on walks in the woods or on the beach or plants and animals spotted in her backyard. Some of us felt this gave the book a solitary air, as Oliver had most of these experiences alone and other people are rarely mentioned in the poems. Still, this lonely mood is countered by the sense of connectedness that Oliver highlights between herself and the natural world she inhabits. At times, she describes this connection in religious terms, though often in a nuanced way.
It has been a really long time since our book club read a book of poetry together, but we enjoyed it so much that I would not be surprised if we do it again. The book provided a very different reading experience compared with that of reading a novel or work of non-fiction. For example, someone said she found that reading the poems naturally altered and regulated her breathing in a way that she found calming. Several of us had read the poems aloud to ourselves, and we read some pieces aloud to each other at the meeting. This led to a discussion not only of the meaning of those poems but also of the conventions governing poetry in general. For example, we were curious about the thought processes governing how a poem was laid out on a page and whether these choices determined the way the poem was supposed to be read. It was clear from these remarks that reading Oliver’s work had left many of us keen to read more of her work and, perhaps, to learn more about this literary art form.
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