In case anyone would like to see it in book form, this poem is from Oliver's collection, "American Primitive."
i'm always interested in what mary oliver has to say about human nature and desire -- and her ability so often to do it with her bear metaphors, which appear so often in her work. does anyone know more about the history of how this image makes so many appearances in her poetry?the poem resonates with me for so many reasons -- mostly what i feel is the crux of the piece: "cruel but honest." i feel winter is like that, that life, so much can be like that too. what do others feel is the crux of the poem?
You probably get sick of hearing me say this, but we are so much alike. Before even reading your comments, I was noodling im y notebook, reading the poem and taking notes. Hmm.., I wrote, what is the CRUX of the poem? Anyway, here is what I came up with, in no particular order. And let me say, while I love Mary Oliver, this poem is not one of my favorites. It doesn't feel as accesible as someof her other work.From my notes: the crux of the poem...cold (winter) is when we measure the love we hold for ourselves; the hard love for "I."In other words, winter is a drawing inward.While the first stanza sets the scene, I think it is in the 2nd wherein she sets up a powerful contradiction--there is beauty in fear, beauty in ugliness or violence, "the beauty/of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals." We move from "Almost/unbearable" cold to a memory of "summer with its luminous fruit." Even after all of my observations, though, I'm still not wholly "sure" of this poem, as with many of her others. I'm interested in what other poets have to say! Or non-poets. Maybe I should have my husband read it...
Love devours. The clue is in the lifesaving suet. In some cultures, suet is used for cooking. It is the fat tissue around the kidneys of some animals like sheep and cattle. The poem begins with thinking of eating the bear in order to survive the cold.In the next stanza, the narrator thinks of summer fruit - berries, leaves, grain ... eatables.Then, the "hard knife-edged love for the warm river of I." So the confusion of cold is likened to this inward desire to consume ourselves. This is not unlike, we are told, the "beauty of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals," preparing to devour. Finally, in the cold, "we grow cruel but honest." We keep ourselves alive by taking "the necessary bodies of others."Whether we eat the bear in winter, ourselves in our loneliness, or our lovers in our passion, our lives are consumed with the desire to destroy by partaking, an event that is usually associated with health, nutrition, life; but in this case, our lives are the deaths of something else.
worldclasspoet, thank you so much for making this poem so strikingly clear. The suet was indeed the clue. With that piece in place, the rest makes much more sense.i like the technique of using three examples of an idea to move the poem forward and reinforce the theme.I still am unclear on the red flowers. I wonder if the poem is not one that resonates with me because I don't think I've ever been wholly consumed by anything, or wanted to devour anything. I'm more temperate, as opposed to the unbearable cold, or the unbearable desire to consume. Just a thought.It really bothers me that the meaning of this poem did not come easily to me.I would love to hear others' interpretations and initial impressions.
I must confess, the red flowers have me baffled as well, unless they are a reference to the flowers on a certain berry bush, some edible plant.
i'm grateful for both jill's and world class poet's break-down of "cold poem." i read it very quickly and didn't give it time and even if i had spent more time with it, i don't think that i would have captured everything.i'm glad you both were so thorough. it brings me to a much richer connection with the piece.that being said, i'm also glad -- for this new blog concept "poem." -- that we've started with something that some readers "missed" and others "got." it's an important thing to talk about as we discuss poetry because it can be so intimidating to people. i feel inferior sometimes when i'm in a poetry group (real or virtual) and someone reads something that i don't quite "get."in this case, as we play it out, it's clear to me that i got what i got at the time b/c that's all i was investing in the piece, that's all i brought to it was a "skim" and so i missed a lot of the story and the meaning.and i think so much of what jill found holds true/resonates in the poem -- beauty in violence, for example -- hold true even in the clarity of world class poet's interpretation.i don't see poetry interpretation as an "either/or." and i want people who come to "poem." to feel certain that there's no real right/wrong.but maybe it's just that i'm an expressive arts student, which means that i trust "phenomenology" (how a person experiences something) over all other things in art. not everyone agrees with that.so thanks, so far, everyone for this discussion! it sets up the perfect way to talk about talking about poetry. :)
world class poet -- don't be afraid to plug your site! i just visited and you have a great great detailed post about your interpretation of "cold poem." go see, everyone. it's here.while we want to make sure some of the discussion occurs here in the comments, if anyone expands interpretation on their blog, link, link, link!
For me, the 'crux' of the poem is here:... we keepourselves alive,if we can, taking one after anotherthe necessary bodies of others ...That cruel requirement of life, that it takes life -- that life is beautiful, the life taken, the life fed.I must confess that, even as a poet, I don't often read this carefully, with this level of attention. I take -- as a bear -- what it gives me, without analysis.Thank you for offering this nudge to slow down.
I always relate poems to my own life. This one spoke to me even though I don't understand all of it. So often I feel like my marriage is in its winter months. "Cold now" and "almost unbearable." What keeps us together? That suet! The fat of our past. Our "luminous" summer months.It's only in the last 20 years, once I started writing poetry, that I've learned to love myself. I love how Oliver says, "the warm river of the I"! And in that self-love, my marriage has gone cold. I can see that shark getting closer and closer.I've certainly grown more honest even if it is curel, even if I have to hurt others (bodies) along the way, even if it destroys some things that are beautiful (roses).Anyway, that's what I got out of it.Thanks for starting this cool site!
From Therese Broderick--I think the red flowers at the end might be "crushed" underfoot; therefore, they contrast with the "fat tracks" at the beginning of the poem. That is, the "lifesaving" suet at the beginning of the poem bleeds at the end.Lots of long and short "O" sounds in this poem (including the assonant title COLD POEM)--sounds like empty howls, laments.It is also a poem about aging, growing older. Dreaming of the "fat" times and thinking back to summer are ways of remembering youth, grieving the loss of youth. Perhaps, since the title is "Cold Poem", the poem is itself an "ars poetica" -- a poem about the art of poetry. Mary Oliver could have entitled it just "Cold" but chose to entitle it "Cold Poem." But maybe I'm seeing too much in this title--maybe it isn't an ars poetica after all.One of the most important words of the poem is "necessary." We take what's necessary, no more.Be sure to read this poem out loud.I think of Yeat's phrase "terrible beauty." There is terrible beauty in life, in death. Love is reckless, and there is beauty in recklessness.Just random thoughts.Thanks for this great blog, Jill and Carolee.
From Therese--Woops. I'm embarrassed. I should have typed "Yeats's" not "Yeat's"
Wow! I am just thrilled with all the discussion here! This is exactly what Carolee and I had in mind when we started this! sbpoet & Linda, I am very interested in your personal reactions to the poem. I agree that as readers, we take to the "meaning" or "understanding" of a poem what is in our own lives, past & present. And, of course, Linda, if you've read my poetry, I really relate to the marriage imagery. However, until i read your interpretation, I hadn't considered it. That is what is so great about sharing poetry with other people!Therese, thank you for introducing the observations of the nuts and bolts and poetic style. That is something we didn't really touch on. Sound is such an omportant part of poetry--the writing AND the reading.Thank you everyone!
I just read Drop City, by TC Boyle, about different people who meet up in Alaska and how they survive, or die. There is something cruel about cold, and even though Oliver means it metaphorically, I see why she chose the winter to examine our feelings of existential isolation.Her poem also reminds me of James Joyce's short stories in Dubliners, and his use of the snow, how it isloates each person. Yet we're united in our human condition, each of us blanketed together in white. It's as if the cold brings out the worst in us - cold-hearted survival, and the best- intense love. Only by loving our innermost selves can we hope to love others, as ourselves.
I'm late, but needing to get back into reading and thinking (and writing) poetry. Much has already been said. I also got stuck on the crushed red flowers. I thought of the blood that flows after a kill, the juice to streams down our chins when we bite into ripe fruit. That took me back to the lines "the hard knife-edged lovefor the warm river of the I," that warm river making me think of the blood pumping through our veins. We drain the very essence of the other to continue to hear our own river's song humming in our ears. Am I making any sense?
Thanks PDW! I wrote that blog post after writing my analysis here. It got me thinking and I expounded on it. You "feelers" must bear with me. I cannot help myself sometimes in my cerebral inebriation. Thinking on how a poems affects you is a good exercise as well, but I'm not that in touch with my feelings. :-)
Post a Comment