As the audience responses in Campbell Hall made clear, listening to Mary Oliver read her own poems is a lot like going to the church we all wished we had. There was lots of talk of prayer, beauty, and gratitude, and no mention of specific deities or moral prohibitions. Though no one called out at any point during the performance, a murmur traveled through the auditorium as listeners let out involuntary mmmm’s, that secular amen that stands for “Yes, I get that; that’s the way it is for me too.”
Indeed, the love pouring out of the audience was palpable even before Oliver began. Under the force of this affection, Oliver herself seemed to become giddy. Noting the laughter that overtook the space in response to the slightest cue, she quipped, “Nobody knew I was a funny poet.” Nor did it hurt the warm and fuzzy atmosphere that she began and ended the reading with poems about her dog, Percy. During the question-and-answer period, most of those who took the mike seemed to do so mostly to thank Oliver for having written, and for having-in the words of one young man-“lit a fire in my chest.”
The response to Oliver is a strong testament to the ability of poetry to make readers feel intimate with a poet. Within the cult of personality, after all, Oliver is something of a distant icon. She does not grant interviews and has withheld permission to reprint her poems in certain venues. This side of Oliver was also visible at UCSB. Oliver herself reminded the organizers to mention the ban on photography and recording that they had forgotten in their enthusiasm to introduce her. Later, she refused to answer questions about what inspired a particular poem and evaded questions about her family and place of birth. Oliver’s only other real competition for favorite poet of Americans is Rumi, a 13th-century sheik and scholar. Perhaps we like our deities a little distant, as long as they can write-as Oliver does-like they know us.