The Art of Praise | Fox by Mary Oliver
The Art of Praise | Fox by Mary Oliver

The Art of Praise | Fox by Mary Oliver

Posted on 03 August, 2021




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27 verses

Original language

The contemporary American poet Mary Oliver fits into the category already drawn by poets such as Walt Whitman. Due to her devotion to nature and the intelligibility of her speech she has often been compared to Emily Dickinson. But, while the mystery was a fundamental ingredient for Amerst’s poetess, Mary Oliver has mostly practiced in poetry a kind of uncovering aimed at simple revelations. In Fox, the poet’s encounter with a fox during a walk gives rise to this kind of revelation and culminates with the art of praise.

You don’t ever know where
a sentence will take you, depending
on its roll and fold. I was walking
over the dunes when I saw
the red fox asleep under the green
branches of the pine.

Walking in the West Wind

Mary Oliver used to say that a successful walk never gets too rapid nor gets anywhere. It is the kind of walk that ends up with writing poetry. And, of course, it is the kind of walk that gave birth to Fox. The poem dates back to the ninth book of poems by Mary Oliver, West Wind (1997). Its title is meant to recall Percy Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. In that poem, Shelley asked the west wind to lead him like a dead leaf or a cloud and dreamed of identifying himself with the wind’s spirit. Mary Oliver omits the explicit indication of ode – which was typical of the romantic poets she loved, like Percy Shelley and John Keats – from both the title of the book and that of this poem. But this does not mean that she renounces the idea of poetry as praise that had already belonged to her literary models. The apparition of the animal is miraculous here not as a symbol of higher truth, but simply for what it is.

[…] It flared up
in the sweet order of its being,
the tail that was over the muzzle
lifting in airy amazement
and the fire of the eyes followed

The compromise of language: the art of praise

The fox’s appearance thunders the spectator, who proclaims herself almost “dead of delight.” Faced with this vision, her whole being seemed to be in tune with nature, despite the initial resistance of the mind. The distance between man and other creatures seems to taper off thanks to contemplation. Natural beauty does not express itself in words but, like the Stars in one of Oliver’s poems, with “pure radiance.” And that’s why, in Mary Oliver’s writing, language is perceived as something that imposes on man an unbridgeable distance from other beings. At the same time, however, this does not lead to a renunciation of its use. Poetry will be the means to bring other men closer to the contemplation of nature.

[…] So I stood
on the pale, peach-colored sand, watching the fox
as it opened like a flower, and I began
softly, to pick among the vast assortment of words
that it should run again and again across the page
that you again and again should shiver with praise.


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