A Poetry Event Sells Out?!

She came, she talked, she conquered -- but not in the expected solemn nature way.

Poet Mary Oliver displayed a sparkling wit and puckish charm before a reverential crowd Monday night for Seattle Arts & Lectures. The appearance by the 71-year-old writer from Massachusetts, arguably the country's most popular poet, had sparked the fastest sell-out in the 20-year history of the hallmark literary series. The response was so feverish that Oliver ticket buyers and sellers moved into the unlikely realm of Craigslist with prices as high as $100 per seat.

Many were drawn to the Oliver event by her approachable verse with its intense focus on the natural world and its quiet delights, but she soon dispensed with any notion that the evening was destined to be some sort of ecumenical worship service of nature or the poet herself. That seemed a possibility when many in the crowd of 2,500 gave Oliver a standing ovation even before she had uttered a word.

But Oliver's self-effacing sense of humor soon punctured such awe, delivered with a Seinfeldian sense of timing.

"I have a little dog and I'm working hard to make him famous," Oliver said.

Knowing murmurs rippled through the crowd.

"And he deserves it," she added, to widespread laughter.

At least three of the more than 20 poems read by Oliver either were addressed to her beloved Percy, or offered wry observations of his top dog behavior. But the poet orchestrated her reading like a maestro, alternating poems of humor with poems showcasing bittersweet truths and honest emotions.

Indeed, the Oliver style of poetry was a compelling mix of concrete observations of her small Provincetown world with knock-out lines, often closing lines, arcing toward the universal. Such phrases as "Earth, our heaven for a while" and "the terrible debris of progress" seemed to hang suspended in the Benaroya Hall space after they had passed the poet's lips.

Oliver -- a diminutive figure dressed in a black turtleneck and slacks -- offered her most affecting work not in verse but in prose. These were remembrances of her relationship with photographer Molly Malone Cook, who died two years ago. Oliver's half-dozen passages recalling her partner from "Our World" were heartfelt, intimate, loving, but avoided the maudlin.

As Oliver recalled, "We were talkers -- about our work, our pasts, our friends, our ideas ordinary and far-fetched. We would often wake before there was light in the sky and make coffee and let our minds rattle our tongues. We would end in exhaustion and elation. Not many nights or early mornings later, we would do the same. It was a 40-year conversation."

Such touching recollections teared up many eyes in Benaroya, even caused a handful of Oliver fans to get up from their seats and step out into the lobby to compose themselves.

But Oliver's ready humor was back in gear during the question-and-answer period that closed the memorable evening. A request for Oliver to name her favorite poet prompted: "Whitman. And Whitman." And a question about Percy's whereabouts led Oliver to share that he is back in Provincetown under the care of a friend and had been playing that day on the beach with a scallop shell.

"He's not saying," Oliver quipped, " 'Is she off somewhere reading poems about me?' "

Oliver, an intensely private person who does not grant interviews, was asked to share "what about you would surprise us." That caused the poet to pause.

"I was pretty sad yesterday," Oliver finally said, "after the football game."

Again, much laughter echoed through Benaroya.

The beloved poet of nature had indeed postponed dinner Sunday night so she could watch the entire Super Bowl game featuring her New England Patriots.

Mary Oliver, in Seattle, was a poet full of surprises.



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