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Mary Oliver's poem, Whelks, can easily be identified as a Mary Oliver
poem. Whelks describes nature in an attempt to illustrate an issue
that is all too "human being." Simply, Oliver is using nature to
communicate the desire to discover her true self. In lines 12-17,
Oliver states that she herself is suffering from the universal dilemma
of knowing that there is something more to herself than she is aware.
For the duration of her life she has been "restless" because there has
always been something missing, but she is not entirely sure of what
exactly. However, she feels that "there is something more wonderful
than gloss." This statement insinuates that Oliver knows that her true
self is not what appears on the outside. She has always known that
deep inside of her being, she has so much more to offer.
In line 18 Oliver states the obvious, that she is "curious" as to what
lies deeper inside of her. She has come to face the fact that she does
not know who she truly is, but she is eager to find out. She finds her
answer on her morning walks along to shore. In line 21 Oliver broaches
to whelks once again. She calls them "perfect and shining," but she
goes on to describe how they are eroded by the tide and the rubbing
against the land. In fact, it is the whelks' imperfections that make
them perfect. They have "rubbed so long against the world" (22), and
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vanished,/ with the last relinquishing/ of their unrepeatable energy."
(24-26) These three lines are among the most important in the poem.
Oliver is drawing a parallel between herself and the whelks because
this is how she is to go about finding what lies deep within her soul.
The only way to know what is inside of a whelk is for is to be cracked
open. Whelks accomplish this themselves by being "rubbed so long
against the world." Oliver has to experience the world and live life
in order to respond to it, and in turn respond to herself. It is not
until Oliver knows her feelings about her experiences that she can be
introduced to what lies beneath the "gloss."
In line 28 Oliver realizes that her link is the whelk. She speaks of
how she picks it up and holds it every time she sees one. Occasionally
she has a moment in which she truly understands what she wants out of
life like in lines 31-36. She understands that in order to attain what
she is in search of, she has to be willing to experience nature on a
personal level and "be wild in the darkness." It is then that she will
resemble the whelks in all of her imperfect perfection.
Structurally, the poem is not unusual. It consists of one stanza
containing only five sentences. The line breaks do not necessarily
follow punctuation; sometimes they appear mid-sentence. The diction is
typical of Oliver's style; that is relatively simple. One of the main
structural techniques that is vital to the success of this poem
(success meaning the exposure of the message) is the role of the
narrator. Oliver has used her own experience and her own voice to
portray a common theme. That theme is the discovery of self. If Oliver
had chosen a different narrator or no narrator at all, the point of
the poem may have been lost. Without Oliver's voice, the connection
between her and the whelks would not exist and the poem would merely
be a wonderful picture of an Oceanside stroll, perhaps not even that.
In her reflection in Orion magazine, Oliver speaks of being a stranger
to herself in her younger years. Her interests were to study herself
as William Wordsworth did. Whelks is a good example of how Oliver
intends to study herself. Since she was a little girl, Oliver has
connected with nature. Now she is using nature as a means of
discovering herself. Her understanding of nature will help her draw
parallels to herself as she has accomplished in this particular poem.
Oliver's poetry is a process by which she is attempting to put her own
experiences to paper and thus understanding them on a greater level.
According to Whelks the only way to discover oneself is to understand