Mary Oliver (born September 10, 1935) is an American poet, often characterized as a “nature mystic”, who has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times described her as “far and away, America’s best-selling poet”.
Mary Oliver was born to Edward William and Helen M. V. Oliver on September 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio, a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland. Her father was a social studies teacher and an athletics coach in the Cleveland public schools. She began writing poetry at the age of 14, and at 17 visited the home of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Austerlitz, upper New York state. She and Norma, the poet’s sister, became friends, and Oliver “more or less lived there for the next six or seven years, running around the 800 acres like a child, helping Norma, or at least being company to her,” and assisting with organizing the late poet’s papers.
Oliver’s first collection of poems, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963, when she was 28. During the early 1980s, Oliver taught at Case Western Reserve University. Her fifth collection of poetry, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She was Poet In Residence at Bucknell University (1986) and Margaret Banister Writer in Residence at Sweet Briar College (1991), then moved to Bennington, Vermont, where she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College until 2001. She won the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for her piece House of Light (1990), and New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. Oliver’s work turns towards nature for its inspiration and describes the sense of wonder it instills in her. “When it’s over,” she says, “I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” (“When Death Comes” from New and Selected Poems (1992).) Her collections Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999), Why I Wake Early (2004), and New and Selected Poems, Volume 2 (2004) build the themes. The first and second parts of Leaf and the Cloud are featured in The Best American Poetry 1999 and 2000, and her essays appear in Best American Essays 1996, 1998 and 2001.
On a return visit to Austerlitz, in the late 1950s, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who would become her partner for over forty years. In Our world she says “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.” Cook was Oliver’s literary agent. They made their home largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005, and where Oliver still lives. Greatly valuing her personal privacy, Oliver has given very few interviews, saying she prefers for her writing to speak for itself. She recalls “I too fell in love with the town, that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers.[…] M. and I decided to stay.”
Mary Oliver’s poetry is grounded in memories of Ohio and her adopted home of New England, setting most of her poetry in and around Provincetown since she moved there in the 1960s. Influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, she is known for her clear and poignant observances of the natural world. Her creativity is stirred by nature, and Oliver, an avid walker, often pursues inspiration on foot. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon and humpback whales. In Long life she says “I go off to my woods, my ponds, my sun-filled harbor, no more than a blue comma on the map of the world but, to me, the emblem of everything.” She commented in a rare interview “When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That’s a successful walk!” She says that she once found herself walking in the woods with no pen and later hid pencils in the trees so she would never be stuck in that place again. She often carries a 3-by-5-inch hand-sewn notebook for recording impressions and phrases. Maxine Kumin calls Oliver “a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms.”
Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and inner monologues. Her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release. Although she has been criticized for writing poetry that assumes a dangerously close relationship of women with nature, she finds the self is only strengthened through an immersion with nature. Oliver is also known for her unadorned language and accessible themes. The Harvard Review describes her work as an antidote to “inattention and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives. She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.”
In a critique of Oliver in a piece called “Career Overview”, Annette Allen writes:
“The power of Oliver’s highly acclaimed poetry rests in its passionate attention to the natural world which she sees as the source of revelation about ultimate things. Like her romantic predecessors, Oliver locates wisdom in the wilderness she seeks in solitude, where discoveries about the self and nature’s otherness can be made. Her poems of thirty years . . . reveal an art driven by visionary conviction in a manner similar to her claimed influences, William Blake and Walt Whitman. Expressed in simple language and familiar imagery, evoking dark and joyous states, this vision of nature is often conveyed in an ecstatic voice that compels. Celebratory and spiritual in her poetic vision, Oliver is one of America ‘s finest nature poets.”
An appreciation (with accompanying videos) of Mary Oliver here:
A rare interview, along with the poet reading a number of her poems, can be found here:
A few representative poems of Oliver’s:
“I am a woman sixty years old and of no special courage.
Everyday – a little conversation with God, or his envoy
the tall pine, or the grass-swimming cricket.
Everyday – I study the difference between water and stone.
Everyday – I stare at the world; I push the grass aside
and stare at the world….
The spring pickerel in the burn and shine of the tight-packed water;
the sweetness of the child on the shore; also, its radiant temper;
the snail climbing the morning glories, carrying his heavy wheel;
the green throats of the lilies turning from the wind.
This is the world….
Everyday – I have work to do:
I feel my body rising through the water
not much more than a leaf;
and I feel like the child, crazed by beauty
or filled to bursting with woe;
and I am the snail in the universe of the leaves
and I am the pale lily who believes in God,
though she has no word for it,
and I am the hunter, and I am the hounds,
and I am the fox, and I am the weeds of the field…
I am the dusty toad who looks up unblinking
and sees (do you also see them?) the white clouds
in their blind, round-shouldered haste;
I am a woman sixty years old, and glory is my work.”
From “The summer day”
“I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
Why I Wake Early
“Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light-
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.”
“Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air-
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music-like the rain pelting
the trees-like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds-
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like
the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart,
how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?”
Sleeping in the forest
“I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of god.
And it can keep you busy as anything else, and happier.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.”
Last night the rain spoke to me
spoke to me
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the earth!
That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.
Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree.
The tree was a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,
and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
at which moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain-
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.”