Mary Oliver

b. 1935
Mary OliverRachel Giese

Poet Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books, “particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” Kumin noted that Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” Oliver’s poetry has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.”

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College, but did not receive a degree from either institution. As a young poet, Oliver was deeply influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and briefly lived in Millay’s home, helping Norma Millay organize her sister’s papers. Oliver is notoriously reticent about her private life, but it was during this period that she met her long-time partner, Molly Malone Cook. The couple moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the surrounding Cape Cod landscape has had a marked influence on Oliver’s work. Known for its clear and poignant observations and evocative use of the natural world, Oliver’s poetry is firmly rooted in place and the Romantic nature tradition. Her work received early critical attention; American Primitive (1983), her fifth book, won the Pulitzer Prize. According to Bruce Bennetin the New York Times Book Review, American Primitive, “insists on the primacy of the physical.” Bennet commended Oliver’s “distinctive voice and vision” and asserted that the “collection contains a number of powerful, substantial works.” Holly Prado of the Los Angeles Times Book Review also applauded Oliver’s original voice, writing that American Primitive “touches a vitality in the familiar that invests it with a fresh intensity.”

Dream Work (1986) continues Oliver’s search to “understand both the wonder and pain of nature” according to Prado in a later review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Ostriker considered Oliver “among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey.” For Ostriker, Dream Work is ultimately a volume in which Oliver moves “from the natural world and its desires, the ‘heaven of appetite’...into the world of historical and personal suffering...She confronts as well, steadily,” Ostriker continued, “what she cannot change.”

The transition from engaging the natural world to engaging more personal realms is also evident in New and Selected Poems (1992), which won the National Book Award. The volume contains poems from eight of Oliver’s previous volumes as well as previously unpublished, newer work. Susan Salter Reynolds, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, noticed that Oliver’s earliest poems are almost always oriented towards nature, but seldom examine the self and are almost never personal. In contrast, Oliver appears constantly in later works. But as Reynolds noted “this self-consciousness is a rich and graceful addition.” Just as the contributor for Publishers Weekly called particular attention to the pervasive tone of amazement with regard to things seen in Oliver’s work, Reynolds found Oliver’s writings to have a “Blake-eyed revelatory quality.” Oliver summed up her desire for amazement in her poem “When Death Comes” from New and Selected Poems: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

Oliver continues her celebration of the natural world in later collections, including Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999), Why I Wake Early (2004), New and Selected Poems, Volume 2 (2004), and Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (2010). Critics have compared Oliver to other great American lyric poets and celebrators of nature, including Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Muir, and Walt Whitman. “Oliver’s poetry,” wrote Poetry contributor Richard Tillinghast in a review of White Pine (1994) “floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling.” 

A prolific writer of both poetry and prose, Oliver publishes a new collection every year or two. Her main themes continue to be the intersection between the human and the natural world, as well as the limits of human consciousness and language in articulating such a meeting. Jeanette McNew in Contemporary Literature described “Oliver’s visionary goal,” as “constructing a subjectivity that does not depend on separation from a world of objects. Instead, she respectfully confers subjecthood on nature, thereby modeling a kind of identity that does not depend on opposition for definition…At its most intense, her poetry aims to peer beneath the constructions of culture and reason that burden us with an alienated consciousness to celebrate the primitive, mystical visions that reveal ‘a mossy darkness – / a dream that would never breathe air / and was hinged to your wildest joy / like a shadow.’”

Mary Oliver held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College until 2001. In addition to such major awards as the Pulitzer and National Book Award, Oliver has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also won the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

 

[Updated 2010]

Career

Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, chair of writing department, 1972-73, member of writing committee, 1984; Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, Mather Visiting Professor, 1980, 1982; Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, poet-in-residence, 1986; University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, Elliston Visiting Professor, 1986; Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA, Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, 1991-95; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching, 1996—2001.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • No Voyage, and Other Poems, Dent (New York, NY), 1963, expanded edition, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1965.
  • The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972.
  • The Night Traveler, Bits Press, 1978.
  • Twelve Moons, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.
  • Sleeping in the Forest, Ohio Review Chapbook, 1979.
  • American Primitive, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983.
  • Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.
  • Provincetown, Appletree Alley, 1987.
  • House of Light, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1990.
  • New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1992.
  • White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.
  • Blue Pastures, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1995.
  • West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
  • Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
  • The Leaf and the Cloud, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
  • What Do We Know, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
  • Why I Wake Early, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.
  • Boston Iris: Poems and Essays, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.
  • New and Selected Poems, Volume Two, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.
  • Thirst: Poems, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2006.
  • Our World, (with photographer Molly Malone), Beacon (Boston, MA), 2007.
  • Red Bird, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2008.
  • Evidence, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2009.
  • Swan: Poems and Prose Poems, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2010.

OTHER

  • (Author of introduction) Frank Gaspar, Holyoke, Northeastern University Press, 1988.
  • A Poetry Handbook, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.
  • Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
  • Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
  • (Audio CD) At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2006.
  • (Audio CD) Many Miles: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2010.

 

Contributor of poetry and essays to periodicals in England and the United States.

 

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1981, Volume 98, 1998.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1984, Volume 34, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Oliver, Mary, New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, 1992.

PERIODICALS

  • America, January 13, 1996, David Sofield, review of White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems.
  • Booklist, July, 1994, Pat Monaghan, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 1916; November 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of White Pine, p. 574; June 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, p. 1648; June 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, p. 1708; March 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Winter Hours, p. 1279; September 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 58; March 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, p. 1259.
  • Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 23, 1986.
  • Library Journal, July, 1997, Ellen Kaufman, review of West Wind, p. 87; August, 1998, Lisa J. Cihlar, review of Rules for the Dance, p. 104; December, 2000, Louis McKee, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 145; December, 2003, Judy Clarence, review of Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, p. 125; May 1, 2004, Kim Harris, review of Long Life, p. 107.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 21, 1983, p. 9; February 22, 1987, p. 8; August 30, 1992, p. 6.
  • Nation, August 30, 1986, pp. 148-150.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1983, pp. 10, 22; November 25, 1990, p. 24; December 13, 1992, p. 12.
  • Poetry, May, 1987, p. 113; September, 1991, p. 342; July, 1993, David Barber, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 233; August, 1995, Richard Tillinghast, review of White Pine, p. 289; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of Rules for the Dance, p. 286.
  • Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1990, p. 62; August 10, 1992, p. 58; June 6, 1994, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 62; October 31, 1994, review of White Pine, p. 54; August 7, 1995, review of Blue Pastures, p. 457; June 30, 1997, review of West Wind, p. 73; March 29, 1999, review of Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems, p. 100; August 28, 2000, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 79; July 21, 2003, review of Owls and Other Fantasies, p. 188.
  • Washington Post Book World, February 1, 1987, p. 6.
  • Whole Earth Review, summer, 1995, Wade Fox, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 30.
  • Women's Review of Books, April, 1993.

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Mary Oliver

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Poet Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books, “particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” Kumin noted that Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, . . .

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