Mary Oliver, Esteemed American Poet

Mary Oliver, America poet

Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) was an American poet whose work reflects a deeply rooted harmony with the natural world. No Voyage and Other Poems, her first collection, was published in 1963. Since then, books and numerous collections of her poems were published.

Born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Mary’s parents were Edward and Helen Oliver. Her father worked in the Cleveland public school system as an athletic coach and social studies teacher.


Adopting New England as a home

Oliver began creating her earliest poems at the age of fourteen. When she was seventeen, Oliver visited the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The poet’s sister Norma was the owner of the house in Austerlitz, New York, and the two women became good friends. Oliver lived on the 800-acre property for about seven years. She was Norma’s companion and assisted her in organizing papers of the late poet.

Oliver again visited Austerlitz toward the end of the 1950s. She became acquainted with photographer Molly Malone Cook, whose photography studio was in Massachusetts. The two began a relationship that lasted more than forty years, and resided together in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod.

Although she was a native of Ohio and was influenced by her early life there, Oliver adopted New England as her home and set many of her poems around Provincetown, where she and Molly made their home. She derived much of her inspiration from nature and spent hours taking long walks in the woods, ponds, and the Provincetown harbor.

Oliver was exceedingly private and rarely gave interviews. In one very rare interview, she stated that when a walk is successful, it doesn’t go anywhere in particular, allowing her to stop and write. She never left home without her notebook. When inspired, she wrote down her thoughts while they were fresh in her mind.

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mary oliver young

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Many published collections

Although Oliver attended Ohio State University and Vassar College, she never completed a degree. The influence of Edna St. Vincent Millay is evident in No Voyage and Other Poems, the first book of poetry she published in 1963.

Memories of her childhood were a significant influence in a lot of her writing, especially in The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems, which was published in 1972. Classic mythological tales were the influence of  The Night Traveler (1978).

Oliver was fascinated by the bucolic life that was expressed in many of the writings of Henry David Thoreau. The natural world and its solitude were celebrated in her collection, American Primitive (1983).

The seclusion, peace, and quiet that one finds in nature is a theme in House of Light, published (1990). Early works included White Pine (1994), Blue Pastures (1995), and West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (1997). Later works include Why I Wake Early (2004), and A Thousand Mornings (2012).

Some individual poems that have become reader favorites include “Wild Geese,” “The Summer Day,” “The Journey,” and “When Death Comes.”

Mary Oliver’s contributions to the literary world included two volumes for aspiring writers about writing poetry. A Poetry Handbook was published in 1995, and A Handbook For Writing and Reading Metrical Verse was released in 1998. Winter Hours (1999) was a volume of prose poems, poetry, and essays about other poets. She explored the connection of landscape to the soul in Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2004).

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American Primitive by Mary Oliver

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Major milestones and awards

Oliver was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Art, U.S. and Canada in 1980. A milestone was the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for the celebrated volume, “American Primitive,” in 1984.

She won the Laurence L. and Thomas Winship/PEN New England Award in 1991 and a National Book Award for Poetry for New and Selected Poems in 1992. In 1998 the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry was awarded to her. She was described by The New York Times as America’s best-selling poet.

In addition to being one of the most influential poets of our time, Oliver spent time teaching and was on the faculty of Bennington College in Vermont from 1996 until 2001. She received Honorary Doctorates from The Art Institute of Boston, Dartmouth College, Marquette University, and Tufts University.

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Mary Oliver and her dog

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Mary Oliver’s legacy

For more than sixty years, Mary Oliver inspired readers around the world. She faced a lot of personal challenges in her life, in addition to the abuse as a child. She never let it keep her from expressing herself in a quiet, compassionate manner. Through her writing, she had a way of gently guiding readers in to see the wonders of nature and the world through her eyes.

In “Mary Oliver Helped Us Stay Amazed,” a remembrance published in The New Yorker just after her death in early 2019, Rachel Syme wrote in The New Yorker:

“With her consistent, shimmering reverence for flora and fauna, Oliver made herself one of the most beloved poets of her generation. She worked in the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth or Keats, but she also infused a distinctly American loneliness into her words—the solitary reflections of Thoreau gazing over a lake, or of Whitman peering from the Brooklyn Ferry at the shuffling tides below his feet.

Hers were not poems about isolation, though, but about pushing beyond your own sense of emotional quarantine, even when you feel fear. Everywhere you look, in Oliver’s verse, you find threads of connectivity.”

Mary Oliver died of lymphoma in her Florida home at the age of 83.

More about Mary Oliver

Major Works

Poetry Collections

Oliver was an incredibly prolific poet, with published collections too numerous to list here. Here is a full listing, the following is the selection mentioned in the biography above.

  • No Voyage and Other Poems (1963)
  • The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972)
  • The Night Traveler (1978)
  • American Primitive (1983)
  • House of Light (1990)
  • White Pine (1994)
  • Blue Pastures (1995)
  • West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (1997)
  • Why I Wake Early (2004)
  • A Thousand Mornings (2012)

Nonfiction and essays

  • A Poetry Handbook (1995)
  • A Handbook For Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (1998)
  • Winter Hours (1999)
  • Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2004)
  • Upstream: Selected Essays (2019)

More information

3 Responses to “Mary Oliver, Esteemed American Poet”

  1. You forgot about dogs. One of her published books was Dog Songs. She had a bond with all her dogs One even beyond death.

  2. Thank you for your insightful and illuminating article about Mary Oliver. I had not heard of her before today. Apparently, I live under a rock. Now I am off to add at least one of her works to my reading list.

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