Mary Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935. The quiet, wooded, flat land and sharp seasons of her first physical landscape moved her deeply and appear in many of her poems and essays. In “A Blessing” from her 2004 collection, Blue Iris, Oliver describes the high school summers she spent car camping with a friend. “What we saw,” she says in conclusion, “filled our minds. What we saw made us love and want to honor the world. And dear readers, if anyone thinks children in these difficult times do not need such peaceful intervals, then hang up the phone, we are not having a conversation. Without doubt those summers changed my life and my friend’s. Whoever I am, and whoever my friend is now, fifty years later, we are both still part of this feast of the past. Happiness and leaves—they went together.” During those same transformative years, Oliver was inspired by the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay and briefly lived in the poet’s home helping the family sort through Millay’s papers. She later attended Ohio State University and Vassar College, though she did not receive a degree from either.
Oliver writes with a posture of strength and grace, a stance of balance and flexibility, an opening of the heart and a quietness of the mind that invite the world in. “(Her) poetry is an excellent antidote for the excesses of civilization,” wrote one reviewer for the Harvard Review, “for too much flurry and 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.” Though the reader rarely encounters other human beings in Oliver’s work, a distinct voice and mind observe and describe the natural world with great focus, and often speak to us in direct questions that push us to observe, absorb, and capture every molecule we possibly can. “The Summer Day,” a poem from the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive, in which the narrator spends a summer’s day laying in the grass, takes us there pointedly, asking: “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?”
In her latest volume, Thirst (2006), Oliver writes through her grief over the loss of her partner of more than 40 years and at the same time traces her journey into a newfound Christian faith. Collectively, the more than twenty volumes of poetry and essays that expose her delight in the mysteries of the world and explore her willingness to believe have garnered a large and loyal following. Her numerous awards include the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive, the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems, a Lannan Foundation Literary Award, the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Excerpt from Thirst (2006)
The Place I Want to Get Back To
is where in the pinewoods in the moments between the darkness and first light two deer came walking down the hill and when they saw me they said to each other, okay, this one is okay, let’s see who she is and why she is sitting on the ground, like that, so quiet, as if asleep, or in a dream, but, anyway, harmless; and so they came on their slender legs and gazed upon me not unlike the way I go out to the dunes and look and look and look into the faces of the flowers; and then one of them leaned forward and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life bring to me that could exceed that brief moment? For twenty years I have gone every day to the same woods, not waiting, exactly, just lingering. Such gifts, bestowed, can’t be repeated. If you want to talk about this come to visit. I live in the house near the corner, which I have named Gratitude.
Selected WorkPoetry:No Voyage, and Other Poems (1963) The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972) The Night Traveler (1978) Twelve Moons (1978) Sleeping in the Forest (1979) American Primitive (1983) Dream Work (1986) Provincetown (1987) House of Light (1990) New and Selected Poems (1992) White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems (1994) Blue Pastures (1995) West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (1997) Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999) The Leaf and the Cloud (2000) What Do We Know (2002) Why I Wake Early (2004) Boston Iris: Poems and Essays (2004) New and Selected Poems Volume Two (2004) Blue Iris: Poems and Essays (2006) Thirst: Poems (2006)
Other:A Poetry Handbook (1994) Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (1998) Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2004)