Who Is Mary Oliver? Top 3 Poems

Mary Oliver is remembered for winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Here, we’ll explore Mary Oliver, one of the most widely-read American poets.

Known for developing a strong connection with the natural world, Mary Oliver’s poetry shares her beloved memories of New England and Ohio. While the author had a difficult childhood, she states that her tough upbringing forced her to seek solace in writing, serving as a constant motivation to continue honing her craft over her long life.

Oliver’s daily long walks in nature served as her inspiration for many of her poems. Rather than writing about a pre-determined topic, the poet used nature in our world as her muse, exploring the world around her to decide the subject of her next poem. Oliver’s work left a mark on the world, especially for those who prefer the company of nature to the company of social settings.

According to a profile on the prolific poet 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. Still, she also infused 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.”

Here, we’ll explore Mary Oliver’s history, career path, and awards and look at some examples of her nature-themed poetry.

Poet Mary Oliver’s History and Career

Often referred to by others as a “guide to the natural world,” Mary Oliver was known for writing in a way that helped people form connections to the world around them. She didn’t focus on large, disastrous aspects of nature; instead, she took her time to learn more about the little things that make up the natural world.

Her award-winning poetry received accolades throughout her lifetime, but her story begins with her birth in Maple Hills Heights, Ohio. As she grew up in her small town near Cleveland, she often sought solace from a difficult upbringing in the comfort of nearby wooded areas, inspiring her to begin writing about nature for comfort. She would build small huts in the woods where she would retreat to write her early poetry.

Upon graduation from high school, Oliver took classes at Vassar College and Ohio State but never graduated from either school. Instead, the poet became heavily inspired by the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Shortly after ending her collegiate studies, Oliver met her lifelong partner, Molly Malone Cook. Together, the pair left Ohio and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts. The pair led a notably private life, with Oliver rarely giving interviews.

The Cape Cod area offered the poet a new setting to inspire her poetry, and literary critics note that Oliver continued to work similarly on the wonders of nature in her new home.

Throughout her life, Oliver was thankful for the privilege of experiencing nature in such a personal way. One of Oliver’s later poems was entitled When Death Comes and read:

“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 is in a category of her own when it comes to writing poetry that celebrates the wonders of nature. Still, she has been compared to other celebrated contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop. Much of Oliver’s poetry follows the style of Romanticists before her, writing with uncomplicated ease. Oliver’s readers are privy to her love for the world around her, and her writing serves to help readers develop a more profound love for natural spaces rather than forcing them to unravel complicated writing to discover her true feelings.

In addition to enlightening readers on how people and nature are connected, she didn’t shy away from the more complex topics in the natural world. For example, Oliver often talked of death and pain as uniting the natural and human worlds, attributing much of her inspiration and courage for confronting dark truths to her difficult upbringing.

Oliver’s Poetic Style

Mary Oliver was known for her simplistic, straight-to-the-point style of poetry. In some circles, her verses were seen as lacking, but Oliver held to her poetic roots and continued writing in her signature style.

Her free-verse poetry was conversational and accessible and allowed anyone interested to understand the innermost workings of her mind. Her work was more well-received by women than by men, with some women creating devotional blogs to teach others about Oliver’s poetry and provide readers with a daily poem to use as a calming theme.

Oliver was dedicated to helping her readers access her work–she thrived on the idea of creating a community of like-minded people who loved nature, humanness, and simplicity.

Many of Oliver’s famous lines–such as “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” from the poem, The Summer Day, are invoked at celebratory ceremonies. Fans of her work find that they enjoy repeating her poems, delving deeper into how her uncomplicated verbiage translates to universal human experiences.

Oliver’s Awards for Poetry

Mary Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize
Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Following her move to the Cape Cod area, it didn’t take long for Oliver’s work to garner attention. Oliver turned out new work regularly, publishing a new, well-received book of poetry no less than every two years.

In 1983, Oliver’s fifth book, American Primitive, won her the Pulitzer Prize. A decade later, Oliver won the National Book Award for her 1992 book, New and Selected Poems. The book contained a mix of both poems from years past and new work. As Oliver grew and developed as a poet, her work shifted from stark observations of the natural world to noting how nature and the self interacted. Oliver played a key role in her poems, helping readers get a sense of who was behind the words. In addition, her work explored how human consciousness influences a person’s perception of nature.

On the rare occasion that Oliver spoke to journalists, she was noted as being gracious and welcoming, although many were critical of her poetry, stating that it was too plain and simple. The New York Times never published a complete book review of Oliver’s work, despite her winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Oliver’s work showed that people didn’t need to separate themselves from the natural world to observe it. Instead, she recognized the key role that people played in the natural world and worked to explore how her subjectivity impacted her observations of the world around her.

While Oliver didn’t earn her college degree, she became an esteemed teacher to others. At Bennington College, Oliver held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching. In addition to the honor of helping young writers develop their craft, Oliver received many other types of accolades, including the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize, and the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award. Oliver also was awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Oliver continued writing throughout her golden years and enjoyed splitting her time between her home in Providence and a home in Hobe Sound, Florida. Unfortunately, she passed away at 83 years old in 2019.

Examples of Mary Oliver’s Poems

1. Wild Geese

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

It’s easy to fall into a place of loneliness in the world, and Oliver was no stranger to feeling like an outcast to those who mattered most during her upbringing. However, this often-quoted poem invites readers to remember that they belong to the greater family of the world and nature.

The feeling of sacrificing for others to gain acceptance and love is universal, and Oliver permits readers to let go of the need to please and sacrifice for others. When a person feels down on themselves, it can be tempting to constantly put others first, ignoring their needs to gain a feeling of being needed and appreciated by the people who matter most. In this poem, Oliver reminds readers that they are good enough, and there’s no need to sacrifice their own needs to be accepted. This poem serves as a reminder that we must care for ourselves to fulfill our natural roles as members of a global community.

The imagery used in Wild Geese allows readers to feel a connection with nature, no matter where they may currently be. She reminds readers that the world will continue despite what they view as their shortcomings and that there’s no need to try to be anything other than a soft human animal.

Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Oliver, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 92 Pages - 09/30/2003 (Publication Date) - Beacon Press (Publisher)

2. Starlings in the Winter (excerpt)

“Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.”

For many people, watching birds leap from telephone wires and into the air invokes memories of simpler times, perhaps, standing outside while waiting for the bus or playing with friends as the summer’s air began to take on the slight chill of autumn. Oliver expertly describes the sense of wonder that comes with watching a flock of starlings as they move in perfect harmony to their next destination. This poem serves as a reminder that nature has inner workings difficult for humans to understand and can help readers see that even when things seem chaotic, nature has life under control.

Oliver discusses how nature’s laws and ways prepare people for inevitable hardships and disappointments, such as grief and heartbreak. She explains how she longs to be more like the starlings, who can move with the rules of nature, seemingly free of fear. She also discusses how the grief process requires us to remember that sadness does have an end in sight, just as winter eventually ends for the starlings. The simple reminder that we will not always feel sad during grief can provide the motivation and support necessary to move forward, despite feelings of extreme difficulty or sadness.

Sale
Upstream: Selected Essays
  • Oliver, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 192 Pages - 10/29/2019 (Publication Date) - Penguin Books (Publisher)

3. Dogfish (excerpt)

“You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it’s the same old story – – –
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.”

It’s easy to point out the differences in humanity, but in reality, we share deep commonalities. In this poem, Oliver shares how difficult it can be for all of us to deal with our shortcomings and that our actions are never easily explained. This poem shows the connection between humans and nature, describing how we’re all trying to fight through life, one day at a time. 

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Dog Songs: Poems
  • Penguin Books
  • Oliver, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 144 Pages - 09/29/2015 (Publication Date) - Penguin Books (Publisher)

Interesting in learning more? Check out our round-up of top 10 metaphor poems!

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