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Mary Oliver’s poems celebrate nature and explore the mysteries of life, death, and regeneration. The winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Oliver writes naturalist poetry that seems deceptively simple, yet its conventional form masks a unique and original vision.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Following in the Footsteps of Millay
Mary Jane Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was the daughter of Edward William Oliver, a teacher, and his wife, Helen M. (Vlasak). By the age of thirteen, Oliver knew she wanted to write. When she was fifteen years old, she wrote to Norma Millay Ellis, the sister of recently deceased poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She requested permission to visit Steepletop, Millay’s home in upstate New York. Oliver visited the home several times, including an extensive stay during which Oliver assisted in the task of organizing Millay’s papers. Millay’s lyrical style and themes influenced Oliver’s early work, and, like Millay, she embraced country life and later lived in artist colonies in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
When Oliver was a high school student, school integration was a hot-button issue. For decades, qualified black Americans had been denied admission to whites-only colleges and public schools. in the 1950s, black students began petitioning for equal rights. in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education that the ”separate but equal” doctrine denied black students equal protection under the law. Though schools legally had to be integrated, many school districts resisted, and it took several decades for integration to be achieved. it was in this environment that Oliver went to school and developed her interest in writing.
Published First Collection
After high school, Oliver first attended Ohio State University from 1955 to 1956, then went east to Vassar College (as Millay had done) from 1956 to 1957. She did not earn a degree from either, however. During this time, Oliver held what she has called ”ordinary jobs” and saved her intellectual energy for writing poetry. in 1963 Oliver published her first poetry collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, of which she published an enlarged edition in 1965. Oliver’s first poetry collection established her reputation for treating nature in a direct and unsentimental, yet lyrical, fashion. Oliver then drew on her Ohio heritage for her next collection, The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972). in 1978 Oliver published two chapbooks, Night Traveler and Sleepingin the Forest.
Evolution of Poetry
By the early 1980s, Oliver was teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, as a Mather Visiting Professor. She also served as a poet-in-residence at Bucknell University in 1986. As Oliver held these posts, her poetry continued to evolve. Such collections as Twelve Moons (1980) and American Primitive (1983) saw the poet delving further into the natural world for subject matter. Thematically, the poems in these collections unflinchingly face nature. They study its continuous—and often vicious—cycle of life and death to embrace the stark beauty of this process. In 1984 Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive.
Oliver shifted her perspective in her next project, Dream Work (1986), which featured some human-centered themes of personal suffering and the past. For example, this collection includes a poem that deals with the Holocaust (the extermination of millions of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and other groups in Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945). However, most of the poems focus on her favorite topic: the agony and awe of nature. With House of Light (1990)—which won the Christopher Award—Oliver returned to a nature-based focus. The poems feature themes of isolation from human concerns and assimilation into various aspects and beings of nature. In 1992 Oliver won the National Book Award for her collection New and Selected Poems, which was published that same year. This volume included poems from her previous eight books as well as previously unpublished newer works.
An Academic Poet
By the publication of New and Selected Poems, Oliver held a new academic post. In 1991 she was named the Margaret Banister poet-in-residence at Sweet Briar College. Three years later, she published her first work of prose, A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide for Writing and Understanding Poetry (1994). In this book, Oliver drew on her years of writing experience to explore and explain various elements and processes of poetry writing. She also continued her exploration of natural phenomenon in poetry through such collections in the mid- to late-1990s, including White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems (1994), West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (1997), and Winter Hours (1999). Oliver also published other prose works, including Blue Pastures (1995) and Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (1998). The latter broached the same subjects as A Poetry Handbook.
The second half of the decade saw Oliver in yet another academic post. Beginning in 1996, she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Vermont’s Bennington College. There, she continued to challenge herself as a poet and prose writer, publishing prolifically in the early twenty-first century. In 2000 Oliver published the book-length poem The Leaf and the Cloud. After What Do We Know (2002), Oliver published four books in 2004: Why I Wake Early, Boston Iris: Poems and Essays, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, and New and Selected Poems, Volume 2. She followed these books with two more collections about nature and life—Thirst: Poems (2006) and Red Bird: Poems (2008)—as well as Our World (2007), a collection of notes, comments, and poems featuring photographs by the late Molly Malone Cook, Oliver’s long-time partner. Oliver continues to live and work in Vermont.
Works in Literary Context
Oliver is considered a New England nature or pastoral poet, a literary descendant of New England pastoralist writers, including William Thoreau and Robert Frost. As an author, she is greatly influenced by these writers, along with Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, William Blake, and William Wordsworth. Oliver was also inspired by the Midwest and her Midwestern childhood.
Oliver’s work in this genre reflects a curiosity of plants, animals, and ecosystems far more than human beings and civilization. Typical themes involve the beauty, power, and wonder of nature, and how humans would benefit from appreciating nature. When Oliver writes about people, it is usually to consider their personal, painful experiences, her perspective as a writer, and elements of the greater human condition, including death. She suggests that individuals need to experience life more carefully if they are to transcend ordinary moments and find meaning in the world.
A Fascination with Nature
Much of Oliver’s poetry— such as her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive as well as White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems— glorifies humankind’s natural relationship to animals, plants, and the nonhuman world. She writes lyrical poetry that observes the natural world with a careful eye, one acutely tuned to the rhythm of nature and its often powerful forces. Her language lends a tactile beauty to her observations as she focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature, such as industrious hummingbirds, graceful egrets, and motionless ponds. Indeed, Oliver’s work forges an individual alliance with nature that finds expression in an often rapturous lyricism. Her vision emphasizes beauty and simplicity, achieved through a nonviolent portrait of nature’s ecosystems.
Oliver’s poems also reveal her extensive and authentic knowledge of plants and animals. She presents this knowledge in beautiful—though often not realistic— images. Her poems give readers the illusion that the natural world is graspable, controllable, and beautiful. She promotes a vision of gentleness and possibility, one that says the natural world is obtainable and belongs to anyone who simply opens his or her eyes to it. Oliver also often relates animals and plants to the human condition. The poems of Twelve Moons, for example, explore natural cycles and processes, equating them with what is deepest and most enduring in human experience.
Another predominant theme in Oliver’s poetry is emotion and emotional situations, especially those that are personal. In No Voyage, for example, she explores the theme of emotional distance arising out of an inability to grieve adequately for others and their losses. One poem in particular—”The Murderer’s House”—features the shame of those who heartlessly pass by a house that is haunted by sadness and loss. The poems in The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems and The Night Traveler are similarly personal and call on childhood memories to explore themes of loss, unconscious fears, and death. Yet, like nature, Oliver’s vision of death is often gentle, pastoral, and haunting rather than fearful and violent.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have commended Oliver’s poetry for its clarity, simplicity, and descriptive precision. Stylistically, reviewers have noted the lyrical beauty of Oliver’s lines and turns of phrase, and she has found favor for serving up her rapturous visions of nature without lapsing into sentimentality. While some feminist literary critics have neglected her poetry because of her perceived status as a ”woman in nature” poet, other critics have noted that Oliver forges outside of traditional Romantic poetry stereotypes to claim her own individual space in nature poetry. Oliver’s prose, such as A Poetry Handbook, has been praised for providing an incisive, knowledgeable, and artistic guide to the mechanics of poetry writing.
The book Dream Work was highly regarded by critics. Reviewing the collection for the Nation, Alicia Ostriker called Oliver as ”visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson” and said she 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.” Colin Lowndes of the Toronto Globe & Mail similarly considered Oliver ”a poet of worked-for reconciliations” whose volume expertly deals with thresholds or the ”points at which opposing forces meet.” Many critics also appreciate Oliver’s gift for lyricism. Holly Prado of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, for example, called the poetry of Dream Work ”the best of the real lyrics we have these days.” Ostriker concluded that 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 what she cannot change.”
Later collections by Oliver, such as Thirst, received similar praise from critics. In Library Journal, E.M.Kaufman wrote, In these self-effacing poems, Oliver continues her work of loving the world, acknowledging that not all love is returned.” Fred Dings in World Literature Today was impressed by her words and creative choices. Dings noted, the beautiful lyricism of Oliver’s voice in these hymns to the Earth and prayers to her God will make good company, regardless of our own religious persuasions.” Reviewing the collection in America, Angela O’Donnell was similarly awed, calling Thirst elegiac in genre and in spirit. . . . To read Thirst . . . is to feel gratitude for the simple fact of being alive. This is not surprising as it is the effect her best work has produced in readers for the past 43 years.”
- Alford, Jean B. ”The Poetry of Mary Oliver: Modern Renewal through Mortal Acceptance.” Pembroke 20 (1988).
- Bond, Diane S. ”The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver.” Women’s Studies 21, no. 1 (1992): 1-15.
- Burton-Christie, Douglas. ”Nature, Spirit, and Imagination in the Poetry of Mary Oliver.” Cross Current (Spring 1996): 77-87.
- Dings, Fred. Review of Thirst. World Literature Today (November-December 2007): 72.
- Kaufman, E. M. Review of Thirst. Library Journal (January 1, 2007): 113. Lowndes, Colin. Review of Thirst. Globe & Mail (August 23, 1986).
- O’Donnell, Angela. Review of Thirst. America (October 9, 2006): 23.
- Ostriker, Alicia. Review of Dream Work. Nation (August 30, 1986): 148-150.
- Prado, Holly. Review of Dream Work. Los Angeles Times Book Review (February 27, 1987): 8.
- Russell, Sue. ”Mary Oliver: The Poet and the Persona.” Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review (Fall 1997).
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