Mary Oliver, Poet
1979 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
The Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights was still semi-rural in the 1930s, a pastoral environment in which a future poet could develop a strong bond with what would eventually become her principal subject—the natural world.
Mary Oliver’s childhood connection to nature has endured throughout her life, informing her poetry with a uniquely spiritual sense of revelation derived from the wisdom of wilderness. For Oliver, nature is both other and self, a classroom of sorts as well as a mirror on the soul. The poet looks at the world, achieves awareness of detail and then transcends the reality of leaf, petal or stream to find lessons and messages that help us to see ourselves from a wholly new perspective.
Influenced by William Blake and Walt Whitman, Oliver’s poetry can combine darkness and intense introspection with celebration and joyous release. She is sometimes compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and an abiding fascination with the interior monologues that all of us rehearse throughout our lives.
The author of more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, Oliver earned the Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature in 1979. She was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984 for her volume American Primitive, and won the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems, a collection covering nearly 30 years of work. The first and second parts of her The Leaf and the Cloud were selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 1999 and The Best American Poetry 2000, respectively.
Oliver was a working poet long before she was first published.
Her poems are grounded in the localities of her life, building on memories of her native Ohio and experiences in her adopted home of New England. She now lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, spending part of the year in Bennington, Vermont, where she holds the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College. She returned to Cleveland in 1983 as the Flora Stone Mather Visiting Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University.
Her use of relatively unadorned language and accessible forms makes the revelatory power of her poems all the more passionate. Vivid images and attention to minute detail convey an almost palpable sense of physicality, bringing sights, smells, textures and sounds to the printed page. An inveterate walker without destination, Oliver pursues inspiration at a stroller’s pace, stopping frequently in her wanderings to absorb images and impressions. Walking is part of her poetic process—a process of discovery, of transmutation and, ultimately, of illumination.
Art, she has said, is the only medium through which we can live more lives than our own. In the art that is her poetry, Mary Oliver brings all of us new lives by expanding our vision and allowing us to embrace the sensibilities of other times, other places and other worlds.
When death comes
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
And therefore I look upon everything
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
When it’s over, I don't want to wonder
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
—New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press,1992)
Cleveland Arts Prize
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