Mary Oliver, Poet


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 subjectthe 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.
For years she rose at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to write for a few hours before she went off to one of the many mundane jobs she took to earn a living. “To keep writing was always a first priority,” she has said. Putting words on paper became a fundamental component of what she calls her “unstoppable urge” toward the life of the imagination.

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 processa 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.

—Mark Gottlieb


When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

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.

When it’s over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press,1992) 

The Buddha
s Last Instruction

"Make of yourself a light,"
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signala white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press,1990)

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