Mary Oliver, a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, died of lymphoma at age 83, the Associated Press reports. Oliver was a lover of the natural world and her poetry often contemplated nature and celebrated animal life. In her poem “When Death Comes”, she wrote of her own death:
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 was beloved among the literary and non-literary community, and several celebrities tweeted in praise of the poet, including director Ava Duvernay, who quoted her poem “Praying” in appreciation on Thursday morning.
Thank you, Mary Oliver, for giving so many of us words to live by.
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) January 17, 2019
“It doesn’t have to be blue iris, it can be weeds in a vacant lot.
Just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate.
This isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks. A silence in which another voice may speak.”
- Mary Oliver, Praying pic.twitter.com/SHh1EYdU6T
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) January 17, 2019
I Raise A Glass and Shed a tear to the passing of one of my favorite poets...........Mary Oliver. Her words were a bridge from Nature to the Spiritual World................♥️ God Bless You Mary! pic.twitter.com/loT4siZqdO
— Madonna (@Madonna) January 17, 2019
If you didn’t know much about Oliver or her prolific career, here are a few things to start before you get lost in her poetry, which is largely available online.
1. She was one of the most prolific poets of her time.
Oliver published over 15 essay and poetry collections. Her first, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published when she was 28. She would go on to win the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her fifth collection, American Primitive. Her collection, New and Selected Poems, won the National Book Award in 1992.
2. She would hide pencils in trees so she could stop to write during her walks.
Oliver fancied herself “the kind of old-fashioned poet who walks the woods most days, accompanied by dog and notepad” according to a 2017 New York Times profile. Another New York Times profile from 2009 notes that Oliver would stroll in the woods and stop to take a sensuous snapshot of her surroundings.
“As she told an interviewer 15 years ago,” the Times profile reads, “‘When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That’s a successful walk!’”
Once after Oliver found herself in the woods without a writing utensil, she hid pencils in the trees along her route so that she wouldn’t end up in the same predicament again.
3. She was not taken seriously by many critics, for misogynistic reasons. .
As writer Rachel Syme wrote in a Twitter thread, Oliver was considered a “throw-pillow” poet and that her “engaging with the world as a site of beauty and grace is a light pursuit.” The New Yorker pointed out that her poetry is “plastered all over Pinterest and Instagram.”
from the new yorker profile about mary oliver: "she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. None of her books has received a full-length review in the Times"
there was a sense among critics that mary oliver was a throw-pillow poet and it always deeply unnerved me
— rachel syme (@rachsyme) January 17, 2019
The New Yorker profile later notes that none of Oliver’s works received a full-length review in the Times. Why is that? “Perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects — nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God.” Syme said there was a “sneering sexism” to the criticism of Oliver’s poetry.
4. Oliver was an early fan of Edna St.Vincent Millay, which led to her meeting her longtime partner.
While in high school, Oliver wrote to Millay’s sister, Norma, asking if she could visit the poet’s home in Austerlitz, New York. She left her native Ohio for New York the day after her 1953 high school graduation. Oliver ended up staying in Austerlitz many years to organize Millay’s papers, according to the Associated Press. While in Austerlitz in the late 1950s, she met Molly Malone Cook, who would be her partner until Cook’s death in 2005.
“I took one look and fell, hook and tumble,” Oliver wrote of Cook, to whom much of her work was dedicated. Cook also became Oliver’s literary agent and the two relocated to Provincetown, Massachusetts.
5. She was a beloved fixture in the historic gaycation city, Provincetown.
"I too fell in love with the town, that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers,” she told the New York Times. The Times even constructed a self-guided tour of Provincetown based entirely on her poetry.
“People say to me: wouldn’t you like to see Yosemite? The Bay of Fundy? The Brooks Range?” she wrote in “Long Life,” the New Yorker reports. “I smile and answer, ‘Oh yes — sometime,’ and go off to my woods, my ponds, my sun-filled harbor, no more than a blue comma on the map of the world but, to me, the emblem of everything.”