Literary Hub

Poet Mary Oliver Dies at 83

Mary Oliver, a prolific poet whose work garnered a wide audience for its clear, direct explorations of the natural world, died Thursday at her home Hobe Sound, Florida, according to Bill Reichblum, her literary executor. She was 83.

In more than 15 collections of poetry and other works of prose, Oliver’s writing, rooted in the Romantic nature writing tradition and the landscapes she loved, reflected her deep and loving attention to the world around her.

She was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, where she often found escape from a difficult childhood walking in the woods. “It was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household, not just myself I think. And I escaped it, barely. With years of trouble,” she told Krista Tippett of “On Being” in 2015. “But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.”

She attended Ohio State University and Vassar College, but did not graduate from either institution. In 1953, at the age of 17, she visited Steepletop—the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay—for the first time, The New York Times reported in 2009. She would eventually become friends with the poet’s sister and lived there for several years, organizing Millay’s papers; it was there in the late 1950s that she met her longtime partner, Molly Malone Cook.

In the 1960s, the pair moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, the settlement on the lands-end tip of the state which served as a rest stop for colonial explorers as early as 1602 and since the late 19th century had fostered a year-round community of artists. Oliver called it “no more than a blue comma on the map of the world but, to me, the emblem of everything”; its landscape would inform her writing for more than five decades.

She told NPR in 2012 that she was troubled by the harm humans had caused to the world. “I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing,” she said. “I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?”

Famously reserved and reticent to speak about personal issues, Oliver gave few interviews throughout her life. But in a 2015 interview with Krista Tippett of “On Being,” Oliver said she read Rumi’s poetry every day and that “Wild Geese,” perhaps her best-known poem, was written to show another poet the effect of end-stopped lines. “It just worked itself out the way I wanted for the exercise,” she said.

She had previously described the process of writing a poem as “a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind.”

She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for American Primitive and a National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. Other honors included an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, a Lannan Literary Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize.

Oliver published “Our World,” a collection of Cook’s photographs interwoven with her own writings on their life together, in 2007, two years after Cook’s death. In it, she wrote, “The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.”

In her later years, she had become “kinder, more people-oriented, more willing to grow old,” she told Tippett in 2015. “I always was investigative in terms of everlasting life, but a little more interested now. A little more content with my answers.”

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