The recent date of September 10, 2014 marks the seventy-ninth birthday of the distinguished poet Mary Oliver, born on September 10, 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. She is one of America’s most popular and best-selling poets, and she has accumulated numerous honors, having won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and a Lannan Literary Award, in addition to other awards and fellowships. Much of her poetry concerns celebration of the natural world.
Mary Oliver is a famously private poet, reticent to speak much about her personal life. Even in researching this blog entry I did not find a great deal of in-depth biographical information. But in 2011 she did an interview with Maria Shriver for O Magazine in which she spoke of her life, mentioning in particular growing up in a dysfunctional family and being sexually abused as a small child. She spent hours roaming local woods and writing poems when she was a child and teenager. She left home immediately after finishing high school.
Mary Oliver attended Ohio State University and Vassar College, but never graduated from either school. As a young woman, she was especially devoted to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and later assisted Millay’s sister, Norma Millay, in organizing the renowned poet’s papers. She also met her longtime companion Molly Malone Cook after moving east. The two women made their home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Oliver lives to this day. Cook died in 2005.
Mary Oliver carefully honed her craft, publishing her first volume of poems, No Voyage, and Other Poems, in 1963, but her second collection didn’t appear until nine years later: The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972). Three other books of poetry appeared in the 1970s, and Oliver was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1983 for her book American Primitive. More critically acclaimed work followed, and Oliver received the National Book Award for poetry in 1992 for her New and Selected Poems. Mary Oliver has published twenty-one books of poetry since the 1970s.
Oliver has also had a successful teaching career. In the early 1970s she was chair of the writing department at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, then moved on to visiting professorships and poet-in-residence appointments at various institutions. She was back in her native Ohio several times in the 1980s: twice as Mather Visiting Professor at Case Western University in Cleveland (1980, 1982), and then as Elliston Visiting Professor at the University of Cincinnati in 1986. Oliver later taught at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont.
Mary Oliver is known for her lyrical poetry about nature and animals. Critics have compared her work to poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Walt Whitman. The landscapes of New England—and also Ohio—appear in her work. The desolate rural landscape of Ohio—especially the sight of foreclosed farms–figures in the title poem “The River Styx, Ohio” from her second collection. The great Indian leader Tecumseh is also the subject of a poem examining the nature of freedom in her collection American Primitive.
Mary Oliver has also written several volumes of prose. These works include A Poetry Handbook (1994), Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (1998), and Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2004). In the fifty-one years that have passed since her first volume appeared, she has created a remarkable body of work that has earned both critical acclaim and a wide readership–something many poets dream of, but few attain.
Here’s a link to Mary Oliver’s website: http://maryoliver.beacon.org/
The Maria Shriver interview: http://www.oprah.com/entertainment/Maria-Shriver-Interviews-Poet-Mary-Oliver/1
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume 1: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Author of entry on Mary Oliver: Margaret Rozga. Indiana University Press, 2001.
The Poetry Foundation: Online entry on Mary Oliver.