“Continuing an American tradition from Whitman to James Wright, [Mary] Oliver’s poetry celebrates wildness, that ‘wild darkness, that long blue body of light’ within people, and without them… Oliver’s poetic concerns [are] deer, ponds at dawn and dusk, goldenrod, fire and light, the imagination, the “soft animal of your body,” the possibilities for prayer…” —Richard Higgins, Boston Globe, February 9, 1993
Cleveland native Mary Oliver has won many awards for her poetry, including the National Book Award, and in 1984, the Pulitzer Prize. When news of the award arrived, however, there was no fanfare, no interruption of her daily life. Mary Oliver accepted congratulations from friends around the country and quietly went back to work. “I suppose it would be more interesting if I were different,” she was quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 19, 1984. “I simply do not distinguish between work and play.”
Mary Oliver does distinguish, however, between her personal life and her published work. She seldom puts photographs of herself on book jackets. Says her agent and companion Molly Malone Cook, “her feeling is strong that the poet’s image… detracts from and in fact sometimes serves to ‘slant’ the work.” In Oliver’s rare interviews, she prefers talking about her work to talking about herself. The interviews, like her poems, move away from Mary Oliver and out into nature and the external world. Ironically, this outward movement beckons readers to look inward.
Finding information about Mary Oliver’s life isn’t easy, but she was born in Ohio, as was her poetic voice, which began at age 13. She writes by looking outward into nature. And when she first started looking outward, Ohio is what Mary Oliver saw. In a 1992 interview for the Christian Science Monitor, she says:
I grew up in a small town in Ohio… It was pastoral, it was nice, it was an extended family. I don’t know why I felt such affinity with the natural world except that it was available to me, that’s the first thing. It was right there. And for whatever reasons, I felt those first important connections, those first experiences being made with the natural world rather than with the social world.