Mary Oliver

The Ohio Connection

  • Mary Oliver was born in Maple Heights, outside Cleveland, in 1935. Her father, Edward W. Oliver, was a social studies teacher and athletic coach in the Cleveland public schools.
  • Her love for nature, so vital and integral to her poetry, began with her childhood in Ohio. Read this excerpt from a 1992 interview with Stephen Ratiner:

Ratiner: What led you to your bond with the natural world? I’m assuming it began when you were very young.

Oliver: Well, yes, I think it does or does not happen when one is young… 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. I think…the first way you take meaning from the physicality of the world, from your environment, probably never leaves you.

  • Mary graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1953.
  • She attended The Ohio State University for two years, from 1955 to 1956.
  • She published The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems in 1972
  • Even though she never finished her college degree, Mary Oliver was a Mather Visiting Professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1980 and 1982.
  • In 1984 she gave a week-long seminar in poetry for the creative writing department at Ohio State.
  • She was an Elliston Visiting Professor at the University of Cincinnati in 1986.
  • She won the Ohioana Book Award for New and Selected Poems in 1993.

When Mary Oliver talks about her work in interviews, she distills her ultimate intent. “I love the line of Flaubert about observing things very intensely,” she said in the AWP Chronicle, “and I think our duty—a somber word—as writers begins not with our own feelings, but with the powers of observing.” When she finds the right material for a poem, “It’s like an epiphany,” she said to Steven Ratiner. “I see something and look at it and look at it. I see myself going closer and closer just to see it better, as though to see its meaning out of its physical form. And then, I take something emblematic from it and then it transcends the actual.”

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