Highlights of a Life
“She stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” —Maxine Kumin, on Mary Oliver, in Women’s Review of Books
“Mary Oliver’s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing.”—Stanley Kunitz
Mary Oliver knew at an early age that she wanted to be a poet, and she had the diligence to work at it, even in long periods without recognition, publication, or financial security. Later, she was equally adept at withstanding praise and awards without much interruption to her work—a feat with which many other writers are not so successful.
Born September 10, 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, Mary is the daughter of Edward W. Oliver, a social studies teacher and athletic coach in the Cleveland public schools. She began writing poetry at age 13. Said Mary in the AWP Chronicle in September 1994:
[As a child] what captivated me was reading the poems myself and realizing that there was a world without material substance which was nevertheless as alive as any other—the world of the imagination—into which one could go, and stay. And then… I wanted to make a poem. I was a serious thirteen-year-old and wanted to write. But I don’t think precocious, just stubborn… Not to diminish the good things in my life, but I don’t talk about my childhood because it’s time we all get a new subject.
Mary Oliver attended Maple Heights High School. After graduating in 1953, she drove to the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of her favorite poets, in Austerlitz, New York. “It was my first journey out of Ohio and into a literary environment,” Oliver said to Diane Carman of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in April, 1984. She and Norma Millay, the poet’s sister, became friends, and Mary eventually worked as Norma’s secretary, spending a great deal of time in the home which would eventually become an artist’s colony.
When Mary returned to Ohio, she enrolled at The Ohio State University and attended from 1955 to 1956. She received a scholarship to Vassar, and she then transferred and studied there for a year before quitting school to devote herself to writing. “In college you learn how to learn,” she said in the Plain Dealer. “Four years is not too much time to spend at that. I guess there is a little implied regret when I say that, but not much.”
Like many Ohioana Authors, Mary Oliver moved to New York City, where “I was very careful never to take an interesting job,” she told Steven Ratiner in a 1992 interview for the Christian Science Monitor. “If you have an interesting job you get interested in it.” Mary was determined to stay focused on her writing; and she didn’t need college’s built-in regimentation to do so. “I also began in those years to keep early hours. I usually get up at 5. Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day—which is what I did.”
In 1962 Mary went to London, where she worked at the Mobile Theater Ltd. and wrote plays for the Unicorn Theater for Children. The director of the children’s theater, Caryl Jenner, saw some of Mary’s poems and was impressed enough to send them to J.M. Dent & Sons, where they were published as No Voyage and Other Poems in 1963. The title poem won first prize from the Poetry Society of America in 1962. Annette Allen says No Voyage and Other Poems is “rooted in a mythical sense of the land and exhibits simplicity and a fine mastery of form, though some critics found the poems mannered. Like Robert Frost, her plain language and conventional forms could mask attention to an uncommon vision of nature’s forces.”
When Oliver returned to the United States she moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she still lives, in a house “with lots of windows” with her friend and agent, Molly Malone Cook. In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 19, 1984, she described Provincetown as “Physically, the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen… I’m very attached to it here… I came on a visit one summer and found myself disinclined to leave.”
Provincetown provides the private, anonymous life that Oliver seeks, along with the woods where she walks to find inspiration. “I have a notebook with me all the time, and I begin scribbling a few words,” she said in the AWP Chronicle. “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!” On one of Oliver’s walks she found herself full of thoughts but without a pen; later she returned to the woods to hide pencils among the trees. She says “the angel doesn’t sit on your shoulder unless the pencil’s in your hand.”
After her first book’s publication, Mary Oliver worked on her own for many years before publishing again. It was almost a decade before the publication of The River Styx, Ohio in 1972. In the Bloomsbury Review, May/June 1990, Oliver talked about her first two books:
They show the merit of admiring fine, American traditionalists, if you will: I was not concerned at that time about being “original.” I was still learning how to write a poem… My first two books… are out of print and, okay, they can sleep there comfortably… it’s early work, derivative work. The books that follow… I think of as a unit. I won’t say much about them except that they all employ the natural world in an emblematic way, and yet they are all—so was my intent!—about the human condition.
Oliver published her third book, Twelve Moons, in 1978, along with two chapbooks, The Night Traveler (1978) and Sleeping in the Forest, (1979). American Primitive, published in 1983, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. The high award didn’t faze Oliver much, however; she continued her work almost as if nothing had happened.
In the Plain Dealer article, Mary recalled her early anonymous years: “I suppose it’s true that I had to struggle, but I don’t seem to remember… What I had was enriching enough that I never felt as if I was struggling.” In the Christian Science Monitor, she said, “I don’t know how to measure the life I lived during those years. I was certainly never in want, and I was never wealthy. I have a notion that if you are going to be spiritually curious, you better not get cluttered up with too many material things.” She told Steven Ratiner, “I worked probably 25 years by myself… Just writing and working, not trying to publish much. Not giving readings. A longer time than people really are willing to commit before they…want to go public or be published.”
Even though she doesn’t have an official college degree, Mary Oliver has taught poetry workshops at universities around the country, including Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, The Ohio State University in Columbus, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, University of Cincinnati, Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and Bennington College in Vermont. She wrote two successful handbook-style books on craft, The Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance. “Poetry is Oliver’s lifeblood,” says Booklist contributor Donna Seaman in a review of Rules for the Dance, “and she writes about its creation with as much quiet ecstasy, acumen, and artistry as she writes poems themselves.”
Still, Oliver is not altogether “sold” on the benefits of workshops, crediting the development of her own original voice partly to the fact that she didn’t attend workshops in her formative years. In the Bloomsbury Review, she said she learned from the time when “I had to make my own decisions, without any social response…
“I fear that sometimes, in workshops, fires are banked. After all, people enjoy a pleasant social response—that’s why they join groups, isn’t it? This pressure, if you will, could keep the writer a little tame. As well as ambitious for response. Prematurely.
“Remember too that workshops are run by individuals, and individuals have bias. There is no way around it… Also, people try to get along. Two poets will try to get along, and so will twenty, or thirty. Additionally, it’s very hard for writers in a workshop not to want, if only a little, to please the instructor. Everybody has to be very careful—writers can give up what is most strange and wonderful about their writing—soften their roughest edges—to accommodate themselves toward a group response…”
When Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems won the 1993 Ohioana Book Award, the Ohioana Library requested publicity materials. She wrote in response, “Since the new book is the issue, perhaps what you say about it could be—and could remain—the focus of your publicity? Which, perhaps, would be more interesting than background information anyway?” In her infrequent interviews, Mary Oliver always prefers to talk about her work rather than her personal life. She said in the Bloomsbury Review:
If I’ve done my work well, I vanish completely from the scene… I believe it is invasive of the work when you know too much about the writer, and almost anything is too much. I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together.
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.”