Excerpts from a Longer Piece about the Poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019)


Fragment of an ancient Greek statue


Here are a few excerpts from a long essay I’m working on about Mary Oliver and Plato (odd bedfellows, I know). Though I am not always a fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry, I am moved by both her tenacity as a poet and the positive impact her writing continues to have on the lives of so many poetry lovers.


They say if Mary is taking a walk, and she begins to walk slower and slower, and finally she’s standing still scribbling, you know it was a successful walk. —Mary Oliver talking about herself as a poet writing in nature[1]



The twins Liney and Jane and especially Liney love the nature poetry of Mary Oliver. I prefer Hass. Something so simple as his “…small brown wren in the tangle/of the climbing rose…” stirs my imagination more than anything from Oliver.[2] They especially admire her poem “Wild Geese.”[3] They call it a permission poem when the poet invites the reader not to be so hard on herself:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
The poem then conflates reading with wandering across what to my mind is an alluvial plain. Then Liney might ask, ‘What’s to see, Theo, in landscapes running together like this?’ ‘What’s it feel like to go out into them?’ Whatever ‘it’ is, I look through mist and weeds. Through colorless, odorless weather:
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese,
high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
It’s like a mystical experience when, reading the poem, Liney claims to cease to exist. Or she coexists with those oral geese flapping high overhead in some slack V formation and enough rising light to eat a moon with!



Mary Oliver’s hometown of Maple Heights, Ohio, covers roughly five square miles of suburban Cleveland, where the twins were born and raised. A handsewn notebook Mary Oliver carried for jotting down her experiences in the woods of Cuyahoga County measures 3-by-5 inches and contains owls, an alder grove, graveyards, bright barns, mothers, fathers, blueberry fields, mortgages, cranberry bogs, a bear, robins, Shawnee in absentia, rainy seasons, egrets, lightning, a few kids running at dusk, first snow, mushrooms, lumbermen, quick Ohio creeks, a train whistle, passing neighbors, strangers passing, a buck moon, hunters moon, wolf moon, sickle moon, strawberry moon, walnut trees, beech, sugar maple, cucumber trees, everything waiting to be reassembled into proper poems.



I don’t see Mary Oliver as a permission poet the way the twins do. She is a peripatetic poet, maybe, going around on foot to gather her materials and vibes. Going into the woods like that. She identifies herself as this other kind, too:

I’ve written before that God has ‘so many names.’ To me, it’s all right if you look at a tree, as the Hindus do, and say the tree has a spirit. It’s a mystery, and mysteries don’t compromise themselves—we’re never gonna know. I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet. I acknowledge my feeling and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made all these things.[4]

Permission. Peripatetic. Praise. I could do something with these words. I just might. An informal dissertation. I almost got a Master’s degree. It was to be in Poetics. I would have borrowed fifty thousand dollars to cover tuition. Who goes fifty thousand dollars into debt for a hobby that may or may not be his passion?



Of the fifteen books of poems Mary Oliver wrote, the one before Dream Work that got her the Pulitzer. She was already being touted as the bestselling poet in modern times. My chalking her popularity up to the accessibility of her poems led the twins to think of me as an elitist for a while. I admitted without sarcasm that she could be soulful: In our time of climate change, her poems asked what was missing and, naming Nature, may yet turn us into mystics.

But it wasn’t always about Nature. I suspect that the twins rank Dream Work over the other books because suddenly, and then only occasionally, the poet steps out of those nearby woods to write in conspicuous ways about her own suffering. The poem “Rage” is about a man, presumably her father, interfering with her when she was a child. Of him she writes
But you were also the red song
in the night,
stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste.
The damp rose of her body stays with me, even if I expect a darker presentation of abuse. I want to talk to the twins and especially Liney about this. What is the redness of song? Where may rage go? But I cannot for the simple reason that I don’t know what Liney has lived through and what attracts here to these poems.



Mary Oliver lived in three different and distinct places representing three essential phases of her life. We started in the woods near Maple Heights with her pencils and handsewn notebook that she might set aside while she whistled or whittled or spotted animals or diverted streams with rocks peeled from the moist earth or assembled what to her mind was a thatched house for a wayward girl leaving her real home forever. I imagine this to be her entire adolescence, before she went away to Ohio State University without taking a degree and then to Vassar, again without taking a degree. I love any detail implying underachievement and also a higher calling. Then it was off to Provincetown in what I’m calling Mary Oliver’s middle phase. She lived with Molly Cook, a photographer, I believe, and a gallery owner, for decades. She must have written the bulk of her poems there. Whether she did or not, the women descended together into retirement in Florida, where Mary outlived Molly. Then a protracted mourning period before Mary could have some fun on her own. Despite her introversion, she mingled with a big and I think multigenerational band of friends, before contracting cancer and dying at eighty-three on the island of Hobe Sound.


[1] From an interview Mary Oliver gave Maria Shriver for Oprah Winfrey’s website (2011)

[2] From Robert Hass’ poem “Cuttings” in Human Wishes (1989)

[3] Originally published in her book Dream Work (1986)

[4] From an interview Mary Oliver gave Maria Shriver for Oprah Winfrey’s website (2011)