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Happy Birthday, Mary!

One of my all time favorite poets.

Mary was born on September 10th, 1935, in a rural suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Later in her life she described her family as dysfunctional and her childhood very hard, having been sexually abused and experiencing sever nightmares. Having experienced such severe trauma she turned to the natural world where she connected deeply. She often took long walks outside and reading. Eventually she turned to writing which she says helped her create another world, her own world. In 1992 she was interviewed but the Christian Science Monitor and shared a thought about growing up in rural Ohio:

"It was pastoral, it was nice, it was an extended family. I don't know why I felt such an 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."

When she was 14 she began writing poetry and the following summer she attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, now the Interlochen Arts Camp, as a percussionist. When she was 17 she visited the home of the late Edna St. Vincent Millay, Steepletop, in Austerliz, New York. While there she met and formed a friendship with the late poet’s sister, Norma. Together they spent the next seven years organizing St. Millay’s papers.

During the mid 1950’s Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College but did not receive a degree from either college. Her first collection of poems entitled No Voyage and Other Poems, was published when she was 28. She taught at Case Western Reserve University during the early 1980’s and in 1984 she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with her fifth collection of poetry, American Primitive. In 1986 she was Poet in Residence at Bucknell University and in 1991 the Margaret Banister Writer in Residence at Sweet Briar College. She then moved to Bennington, Vermont where she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College.

She was the recipient of many awards and honors over the years. Her work is inspired by nature and the sense of wonder she felt in it. Oliver was an avid walker and her poems are infused with the joy of the natural world that she experienced during her walks. Often, she carried a 3 x 5 inch hand sewn notebook where she recorded her impressions and phrases that came to her. Of her Maxine Kumin said, she is “a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was inspector of snowstorms.”

In the late 1950’s Oliver met the photographer Molly Malone Cook who became her beloved partner for over forth years. Cook became Oliver’s literary agent and they made their home in Provincetown, Massachusetts where they lived a very private life until Molly’s death in 2005. Shortly after that Oliver relocated to Florida.

Oliver has been compared to Emily Dickinson and they both share an affinity for solitude and inner monologues. She was criticized for writing poetry that talks about a relationship between women and nature, she knew what she had learned at an early age, that she was strengthened by an immersion with nature. She was described by the Harvard Review as “a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.” She has received numerous awards and honors and published over twenty five books.

When asked, she said her personal favorite poets were Walt Whitman, Rumi, Hafez, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.


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