Mary Oliver 1935–
The following entry provides an overview of Oliver's career through 1995. See also, Mary Oliver Criticism.
An award-winning poet, Oliver is known for verses that celebrate nature and the lessons it holds. Her work explores with deceptive simplicity the mysteries of life, death, and regeneration. From an early identification with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Oliver has since forged an individual alliance with nature that finds expression in an often rapturous lyricism. Her poems seek and speak of the unexpected beauty in nature, without ignoring its uglier truths.
Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935 to Edward William Oliver, a teacher, and Helen M. Vlasak Oliver. She studied at Ohio State University for one year, then moved east to attend Vassar College. Beginning in the early 1950s, Oliver occasionally stayed at Steepletop, the upstate New York farm of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, where she served as an assistant to Millay's sister. Millay's lyrical style and themes influenced Oliver's early work, and Oliver later found an artistic home in rural Provincetown, Massachusetts, just as Millay had. In the early 1980s Oliver served as Mather Visiting Professor at Case Western Reserve University. She went on to become poet in residence at Bucknell University in 1986 and, beginning in 1991, Margaret Banister Writer in Residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
Oliver's first poetry collection, No Voyage, and Other Poems (1963), established her reputation for treating nature in a direct, unsentimental, yet lyrical fashion. Subsequent publications, including Twelve Moons (1980) and American Primitive (1983), found her delving further and further into the natural world for subject matter while pulling farther away from human subjects. Thematically, the poems in these collections unflinchingly face nature and its continuous cycle of life and often vicious death to embrace the stark beauty of this process. Oliver shifted her perspective in Dream Work (1986) to feature certain human-centered themes of personal suffering and the past, including a poem dealing with the Holocaust, but returned in House of Light (1990) to a nature-based focus on isolation from human concerns and assimilation into various aspects and beings of nature. In her first book of prose, A Poetry Handbook (1994), Oliver brought her years of writing experience to bear on a close study of the processes of poetry writing.
Critics have commended Oliver's poetry for its clarity, simplicity, and descriptive precision. American Primitive, which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, was highly acclaimed for its rendering of familiar objects and places in unique, refreshing ways. Some critics, however, noted that several poems contain, as Carolyne Wright asserted in Prairie Schooner, "conventional imagery and sentiments" that weaken the collection as a whole. Stylistically, critics have noted the lyrical beauty of Oliver's lines and turns of phrase, and the author has found favor for serving up her rapturous visions of nature without lapsing into sentimentality. While some feminist literature compilations have neglected her poetry because of her perceived status as a "woman in nature" poet, other critics have noted that Oliver forges outside of traditional Romantic poetry stereotypes to claim her own individual place in nature poetry. Critics have favorably reviewed A Poetry Handbook as an incisive guide to the mechanics of writing poetry. The book goes beyond mere instruction, said Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, to "connect the conscious mind and the heart."
No Voyage, and Other Poems (poetry) 1963
The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (poetry) 1972
The Night Traveler (poetry) 1978
Twelve Moons (poetry) 1978
American Primitive (poetry) 1983
Dream Work (poetry) 1986
House of Light (poetry) 1990
New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1992
A Poetry Handbook (nonfiction) 1994
White Pine: Poems & Prose Poems (poetry) 1994
SOURCE: A review of No Voyage, and Other Poems in Agenda, Vol. 4, Nos. 5 & 6, Autumn, 1966, pp. 58-60.
[Kaufman is an American educator and writer. In the following excerpt, he finds Oliver's poems in No Voyage, and Other Poems to be more personal than the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay.]
In Mary Oliver's poems No Voyage one is tempted to look for the influence of Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially since Miss Oliver was secretary to the poet's sister and lived at the poet's estate. But as any writer knows influence is not so obvious as "What I like I follow".
The person, the mind, in Miss Oliver's poems seems to be a mind with the Millay sensitivity. But she is not cornered by the economics or social conditions that were the warp of so much of Millay's poetry. Miss Oliver's poems are more personal, yet move at a safer distance from the brink of sentimentality. Perhaps it is easier for a good poet to feel sorry for one's society than for one's self.
In tending to her personal life Miss Oliver usually treats herself as just an ordinary human being, though one who is aware of wanting to be more. As she writes one imagines the poet laughing at her subject as an adult laughs at a child dressing in old grown-up clothes and playing house. It is probably not comfortable to see life this way, so of course the poems are not comfortable—psychologically speaking. There are occasional streaks of feminine quaintness in description but over all No Voyage is a very tough minded, clear sighted woman struggling with a real sense of urgency to see some hope in the here and now. For instance these last lines from "The Photograph":
Ten years away and wondering what to do,
I search my spirit for some flush of pain.
But thought by thought the quiet moments fall.
My heart, my heart is blank as hills of snow!—
And all time leads us toward that last december …
I stare upon your crumbling smile and keep you.
I do not love you now, but I remember.
SOURCE: A review of American Primitive, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 59, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 108-112.
[Wright is an American poet and educator. In the following review, she finds in Oliver's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection both stunningly original and cliched elements.]
This sixth volume of poetry by Mary Oliver is deceptively facile in its control of the language of the contemporary free-verse pastoral lyric. The book is often breathtaking—both in its luminous apparent simplicity (in the most successful poems), and in its seemingly narrow avoidance of triteness or flatness at times, especially in the final lines of the dozen or so weaker pieces. Some readers may object to the ordinariness of some poems here: haven't we all read too much of the conventional imagery and sentiments inspired by "Spring" or "May" or "The Roses"? And yet other poems—"Mushrooms," "The Kitten," "An Old Whorehouse," "John Chapman"—are stunning in the fresh ways in which they reveal the essential strangeness of the all-too-readily-taken-for-granted world. It may be odd to say, but I found these poems easy to read—not greatly demanding (as if making great demands on the reader's retrieval system of verbal echoes, literary allusions, and cultural phenomena were always a virtue), yet often amazing in the sudden turn of phrase, the unrehearsed conflation or dovetailing of perception:
How sometimes everything
closes up, a painted fan, landscapes and moments
flowing together until the sense of distance—
say, between Clapp's Pond and me—
vanishes, edges slide together
like the feathers of a wing … ("Clapp's Pond")
Mary Oliver's voice is at once celebratory and elegaic; her subject matter is largely that of the primitive American landscape, the fragile realm in which human passions and needs, and the primordial cycles of nature, still meet and interact:
I try to remember when time's measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
flares out at the last, boisterous and
like us longing
to stay—how everything lives, shifting
from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures. ("Fall Song")
The range of these poems—their movement from Ohio's forests and fields, the speaker's childhood country of the imagination, to Cape Cod's scrub pines, salt estuaries and views of the sea—is reminiscent at times of Roethke's "North American Cycle," although Oliver's voice is less sustained and her poems shorter, given more to immediate sensory experience than to extended meditations upon that experience. Perhaps it would be more accurate to liken her to Williams in her enumeration of sense impressions in short lines broken for dramatic effect:
come down from Red Rock, lips streaked
black, fingers purple, throat cool, shirt
full of fernfingers, head full of windy
takes all day. ("Blackberrles")
Another poem, "The Plum Trees," seems a response of sorts to Williams' famous "This is Just to Say." After a rather obvious play on the etymologies of root-words ("there's nothing / so sensible as sensual inundation") Oliver speaks with the same urgent directness as does Williams' note tacked to the refrigerator:
the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
into the body first, like small
But not all these poems are exultant in their "singing in the / heaven of appetite." There is a pervading undertone of loss and resignation to loss, of death and reconciliation to the world's ongoing processes, among which death is merely another turn of the great wheel. As do mushrooms "when they are done...
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SOURCE: A review of Dream Work, in The Nation, Vol. 243, No. 5, August 30, 1986, pp. 148-150.
[Ostriker is an American poet, editor, and educator. In the following excerpt, she applauds the lyricism of Dream Work and notes a shift in emphasis from the natural world in Oliver's earlier works to more human-based themes in this collection.]
Where [Donald] Hall's line is classically conversational and descriptive, Mary Oliver's is intensely lyrical, flute-like, slender and swift. Where he gathers detail, she will fling gesture. Her poems ride on vivid phrases: "the click of claws, the smack of lips" outside her tent turns out to be a bear's "shambling...
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SOURCE: "Dialogues Between History and Dream," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 428-38.
[In the following review, Steinman finds an "almost romantic lyricism" in Dream Work that floats over a deeper personal perspective of the past.]
Mary Oliver's Dream Work, the last book reviewed here, stands out when placed next to the three books discussed above [The Happy Man, by Donald Hall, The Walls of Thebes, by David R. Slavitt, and Thomas and Beulah, by Rita Dove], precisely because it seems to take no notice of any past or history. True, the cover of one of Oliver's earlier volumes, The Night Traveler,...
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SOURCE: "Six Poets in Search of a History," in Poetry, Vol. 150, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 113-16.
[Gilbert is an American editor, educator, and critic. In the following review, she applauds Oliver for mining the natural world to "learn the lessons of survival."]
Compared to [Gail] Mazur's work, Mary Oliver's poems are deliberately impersonal, almost anti-confessional. Yet she too is haunted by history, by the private history of the oppressive father who is the subject of "Rage" ("in your dreams you have sullied and murdered, / and dreams do not lie") and by the public history of the holocaust that is the subject of "1945–1985: Poem for the Anniversary," the history of...
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SOURCE: "Some Thoughts on the Line," in The Ohio Review, Vol. 38, 1987, pp. 41-6.
[In the following essay, Oliver discusses the mechanics of poetry and how length and tone variations can result in a wide range of effects.]
All manner of effects can be realized by the choices one makes concerning the line, and all choices are determined from a norm point, iambic pentameter.
The iamb is the paramount sound in any string of English words, thus it is the most fluid and natural sound. The pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our lungs, and is thus the line most suitable to our verse. By suitable I...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Mary Oliver: Modern Renewal Through Mortal Acceptance," in Pembroke Magazine, Vol. 20, 1988, pp. 283-88.
[In the following essay, Alford discusses the positive, life-affirming aspects that Oliver's poetry uncovers in nature.]
Mary Oliver is a distinctive poet in the fashionably surreal and escapist world of contemporary verse. The message and craft of her poetry are valued by peers and critics alike despite her unfortunate neglect as potential critical review. According to Hyatt H. Waggoner, she lacks the representative qualities associated with contemporary aesthetic values. However, her real worth as a modern poet lies in these very atypical...
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SOURCE: A review of Dream Work, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 63, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 111-12.
[Kuzma is an American poet. In the following review of Dream Work, he praises Oliver's "purity of motive" in expressing the gracefulness of nature.]
Mary Oliver's Dream Work sees in the earth everywhere evidence of a profound satisfaction. "Each pond," she tells us, "with its blazing lilies / is a prayer heard and answered …" ("Morning Poem") or "The sea / isn't a place / but a fact, and / a mystery …" ("The Waves"). In all her various acts of defining or saying precisely what she knows, it is the earth's fact and mystery and beauty she is moving...
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SOURCE: "Mary Oliver and the Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 59-77.
[In the following essay, McNew discusses why contemporary critics have difficulty analyzing Oliver's poetry within the framework of the romantic tradition.]
The special puzzle of Romanticism is the dialectical role that nature had to take in the revival of the mode of romance. Most simply, Romantic nature poetry, despite a long critical history of misrepresentation, was an anti-nature poetry…. Romantic or internalized romance … tends to see the context of nature as a trap for the mature imagination....
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SOURCE: "The Language of Dreams: An Interview with Mary Oliver," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May/June, 1990, pp. 1, 6.
[In the following interview, Oliver discusses poetry criticism, poetry workshops, and how her poetry has changed since her early work.]
Mary Oliver's poetry both celebrates the natural world and puts before us disturbing images of that world, in which we see reflections of ourselves. Her poetry leads us to question what it is that makes us human, what being "civilized" has given us—and what it has cost. She calls upon us as readers to be in her poetry, to "look!" and to "listen!" with all of our might. As Janet McNew wrote in...
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SOURCE: A review of House of Light, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May/June, 1990, pp. 1, 28.
[In the following review, Swanson finds House of Light to be a contemplative exploration of the paradoxes of nature to reveal the self.]
We have come to expect images of the natural world in Mary Oliver's poetry: dark ponds and bears and lilies, deer, crows, and snakes. Never has the natural world been so pervasive as it is in her latest book, House of Light; never before have the human subjects—when they appear at all—been shown at such remove. Yet, each poem is a deep human cry, a search for a connection with nature that will relieve...
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SOURCE: "Polished Surfaces and Difficult Pastorals," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, sec. 7, p. 24.
[In the following excerpt, Richman reviews House of Light and finds it to be an optimistic work concerned with the cycles of life.]
Mary Oliver's work seems to inhabit an aesthetic domain unsullied by the bustle of human life. Indeed, her principal theme—"how to love this world," as she writes in "Spring," a poem in her new volume, House of Light—often demands a poetic landscape that, brimming though it may be with lilies, herons, pipefish and crows, is devoid of human beings. Ms. Oliver would appear to think that if you take...
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SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 333-42.
[In the following excerpt, Sampson asserts that House of Light "yields … to everything in nature that is holy."]
What does it mean to have a vision in our time, "in this century and moment of mania," as Robert Penn Warren called it? Is it possible to speak any more, as Whitman did, of humanity as a whole without sounding pompous or political?
Mary Oliver's new book yields, as did Thoreau, to everything in nature that is holy. Some may find seeming artlessness and obsession with birds, beasts, and flowers absurd in her new work; she is not a formalist...
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SOURCE: "Inside History," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 6, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 42-4.
[In the following review, Upton notes Oliver's connection of dissimilar images in House of Light.]
Mary Oliver is yet another mature poet—one with whom many of us have much greater familiarity. While Eavan Boland works with domestic interiors, Mary Oliver sets her lens in nature. She writes of lilies and turtles and owls as if each possessed a soul and a singular identity. At times she echoes Walt Whitman, finding peace among animals for their very lack of consciousness, their inability to quarrel or irritate. Despite the note of horror and sudden menace in this book, she proceeds...
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SOURCE: "World and Spirit, Body and Soul," in Poetry, Vol. 158, No. 6, September, 1991, pp. 342-43.
[In the following review of House of Light, Howard finds that Oliver's poems "evoke the fears, sorrows, and joys of the solitary spirit."]
Mary Oliver's purpose is as rare as her austere, insistent voice. In Dream Work Oliver portrayed herself as the humble celebrant of natural enigmas, "learning / little by little to love / our only world." In the present collection, her eighth, she reaffirms that purpose, declaring flatly that there is "only one question: how to love this world." By turns retiring or demanding, self-effacing or peremptory, these new poems...
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SOURCE: A review of House of Light, in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 192-202.
[In the following excerpt, Baker questions the "isolationist" and "righteous" tendencies in Oliver's poetry.]
Like Stanley Plumly, Mary Oliver is a poet who reworks her passions. While Plumly's poems may have relatively few characters, Oliver's are downright isolated, hermetic; and while Plumly's phrasing is slow, severe, haunted, Mary Oliver's music is loose, humble, casual, innocent. I happen to like her work a good bit, and so find her new House of Light full of pleasures worth my repeated attention, but I also maintain a suspicion or two....
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SOURCE: "How Does One Live?," in The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1992, sec. 7, p. 12.
[In the following excerpt, Dobyns reviews New and Selected Poems and notes the consistency in tone and an "increased precision with language" over the thirty-year period featured.]
Ever since Homer set Achilles brooding in his tent, poets have asked: how does one live? For Mary Oliver one lives by trying to learn how to love the world. For Carl Dennis one lives by learning how to reconcile one's hopes and ambitions with one's failures and shortcomings. For Stephen Berg, one lives by seeking redemption for one's adult nature: the frailty, fallibility and fear....
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SOURCE: "Natural History," in Village Voice, Vol. 38, No. 2, January 12, 1993, pp. 81-2.
[In the following review of New and Selected Poems, Selman praises Oliver's composure, sincerity, and dedication to her subject.]
It's a beautiful winter day—one can't help noticing the day when one reads Mary Oliver—a day on which she's won another prize, this time the National Book Award for her seventh book, New and Selected Poems. I think of her at home in Provincetown, where she has a reputation for being something of a recluse. I also think of Elizabeth Bishop, the other National Book Award-winning recluse, with whom Oliver has much in common. Like Bishop,...
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SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in The Georgia Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 145-59.
[In the following review, Kitchen notes a disparity between earlier poems which feature a division between nature and narrator and later poems in which the narrator becomes one with nature.]
Her [Oliver's] New and Selected Poems reminds us of the territory she has covered since her first publications in the early 1960's, and I am glad to see some old favorites in this larger context. For example, "Ghosts" mourns the loss of the buffalo by imagining a time when they were abundant; then, with its insistent question—"have you noticed?"—the poem...
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SOURCE: "Intimations of Mortality," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 7, April, 1993, p. 19.
[In the following review of New and Selected Poems, Kumin praises Oliver for "reaching for the unattainable while grateful for its unattainability."]
Mary Oliver is a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms. She is without vanity or pretense in her celebrations of the lives of mussels, hermit crabs, hummingbirds and other creatures, including a few select people. Reading through her New and Selected Poems, I was struck again and again by the exactitude of her imagery, by her daring marriages of animal, vegetable and...
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SOURCE: A review of New and Selected Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 162, No. 4, July, 1993, pp. 233-42.
[In the following review, Barber praises Oliver for her unique presence in contemporary poetry, but finds that New and Selected Poems fails to adequately show her growth as a poet.]
With apologies to Susan Mitchell, no poet of our day has more of a claim on the title Rapture than Mary Oliver. Many poets seek communion with nature; Oliver courts ravishment by wildness. Many write in the persona of a solitary; Oliver's projected extremity of isolation approaches that of an anchorite. None can match the singlemindedness with which she depicts states of...
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SOURCE: "The Innocence of a Mirror," in American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, October-November, 1993, p. 11.
[In the following excerpt, Oppenheimer reviews New and Selected Poems and praises Oliver for maintaining an honest balance in her portrayals of nature.]
Mary Oliver's poetry regards nature with a pioneer's wary eye. Not for her the enthusiasm, which often looks like hysteria these days, of the nature-can-do-no-wrong school of thought, or the worship of natural forces by people who applaud the purity and balance of geological catastrophes, such as tidal waves and avalanches, while dismissing as corruption all valuable and even splendid human...
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SOURCE: A review of A Poetry Handbook, in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 12, 1994, p. 6.
[In the following review, Reynolds applauds Oliver for going beyond a how-to format to "connect the conscious mind and the heart."]
Most of us have a natural aversion to books that presume to tell us how to write poetry. [A Poetry Handbook] is not one of those books. Mary Oliver would probably never admit to anything so grandiose as an effort to connect the conscious mind and the heart (that's what she says poetry can do), but that is exactly what she accomplishes in this stunning little handbook, ostensibly written "to empower the beginning writer who...
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SOURCE: "Meditative Gazing on Contemporary Poetry," in The Southern Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 638-40.
[In the following excerpt, Hosmer reviews New and Selected Poems and praises Oliver's work for its simplicity and clarity.]
The work gathered in Mary Oliver's impressive New and Selected Poems spans three decades, from No Voyage and Other Poems to House of Light; in addition, it presents thirty new poems as well as five not previously included in any volume. And so this volume affords an opportunity to take the long view of this poet's fine work, savoring its many pleasures and assessing its considerable merits. This is a...
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SOURCE: "'Into the Body of Another': Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 352-72.
[In the following essay, Graham discusses Oliver's (and by extension, her readers') ability to "become" the various natural bodies she writes about.]
We belong to the moon, says Mary Oliver, and "the most / thoughtful among us dreams / of hurrying down … into the body of another." We dream, we long, and some of us believe that we can step outside of ourselves and enter the body of another. But Western culture discourages these yearnings and demands individualism and the formation of strong ego boundaries...
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SOURCE: A review of A Poetry Handbook and White Pine in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July-August, 1995, p. 28.
[In the following review, Smith praises A Poetry Handbook for providing an incisive guide for students of poetry and notes an emphasis on storytelling and mythmaking in White Pine.]
I have before me on the desk a stack of books nearly the height of my coffee mug, Mary Oliver's combined output for the past 15 years and all of her work she has chosen to keep in print. By most poets' productivity standards—a collection every five years or so is standard—this is prodigy. The titles—Twelve Moons, American Primitive, Dream Work,...
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SOURCE: "Stars and Departures, Hummingbirds and Statues," in Poetry, Vol. 166, No. 5, August, 1995, pp. 288-90.
[Tillinghast is an American poet and educator. In the following review, he praises Oliver for handling "description with a satisfying, jeweler's precision" in White Pine.]
Reading Mary Oliver's new book, White Pine, I was reminded of the cover of the old Petit Larousse Illustre, which shows a girl blowing on a white dandelion blossom, with the caption, "Je sème à tout vent." Oliver's poetry, pure as the cottony seeds of the dandelion, floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity...
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Bonds, Diane S. "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver." Women's Studies 21, No. 1 (1992): 1-15.
Discusses whether Oliver's identification with nature in her poetry echoes traditional poetic stereotypes of women and nature.
Fast, Robin Riley. "Moore, Bishop, and Oliver: Thinking Back, Re-Seeing the Sea." Twentieth Century Literature 34, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 364-79.
Analyzes the poetry of Oliver, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop to see how they use their poetry to relate to their female poet predecessors and successors.
(The entire section is 115 words.)