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."