Mary Oliver Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Mary Oliver has written collections of essays: Blue Pastures (1995) and Winter Hours (1999). Although the essays are mainly prose meditations, some are written in poetic form. The subject matter is the creation of poetry, by Oliver herself or by poets who have influenced her. Blue Pastures celebrates the creative power of imagination, its capacity to reorder circumstances and to enter the natural world to find comfort, community, and joy. The meditations center on ponds, trees, animals, and seasons and on Romantic writers who looked to nature: Walt Whitman, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, in whose house Oliver lived periodically for several years after college, serving as an assistant to Millay’s sister.

Winter Hours takes up the same lines but offers essays and prose poems more sharply focused on the making of poems. Three essays consider the qualities that make powerful writing in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, and Whitman.

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2004) is a collection of essays and other writings in which Oliver intersperses personal reflections in poetry and essay form. Oliver has also published two works that instruct readers concerning the writing and reading of poetry: A Poetry Handbook (1994) and Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (1998). Oliver also provided text to accompany the photographs of the late Molly Malone Cook in Our World (2007).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Mary Oliver is known for her graceful, passionate voice and her ability to discover deep, sustaining spiritual qualities in moments of encounter with nature. Her vision is ecstatic, arising from silence, darkness, deep pain, and questioning—a searching sensibility acutely aware and on the lookout everywhere for transformative moments. Her central subject is the difficult journey of life and the capacity of the human imagination to discover energy, passion, compassion, and the light of conscious being in the very places where the difficult is encountered.

Acts of deep attention enable a crossing over into nature’s consciousness for a time to revitalize bodily awareness. The poet imaginatively disappears into nature, merges with it, and reemerges transformed in experiential fire. Whitman is her great forebear, although instead of an ever-present “I” seeking a merging intimacy, Oliver seeks instead a dissolving oneness in which the reader displaces her in order to enter more directly the experience she renders. Ordinary diction and syntax coupled with startlingly fresh images fuse in a passion that seems ordinary yet extraordinarily tender and liquid.

Among Oliver’s awards are the Shelley Memorial Award (1970), the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award (1973), two Ohioana Book Awards for Poetry (1973, 1993), an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1983), the Pulitzer Prize (1984) for American Primitive, the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award (both 1991) for House of Light, the National Book Award (1992) for New and Selected Poems, and the James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry and the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry (both 1998). She also received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1972) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1980-1981).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Bryson, J. Scott. The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005. One of the examples of growing interest in ecocriticism and scholarship. A good portion concerns Oliver and environmental concerns evident in her poetry.

Burton-Christie, Douglas. “Nature, Spirit, and Imagination in the Poetry of Mary Oliver.” Cross Currents 46, no. 1 (Spring, 1996): 77-87. Examines Oliver’s poetry as the work of spiritual attention and acceptance versus the will to change and domesticate.

Constantakis, Sara, ed. Poetry for Students. Vol. 31. Detroit: Thomson/Gale Group, 2010. Contains an analysis of Oliver’s poem “The Black Snake.”

Fast, Robin Riley. “Moore, Bishop, and Oliver: Thinking Back, Re-Seeing the Sea.” Twentieth Century Literature 39, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 364-379. Considers Oliver in the line of Marianne Moore’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s concern with death and the unconscious as background context for poetic imagination.

Graham, Vicki. “’Into the Body of Another’: Mary Oliver and the Poetics of Becoming Other.” Papers on Language and Literature 30, no. 4 (Fall, 1994): 352-372. An extensive treatment of Oliver as a postmodern feminist poet for whom, contrary to male Romantic poets, merging with consciousness regarded as other is a fuller apprehension of multiplicity instead of a loss of subjectivity.

McNew, Janet. “Mary Oliver and the Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry.” Contemporary Literature 30, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 59-77. A fascinating treatment of Oliver as a feminist Romantic poet writing against the tradition of male Romantics, who imagined nature as feminine, to be both desired and feared. Critiques mainline Romantic criticism as gender-biased.

Mann, Thomas W. The God of Dirt: Mary Oliver and the Other Book of God. Cambridge, England: Cowley, 2004. Connects and comments on the religious language and imagery in Oliver’s poetry.

Voros, Gyorgyi. “Exquisite Environments.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 21, nos. 1/2 (1996): 231-250. An omnibus review of three of Oliver’s books and two by Gary Snyder, who is used to show what Oliver should be doing. An interesting perspective that understands Oliver’s work narrowly as simply nature poetry, the kind of opinion that Janet McNew critiques.