Mary Oliver’s poetry bears witness to a difficult childhood, one in which she was particularly at odds with her father, a teacher who died without their being reconciled. Her childhood experience profoundly influenced her poetry, as the body of her work develops a journey of healing from the effects of trauma. In “Rage,” she writes of a childhood incest scene, detailing its damaging and continuing effects on daily adult life. Her poetry is remarkable for its limited focus on herself as a personality while showing a path out of terror and sorrow to acceptance, safety, joy, and freedom.
Oliver attended Ohio State University for one year, then transferred to Vassar College, but left after a year. She has taught at several institutions: the Fine Arts Workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Case Western Reserve as Mather Visiting Professor; Sweet Briar College in Virginia as Banister Writer-in-Residence; and Bennington College in Vermont as Catherine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching (1996-2001).
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