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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.

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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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Mary Oliver was born September 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio, to Helen and Edward Oliver (a teacher). Oliver has described herself as a serious thirteen-year-old who wanted to write. At the age of fifteen, she wrote a letter to Norma Millay Ellis, the sister of the then recently-deceased Edna St. Vincent Millay to ask permission to visit Millay's home in upstate New York. This visit was followed by more and eventually a longer stay at which time Oliver assisted in organizing Millay's papers. The influence of Millay upon Oliver is apparent, and similarities can be seen in the lives of Millay and Oliver: both were familiar with country life, studied at Vassar, and moved in the bo-hemian circles of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Oliver studied at Ohio State University from 1955-56, and then at Vassar from 1956-57. Since then, she has had a series of scholarly engagements at various academic institutions including Case Western Reserve University, Sweet Briar College, and Duke University. Her last appointment, in 1996, was to the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College. In 1998, Oliver completed a second poetry handbook, Rules for the Dance, on metrical poetry to compliment A Poetry Handbook (1994), which discussed free, as well as metered, verse. Oliver is writing another volume of essays titled Winter Hours, which she expects to publish in 1999. Among Oliver's many honors are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1972), a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1980), and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award (1983). In 1984 Oliver was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her volume of poetry, American Primitive (1983). Another book of poems, House of Light (1990) won both the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship Award in 1991, and New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award that same year.


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Mary Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935. Her father was a teacher and her mother a stay-athome mom. Oliver knew early on that she wanted to be a writer, and her demeanor, even as a young teen, was serious and determined. When she was fifteen, she sent a letter to Norma Millay Ellis, the sister of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, asking if she could visit Steepletop, Millay’s home in upstate New York. Touched by the young girl’s admiration of her recently deceased sister, Ellis consented to the visit, and it became only the first of several that Oliver would make to Steepletop. Eventually, she was invited for an extended stay during which time she helped to organize Millay’s papers.

From 1955 to 1956, Oliver studied at Ohio State University and then at Vassar from 1956 to 1957. Without earning a degree, she left college and moved to Provincetown,...

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