Mary Oliver: An Appreciation

Recalling the poet’s peaceful power

Mary Oliver: An Appreciation

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. /
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

– Mary Oliver

And so it was for Mary Oliver, who leaves behind 83 productive years of distinctive poetry. She was honored by many prestigious literary organizations, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement.

She was born in Ohio, educated at — though not graduated from — Ohio State and Vassar, taught at Bennington, and lived in Providence for many years with her partner, Molly Malone Cook. She died in Hobe Sound, Florida, on Jan. 17th.

Some of the happiest hours of my life were spent with my family, sometimes with friends, sitting around our dining table and reading aloud Oliver’s poems. It meant peace and joy to us in intimate ways. I will always remember those times, especially now as her work has concluded.

I first met Oliver when she taught briefly at Sweet Briar College, across the road from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Both institutions shared their talent and, once, while I was at VCCA for a board meeting, some of us went to Sweet Briar to hear Oliver read. Moved as I was, I bought many of her books, and they have been a precious part of my library ever since.

Oliver's poems were lyrical and naturalistic, savoring her joys and pantheistic insights about animals, plants, water, and sky, always accessible to readers, always joyous and optimistic. Her style has been described as focusing on "the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human form from what we loosely call animal."

The titles to her poems are reflective of her interests: “The Morning I Watched the Deer,” “Snow Geese,” “A Poem for the Blue Heron,” “Humpbacks,” “Bluefish,” “The Snakes,” “Starfish,” “First Snow.”

Of Walden Pond, she wrote, “Going to Walden Pond is not an easy thing…It is the slow and difficult trick of living and finding it where you are.”

She was amazed by nature and the endless intersections between the human and the natural world:

From “Morning at Great Pond”:

It starts like this:
Forks of night
Slicking up
Out of the east…

Your Heart
Wants more, you’re ready
To rise and look!
To hurry anywhere!
To believe in everything.

From “Morning Poem”:

Every morning
the world
Is created
Under the orange
sticks of the sun.


For me, Oliver's most profound poem is about the Holocaust. It brings her love of nature, her sentience about life, and her powerful use of poetry to make her peaceful point. Here are some selected parts of that poem:

The way I'd like to go on living in this world
Wouldn't hurt anything, I’d just go on 
walking uphill and downhill, looking around,
and so what if it doesn't come
To a hill of beans-
So what if I vote liberal,
And am Jewish,
or Lutheran —
or a game warden —

or a bingo addict —

and smoke a pipe?

In the films of Dachau and Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen
the dead rise from the earth
and are piled in front of us, the starved
stare across forty years,
And lush, green, musical Germany
shows again its iron claw, which won't

Ever be forgotten, which won't
ever be understood, but which did,
Slowly, for years, scrape across Europe.

He fills a glass.
You can tell it is real crystal.
He lifts it to his mouth and drinks peacefully

It is the face of Mengele.

The doe came down wandering back in the twilight.
She stepped through the leaves. She hesitated,
Sniffing the air.

Then she knew everything.

The forest grew dark.
She nuzzled her child wildly.


In death, as in her life, Oliver was the same. In “When Death Comes,” she wrote: “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

In “Bluefish,” she asked: “Have you ever wondered where the earth tumbles beyond itself and heaven begins?” When I do wonder, no doubt Mary Oliver will be there, at peace, contemplating as she did in her life — open, enthusiastic, and poetic.

In one of my favorites, “Goldfinches,” she asked: “Have you heard them singing in the wind, above the final fields? Have you ever been so happy in your life?”

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