Born and raised in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, Ohio, Mary Oliver sought solace in the woods from a dark and unhappy childhood; in her leafy refuge she would build dens and write poems. She took classes at both Ohio State University and Vassar College, though she never got a degree. In her early poetry she was heavily influenced by fellow poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and she spent several years at the Millay estate helping Norma Millay to organise her late sister’s papers. It was around this time that Oliver met her long-term partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook. Together the pair moved to the tiny village of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they remained.
Her poetry harks back to the nature-loving verse of the Romantics – William Wordsworth and John Keats – as well as the rural reveries of fellow Americans Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Throughout her work, Oliver reflects on the natural world, as suggested by many of her titles: “The Hermit Crab”, “Beside the Waterfall” and “Hummingbirds”. The poems ramble through the stagnant ponds, blue swamps and sun-lit harbour of Provincetown, tracing circles of life. The language is unadorned and conversational, the focus entirely on the flora and fauna.
Oliver’s poetry was in one respect highly unusual: it sold like hotcakes. Her books frequently graced the best-seller list of the Poetry Foundation and she won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. She has more than 20 volumes of poetry to her name and gave countless public readings, always to capacity crowds. She rarely agreed to interviews, though, and is therefore often compared to Emily Dickinson, another keen observer who kept herself to herself.
With its accessible style and quiet consideration of the natural world, Oliver’s work gained a following around the globe. But to describe her poems as accessible is not to say that they’re simple. Beneath the surface, they tackle big questions – among them, what is our place on earth? She describes what it means to mourn a loved one and muses on spirituality and religion. “Wild Geese” considers how we ought to live: “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
Through Oliver’s poetry, we’re able to see the world through her eyes: the beautiful weeds, the kind of white moth that glimmers, the rain “dashing its silver seeds”. Poems often came to her as she walked in a sweet-scented garden – paying attention to the “beets, borage, tomatoes” and the “kale’s puckered sleeve” – or by the wave-lapped shore. In times like these, it is such observations that we are drawn to, that we need.
We hope you find some calmness in the words of Mary Oliver.
Words by Chloë Ashby. Film created for TOAST by Sam Finney. The film includes Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese, recorded by the Lannan Foundation in 2001.