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Mary Oliver, a Poet Whose Simple Turns of Phrase Held Mass Appeal, Dies at 83

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer was known for her straightforward meditations on nature, spirituality and the human experience

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

Mary Oliver’s instructions for living were simple: “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”

The 83-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died at her Florida home on Thursday after battling lymphoma, followed this simple maxim to the letter over her nearly six-decade career. In more than 20 volumes of poetry, she offered up incisive yet accessible musings on the natural world, spirituality and that intangible verve of human experience, drawing—according to The New York Times’ Margalit Fox—“a wide following while [at the same time] dividing critics.”

Oliver’s straightforward language simultaneously appealed to the masses and attracted the derision of those who view poetry as a more highbrow practice. But in a 2012 interview with NPR, the poet dismissed such erudite concerns, maintaining that “poetry, to be understood, must be clear” rather than “fancy.”

Despite the lack of scholarly consensus on her work, Oliver garnered substantial critical recognition, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and a National Book Award in 1992. Most impressively, particularly to those outside of insular literary circles, she boasted that elusive knack for commercial success, becoming, in the words of The New York Times’ Dwight Garner, “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.”

Writing for the New Yorker in 2017, Ruth Franklin noted that Oliver drew inspiration from such poetic predecessors as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. She used nature as a jumping point for more spiritual meditations, likening the act of praying to kneeling down in a grassy field on a summer day and declaring that “attention is the beginning of devotion,” but remained skeptical of organized religion.

Instead of reiterating Christian tales of resurrection and redemption, Oliver saw the sacred in nature’s “endless cycles of death and rebirth.” She took frequent walks through the woods or by the shore, cataloguing flora and fauna and cementing a singular image of herself in friends’ minds. As the poet noted in her 2004 essay collection Long Life, “There’s never been a day that my friends haven’t been able to say, and at a distance, ‘There’s Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook.’”

This habit of roaming the wild began during Oliver’s childhood, as Lynn Neary explains for NPR. Born in September 1935, the burgeoning writer escaped the abuse and neglect of her life in rural Ohio by retreating to the woods. After graduating from high school, she embarked on a spontaneous trip to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s New York estate and managed to befriend the late poet’s sister, who allowed Oliver to live in the Austerlitz home and assist in organizing Millay’s papers.

According to the Cut’s Edith Zimmerman, Oliver met her longtime partner—photographer and literary agent Mary Malone Cook—at Austerlitz in 1959. The poet later described the meeting in characteristically candid terms, admitting, “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.”

A few years after this chance encounter, Oliver and Cook settled down in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They remained together until Cook’s death in 2005.

David C. Ward, senior historian emeritus at the National Portrait Gallery and a poet himself, tells Smithsonian.com that one of Oliver’s gifts was making poetry “look easy.” Prior to reading her work, Ward says he had been over-intellectualizing poetry, assuming it was best left to such luminaries as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Compared to these poets’ layered allusions and complex symbolism, Oliver’s work exhibits a certain “openness.”

“[She showed] you could write about nature, and it didn't have to be tremendously complicated,” Ward adds. “There could be an element of description, and you could get at how we live in the world.”

Still, the simplicity of Oliver’s language—and the subsequent quotability of her work, as evidenced by its ubiquitous presence on greeting cards, wall art, T-shirts, jewelry and an array of commercial products—sometimes belied its power to touch the soul. As Mary Schmich writes for the Chicago Tribune, Oliver’s “poems ask us to reflect on the violence and beauty of the world, on our inevitable loneliness and death, on the exhilarating but not entirely happy mystery of it all.”

Referencing the poet’s “In Blackwater Woods,” which outlines the difficulties associated with loving “what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing” that at sometime in the future, you must “let it go,” Schmich points out that Oliver’s work serves not simply as inspiration, but consolation and the spark for a litany of other emotions.

“She made people who might not otherwise read poetry read poetry,” Ward further explains. “... [She] created a world that touched people deeply, connected them in a way with the world around them, [and] took them out of their own lives.”

Oliver’s most famous lines—a couplet found at the end of “The Summer Day”—ask, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

To the poet herself, the answer was clear: As she concluded in a work titled “When Death Comes,” “When it’s over, I want to say / all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.”

It might as well be her epitaph.

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