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Poet of the Week: Mary Oliver

I encountered Mary Oliver through her poetry during my last semester of college. Up until that point, my college career had focused on professional writing per my degree requirements. I chose to take what I considered to be a bonus course to finish out my creative writing minor. In this poetry course, I rediscovered my innate writer voice, which had been silent for almost three years. Along with the other poets I studied, Mary Oliver reacquainted me with a way of writing I almost forgot.

“Oliver ‘stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.'”

Maxine Kumin as quoted by Poetry Foundation

The problem with studying the poetry of Mary Oliver during this college class is that I only got a brief introduction to her. Since those years, I have collected and read most of her books. But, I realized that I knew more about the poetry of Mary Oliver and not much about the poet herself.

Or at least that’s what I thought.

I learned a few new things about Mary Oliver during my research for this post. I found out that she was influenced by Edna St Vincent Millay when she stayed at Millay’s home helping to organize the poet’s papers. I suddenly find myself interested in reading more of Millay’s poetry as a result. I would like to understand the poet who influenced a poet that influenced me.

Another thing about Oliver is that, like many poets, she was “notoriously reticent about her private life.” I admire and respect this trait in poets with each passing year. Much of our private lives are too exposed these days. I also think that poets shouldn’t give away everything. Yet, in some way, in spite of ourselves, we do reveal bits and pieces of who we are. It may be in the themes we choose. It may be through our writing process.

She would retreat from a difficult home to the nearby woods, where she would build huts of sticks and grass and write poems.

from Mary Oliver’s biography on Poetry Foundation

Mary Oliver’s poetry teaches us about the natural world and the lyricism in it. But, she was also a teacher of the written word. We have the privilege of learning more from her through her poetry craft books–The Poetry Handbook and Rules of the Dance. I have personally found helpful for my own poetic journey.

. . .best known for her awe-filled, often hopeful, reflections on and observations of nature.

from Mary Oliver’s biography on

One of the things I have known and admired most about Mary Oliver is her prolific publication of a collection every one or two years. Not every poet publishes collections with such frequency. I have set this goal for myself with Oliver’s example as encouragement.

“She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.”

Harvard Review as quoted on

Ultimately, Mary Oliver “prefer[red] to let her work speak for itself.” This is something I do remember from my courses in college. Never make apologies. Never overexplain. Let the words speak. Which ultimately means our poetry will speak for us. I have told people who think they know me that to know me best is to read my poetry. I think Mary Oliver is one of the poets who taught me that important lesson.

Categories: poetry month

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