Oliver, Mary 1935-

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OLIVER, Mary 1935-

PERSONAL: Born September 10, 1935, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Edward William (a teacher) and Helen M. (Vlasak) Oliver. Education: Attended Ohio State University, 1955-56, and Vassar College, 1956-57.

ADDRESSES: Office—Bennington College, Bennington, VT 05201. Agent—c/o Molly Malone Cook Literary Agency, Box 619, Provincetown, MA 02657.

CAREER: Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA, chair of writing department, 1972-73, member of writing committee, 1984; Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, Mather Visiting Professor, 1980, 1982; Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, poet-in-residence, 1986; University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, Elliston Visiting Professor, 1986; Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA, Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, 1991-95; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching, 1996—.


AWARDS, HONORS: First prize, Poetry Society of America, 1962, for "No Voyage"; Devil's Advocate Award, 1968, for "Christmas, 1966"; Shelley Memorial Award, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1972-73; Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, 1973; Guggenheim fellow, 1980-81; Award in Literature, American Academy and Institution of Arts and Letters, 1983; Pulitzer Prize, 1984, for American Primitive; Christopher Award and L. L. Winship Award, both 1991, for House of Light; National Book Award for Poetry, 1992, for New and Selected Poems; Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, 1998.


No Voyage, and Other Poems, Dent (New York, NY), 1963, expanded edition, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1965.

The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972.

The Night Traveler, Bits Press, 1978.

Twelve Moons, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.

Sleeping in the Forest, Ohio Review Chapbook, 1979.

American Primitive, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1983.

Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1986.

Provincetown, Appletree Alley, 1987.

(Author of introduction) Frank Gaspar, Holyoke, Northeastern University Press, 1988.

House of Light, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1990.

New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1992.

A Poetry Handbook, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.

White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.

Blue Pastures, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1995.

West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.

Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.

The Leaf and the Cloud, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

What Do We Know, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2002.

Why I Wake Early, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.

Boston Iris: Poems and Essays, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, Da Capo (Cambridge, MA), 2004.

New and Selected Poems, Volume Two, Beacon (Boston, MA), 2004.

Contributor of poetry and essays to periodicals in England and the United States.

ADAPTATIONS: Oliver's poems have been set to music for mezzo-soprano voice, violin, and piano by composer Augusta Read Thomas in In Summer, Theodore Presser (Bryn Mawr, PA), 1994, and for soprano voice and bassoon by composer Ann Kearns in Six Poems of Mary Oliver, Casia Publishing Co. (Bryn Mawr, PA), 1997.

SIDELIGHTS: Poet Mary Oliver is an "indefatigable guide to the natural world," wrote Maxine Kumin in Women's Review of Books, "particularly to its lesser-known aspects." Oliver's verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, "lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes." Kumin noted of the poet: "She 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." The power of Oliver's poetry earned her numerous awards, including 1984's Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive and the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. Reviewing Dream Work for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America's finest poets, as "visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson."

American Primitive, according to New York Times Book Review's Bruce Bennet, "insists on the primacy of the physical." Bennet noted that "recurring images of ingestion" figure throughout the volume, and "as we joyfully devour luscious objects and substances . . . we are continually reminded of our involvement in a process in which what consumes will be consumed." Bennet commended Oliver's "distinctive voice and vision" and asserts that the "collection contains a number of powerful, substantial works." Holly Prado of Los Angeles Times Book Review also applauded Oliver's original voice when she wrote that American Primitive "touches a vitality in the familiar that invests it with a fresh intensity."

Dream Work continues Oliver's search to "understand both the wonder and pain of nature" according to Prado in a later review for Los Angeles Times Book Review. Ostriker sounded this note more specifically when she considered Oliver "among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey." Colin Lowndes of the Toronto Globe & Mail similarly considered Oliver "a poet of worked-for reconciliations" whose volume deals with thresholds, or the "points at which opposing forces meet." Both Prado and Ostriker praised Oliver's lyrical gift. Ostriker described Oliver's verse as "intensely lyrical, flute-like, slender and swift . . . [riding] on vivid phrases," while Prado called the poetry of Dream Work "the best of the real lyrics we have these days." Dream Work, for Ostriker, is ultimately a volume in which Oliver moves "from the natural world and its desires, the 'heaven of appetite' . . . into the world of historical and personal suffering....She confronts as well, steadily," Ostriker continued, "what she cannot change."

The transition from engaging the natural world to engaging the more personal is also evident in New andSelected Poems. The volume contains poems from eight of Oliver's previous volumes as well as previously unpublished, newer work. Susan Salter Reynolds, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, noticed that Oliver's earliest poems are almost always oriented towards nature, occasionally discuss relatives, but seldom examine her own self. In contrast, she appears constantly in her later works, such as Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. This is, as Reynolds noted, a good thing: "This self-consciousness is a rich and graceful addition." Just as the contributor for Publishers Weekly called particular attention to the pervasive tone of amazement—also the title of a poem—with regard to things seen in Oliver's work, Reynolds found Oliver's writings to have a "Blake-eyed revelatory quality." Oliver summed up her desire for amazement in her poem "When Death Comes" from New and Selected Poems: "When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."

Oliver continues her celebration of the natural world in later collections, including White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems, Blue Pastures, West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, and Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems. Critics have compared her work to that of great American lyric poets and celebrators of nature, including Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Muir, and Walt Whitman. "Oliver's poetry, pure as the cottony seeds of the dandelion," wrote Poetry contributor Richard Tillinghast in a review of White Pine, "floats above and around the schools and controversies of contemporary American poetry. Her familiarity with the natural world has an uncomplicated, nineteenth-century feeling." America reviewer David Sofield, in a critique of the same volume, called Oliver "an Emersonian rhapsode in full flight, but one with something like the canny vulnerability of Elizabeth Bishop when evoking the pathos of creatures great and small." "William Carlos Williams is alive in many of these poems," Sofield explained, as is the "late Wallace Stevens....In putting her own stamp on poems about birds and trees and animals and seasons, and in her unyielding intensity," the America contributor concluded, ". . . this Mary Oliver provides serious pleasure."

In Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse Oliver returns to a subject she visited in A Poetry Handbook. Critics had celebrated the earlier volume as the work of "someone who has observed poems and their writing closely and who writes with unassuming authority about the work she and others do," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor. Oliver "starts in at poetry's real beginning, discussing the need for patient application: the need, in brief, to write and to do so regularly," explained Pat Monaghan in Booklist. "She so deeply knows her craft that she can describe it with perfect simplicity and concision." "Poetry is Oliver's lifeblood," declared Booklist contributor Donna Seaman in a review of Rules for the Dance, "and she writes about its creation with as much quiet ecstasy, acumen, and artistry as she writes poems themselves."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1981, Volume 98, 1998.

Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook 1984, Volume 34, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.

Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.

Oliver, Mary, New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, 1992.


America, January 13, 1996, David Sofield, review of White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems.

Booklist, July, 1994, Pat Monaghan, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 1916; November 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of White Pine, p. 574; June 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, p. 1648; June 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, p. 1708; March 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Winter Hours, p. 1279; September 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 58; March 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Long Life: Essays and Other Writings, p. 1259.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 23, 1986.

Library Journal, July, 1997, Ellen Kaufman, review of West Wind, p. 87; August, 1998, Lisa J. Cihlar, review of Rules for the Dance, p. 104; December, 2000, Louis McKee, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 145; December, 2003, Judy Clarence, review of Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, p. 125; May 1, 2004, Kim Harris, review of Long Life, p. 107.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 21, 1983, p. 9; February 22, 1987, p. 8; August 30, 1992, p. 6.

Nation, August 30, 1986, pp. 148-150.

New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1983, pp. 10, 22; November 25, 1990, p. 24; December 13, 1992, p. 12.

Poetry, May, 1987, p. 113; September, 1991, p. 342; July, 1993, David Barber, review of New and Selected Poems, p. 233; August, 1995, Richard Tillinghast, review of White Pine, p. 289; August, 1999, Christian Wiman, review of Rules for the Dance, p. 286.

Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1990, p. 62; August 10, 1992, p. 58; June 6, 1994, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 62; October 31, 1994, review of White Pine, p. 54; August 7, 1995, review of Blue Pastures, p. 457; June 30, 1997, review of West Wind, p. 73; March 29, 1999, review of Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems, p. 100; August 28, 2000, review of The Leaf and the Cloud, p. 79; July 21, 2003, review of Owls and Other Fantasies, p. 188.

Washington Post Book World, February 1, 1987, p. 6.

Whole Earth Review, summer, 1995, Wade Fox, review of A Poetry Handbook, p. 30.

Women's Review of Books, April, 1993.*

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