“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”‘The Summer Day’ by Mary Olive
Mary Oliver was born September 10, 1935, just outside of Cleveland. Her father was a teacher and an athletics coach. As a child she enjoyed being outside and reading, and took long walks to escape a dysfunctional home life. At the age of 14 she began writing poetry.
At 17 she visited “Steepletop,” the estate of of Edna St. Vincent Millay in New York, and began a friendship with the late poet’s sister Norma. For the next six to seven years she worked as a secretary there, organizing Edna’s papers with Norma. Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College but did not graduate.
She taught briefly at Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s, and Bennington College until 2001.
At the age of 28 she published her first collection of poems No Voyage and Other Poems (1963). She went on to publish 25 books during her lifetime and became one of America’s best-selling poets. Oliver won both the National Book Award (for New and Selected Poems ) and the Pulitzer Prize (for American Primitive). Her poems explored the relationship between the spiritual and natural world, and women’s ties to nature. The accessibility of her works is celebrated by her readers, but not always by critics. However, Oliver was not writing for awards or appreciation, but following her own path. She wanted her works to be understood, not fancy.
She also led an intensely private life, rarely giving interviews.
In the 1949, twenty-four year old Oliver met thirty-four year old photographer Molly Malone Cook, who would become her partner, and literary agent, for over forty years, until Cook’s death in 2005. After her death Oliver compiled a book in her memory, Our World (2009), pairing her prose with Cook’s photographs.
Mary Oliver died at the age of 83, on January 17, 2019.
Lesson from Oliver:
Oliver lived a quiet life of observation, of which she drew contentment and inspiration. She was private person, letting her work speak for itself, and giving countless readers joy and comfort, tying them through words to hope found both inside their spirit and out in the natural world.