Remembering Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

We are so sad that a great friend of ours has passed away. Beloved poet Mary Oliver passed away today at her home in Florida at the age of 83 after battling lymphoma.

Best-selling poet Mary Oliver (books by this author) was born in Maple Heights, Ohio (1935). As a child, she spent most of her time outside, wandering around the woods, reading and writing poems.

Oliver went to college in the ’50s at Ohio State University and Vassar, but dropped out. She made a pilgrimage to visit Edna St. Vincent Millay’s 800-acre estate in Austerlitz, New York. The poet had been dead for several years, but Millay’s sister Norma lived there along with her husband. Mary Oliver and Norma hit it off, and Oliver lived there for years, helping out on the estate, keeping Norma company, and working on her own writing. In 1958, a woman named Molly Malone Cook came to visit Norma while Oliver was there, and the two fell in love. A few years later, they moved together to Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Oliver said: “I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. [...] If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day — which is what I did.”

She published five books of poetry, and still almost no one had heard of her. She doesn’t remember ever having given a reading before 1984, which is the year that she was doing dishes one evening when the phone rang and it was someone calling to tell her that her most recent book, American Primitive (1983), had won the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, she was famous. She didn’t really like the fame — she didn’t give many interviews, didn’t want to be in the news. She once wrote in an introduction to a poetry collection, “I have felt all my life that I was wise, and tasteful, too, to speak very little about myself — to deflect the curiosity in the personal self that descends upon writers, especially in this country and at this time, from both casual and avid readers.”

When editors called their house for Oliver, Cook would answer, announce that she was going to get Oliver, fake footsteps, and then get back on the phone and pretend to be the poet — all so that Oliver didn’t have to talk on the phone to strangers, something she did not enjoy. Cook was a photographer, and she was also Oliver’s literary agent. They stayed together for more than 40 years, until Cook’s death in 2005.

Oliver said: “I’ve always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”

Oliver’s books of poems include No Voyage (1963), The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972), Twelve Moons (1978), The Leaf and the Cloud (2000), Owls and Other Fantasies (2003), Red Bird (2008), Dog Songs (2013), and Velocity (2015). Her most recent collection, Devotions, was released in Oct 2017.

Listen to poems from our archives >>>

More poems from the archives >>>

Read our poet interview >>>

Read NPR's obituary >>>


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