Mary Oliver

If poetry could have a pop star, Mary Oliver would be it. She appeals to all readers alike and opens the door to poetry for new readers. With her unadorned language, simple-yet-profound poems, and continual love of the natural world, students and readers across the country turn to her words time and again.

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Table of contents

    Mary Oliver: Quick Facts

    Mary Oliver Quick facts
    Born 1935
    Died 2019
    RegionsOhio and Provincetown, Massachusetts
    Publications33 poetry collections, 4 books of non-fiction
    Notable awardsPulitzer Prize for Poetry (1984), National Book Award (1992)
    Poetic styleRomanticism, nature, personal, accessible
    Literary influencesWalt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Henry David Thoreau

    Mary Oliver’s Biography

    Considered by scholars to be America’s most popular poet, Mary Oliver achieved critical acclaim and reached a widespread readership. Born outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935, she experienced a traumatic childhood and a dysfunctional home life. By escaping to the woods to find solace and refuge, she immersed herself in the natural world and began writing poetry. These early experiences would inform her later work as a poet and prose writer.

    In the 1960s, Oliver moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she lived with her partner and literary agent Molly Malone Cook until Cook died in 2005. Famously private about her personal life, Oliver rarely gave interviews. It was only in her later work that she began writing about personal, real-life experiences. She died at the age of 83 in 2019.

    Mary Oliver’s Poems

    Inspired by Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and other similar writers, Oliver’s poems focus on the wonder of the natural world. They often feature no distinction between speaker and nature, where the speaker muses on observations of wildlife and plant life as it relates to the self. Using her daily walks as inspiration, she wrote poems that are solitary and meditative but also firmly rooted in a sense of place.

    Oliver’s poems are known for their accessibility, and yet they are multi-layered, poignant, and wise.

    Mary Olivers poetry shares common themes with Romanticism, a literary movement from the late 18th to the mid 19th century. Romantic writers, such as William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Lord Byron, celebrated nature, found solace in isolation, tended toward feelings of awe and wonderment, and explored their inner, spiritual lives. Because she was a contemporary writer, her work is not as widely read in college or university literature classes. However, she remains one of Americas most popular and accessible poets.

    Mary Oliver, Geese, StudySmarterA flock of geese in flight, as mentioned in Mary Oliver's poem "Wide Geese" Pixabay.

    “Wild Geese”

    First published in her poetry collection Dream Work (1986), “Wild Geese” is perhaps Oliver’s most famous poem. Through observing a flock of wild geese, the speaker explores feelings of guilt, despair, and ultimately belonging. Because of the speaker’s direct address to the audience, many readers find comfort and healing in its lines.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

    the world offers itself to your imagination,

    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

    over and over announcing your place

    in the family of things

    (Lines 14-18 from Wild Geese)

    “The Summer Day”

    Another widely read poem of Mary Oliver’s is “The Summer Day,” published in House of Light (1990). This poem opens with the speaker asking several questions, contemplating the creation of the world and its wildlife. The speaker then shifts their focus to a grasshopper who is “gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes” (line 8). In classic Oliver fashion, the speaker shifts yet again to the self, referring to the joys of strolling through fields, falling down on the grass, and being idle. The poem ends with a final call to action—a rhetorical question to remind readers of their aliveness:

    Doesnt everything die at last, and too soon?

    Tell me, what is it you plan to do

    with your one wild and precious life?

    (Lines 17-19 from The Summer Day)

    Mary Oliver, Swamp, StudySmarterA swamp, which is described in Mary Oliver's poem "Crossing the Swamp," Pixabay.

    “Crossing the Swamp”

    “Crossing the Swamp” (American Primitive, 1983) is a poem about a speaker who describes their journey across a swamp. Rich in imagery, sound devices, and metaphor, the poem is layered with meaning. It’s not just about the swamp but also about one’s relationship to hardship and triumph. Oliver structures the poem with jagged lines to mirror the struggle of crossing something seemingly impenetrable:

    Here is the endless

    wet thick

    cosmos, the center

    of everything—the nugget

    of dense sap, branching

    vines, the dark burred

    faintly belching

    bogs. Here

    is swamp, here

    is struggle,


    pathless, seamless,

    peerless mud.

    (Lines 1-13 Crossing the Swamp)

    Crossing the Swamp commonly appears on advanced exams. Its imagery, line structure, word choice, and tone shifts create a poem rich with meaning, and it offers students ample material to dive deep into analysis.

    Mary Olivers Books

    Mary Oliver is a prolific author who has published thirty-three poetry collections and four non-fiction books.

    American Primitive

    This collection of fifty poems, published in 1983, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. The volume contains contemplative poems about oneness with nature, the loss of children, and our country’s mistreatment of Native Americans. Lyrical and sensual, these resonant poems observe humanity’s internal and external worlds.

    Tecumseh lived here.

    The wounds of the past

    are ignored, but hang on

    like the litter that snags on the yellow branches

    newspapers and plastic bags, after the rains.

    (Lines 7-11 from Tecumseh in American Primitive)

    Dream Work

    To follow American Primitive, Mary Oliver released Dream Work in 1986. A collection of forty-five poems, this volume explores painful personal histories, the failures of human relationships, and the life-affirming joy found in self-awareness. In The Journey, Oliver writes about listening to ones inner voice to find peace and direction. The speaker says:

    It was already late

    enough, and a wild night,

    and the road full of fallen

    branches and stones.

    But little by little,

    as you left their voice behind,

    the stars began to burn

    through the sheets of clouds,

    and there was a new voice

    which you slowly

    recognized as your own.

    (Lines 20-31 from The Journey in Dream Work)


    Devotions (2017), a collection of selected poems curated by Mary Oliver herself, contains more than 200 poems, her most expansive collection yet. Luminous, perceptive, and resonating, this volume serves as an introduction to the prolific body of work by one of the best-selling contemporary poets. Readers delight in Olivers timeless contemplation of the natural world, her exploration of joy and grief, and her continued amazement at all living things.

    Mary Oliver, Kingfisher, StudySmarterA kingfisher flapping its wings above water, which inspired Mary Oliver's poem "The Kingfisher" (1992), Pixabay.


    In a 2015 interview with Krista Tippett for the podcast On Being, Mary Oliver talked about her difficult childhood and the positive effect poetry and exploring the natural world had on her:

    I got saved by poetry, and I got saved by the beauty of the world.

    In the poem When Death Comes (published in New and Selected Poems, 1992), Oliver writes about approaching the end of life, capturing her hallmark optimism and wonder:

    When its 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.

    (Lines 23-25)

    In her short yet powerful poem The Uses of Sorrow (from Thirst: Poems, 2007), Oliver reframes the darkness that comes with a traumatic past. Instead of it being something to fear or dread, she realizes the blessing it can bring:

    (In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

    Someone I loved once gave mea box full of darkness.

    It took me years to understandthat this, too, was a gift.

    Mary Oliver - Key Takeaways

    • Mary Oliver was born outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935 and passed away in Florida in 2019.
    • A prolific poet, she has published thirty-three books of poetry and four books of non-fiction.
    • With her accessible style and amazement of the natural world, Mary Oliver has become one of the best-selling contemporary poets in the United States.
    • Her most famous poems are Wild Geese, The Summer Day, and Crossing the Swamp.
    • She is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Mary Oliver

    Who is Mary Oliver?

    Mary Oliver (1935–2019) was a prize-winning poet whose work centered on her observations of the natural world.

    What is Mary Oliver’s most famous poem?

    Mary Oliver’s most famous poem is “Wild Geese” (1986).

    What is the meaning of “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver?

    “Wild Geese” (1986) by Mary Oliver is about feelings of guilt, despair, and ultimately a sense of belonging.

    Is Mary Oliver still alive?

    Mary Oliver passed away on January 17, 2019, at the age of 83.

    What is the message of “The Journey” by Mary Oliver?

    Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” (1986) is about overcoming your past hardships, listening to your inner voice, and doing the things you are meant to do.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What poetic devices are in Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day"? 

    Who was an influence on Mary Oliver's work?

    Which of the following words is not used to describe the swamp at the beginning of the poem?


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