Books

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver dead at 83

The author of more than 15 poetry and essay collections, Oliver wrote brief, direct pieces that sang of her worship of the outdoors and disdain for greed, despoilment and other human crimes.
American poet Mary Oliver, pictured above at Maria Shriver's 2010 Women's Conference, has died at the age of 83. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose rapturous odes to nature and animal life brought her critical acclaim and popular affection, has died. She was 83.

Bill Reichblum, Oliver's literary executor, says she died Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. The cause of death was lymphoma.

Author of more than 15 poetry and essay collections, Oliver wrote brief, direct pieces that sang of her worship of the outdoors and disdain for greed, despoilment and other human crimes.

"In my outward appearance and life habits I hardly change — there's never been a day that my friends haven't been able to say, and at a distance, 'There's Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook,"' Oliver wrote in Long Life, a book of essays published in 2004.

"But, at the centre: I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel."

Never in my life
 had I felt myself so near
 that porous line
 where my own body was done with
 and the roots and the stems and the flowers
 began


From White Flowers by Mary Oliver

Like her hero Walt Whitman, whom she would call the brother she never had, Oliver didn't only observe mushrooms growing in a rainstorm or an owl calling from a black branch; she longed to know and become one with what she saw. She might be awed by the singing of goldfinches or, as in the poem White Flowers, overcome by a long nap in a field.

Her poetry books included White PineWest Wind and the anthology Devotions, which came out in 2017. She won the Pulitzer in 1984 for American Primitive and the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. In 1998, she received the Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. Her fans ranged from fellow poets Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?- Mary Oliver

"Although few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver, it is ironic that few poets also go so far to help us forward," Stephen Dobyns wrote of her in the New York Times.

Oliver was a native of Maple Hills Heights in suburban Cleveland, and endured what she called a "dysfunctional" family in part by writing poems and building huts of sticks and grass in the nearby woods. Edna St. Vincent Millay was an early influence and, while in high school, Oliver wrote to the late poet's sister, Norma, asking if she could visit Millay's house in Austerlitz, N.Y. Norma Millay agreed and Oliver ended up spending several years there, organizing Edna St. Vincent Millay's papers.

While in Austerlitz, she also met the photographer Molly Malone Cook — "I took one look and fell, hook and tumble," Oliver later wrote — and the two were partners until Cook's death, in 2005. Much of Oliver's work was dedicated to Cook.

Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but never graduated and later scorned much of her education as "a pre-established collection of certainties."

She did teach at Case Western University and Bennington College among other schools, although much of her work drew upon her childhood and the landscape around Provincetown.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up having simply visited the world.


From When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

"I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It's already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we're animals, that we need the Earth," Oliver, who rarely spoke to the press, told Maria Shriver during a 2011 interview for Oprah Winfrey's O magazine.

"If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like."

She wrote often of mortality, but with a spirit of gratitude and completion. In Circles, she pronounced herself "content" not to live forever, having been "filled" by what she saw and believed. In When Death Comes, she hoped that at the end of life she could look back and see herself as a "bride married to amazement."

Written by Hillel Italie, with files from entertainment writer Mark Kennedy.

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