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Mary Oliver

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English Literature

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.

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,

closure—

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

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.

Quotes

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.

Mary Oliver

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

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

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

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

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.

Final Mary Oliver Quiz

Question

Who was an influence on Mary Oliver's work?

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Answer

Walt Whitman

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Question

What is "Wild Geese" about? 

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Answer

"Wild Geese" is about finding one's sense of place and belonging in the world, despite carrying heavy feelings of guilt and grief. 

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What did Mary Oliver commonly write about? 

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Answer

Mary Oliver frequently wrote about sense of wonder for the natural world. 

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Question

Why has Mary Oliver been called a contemporary Romantic poet? 

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Answer

Mary Oliver is considered a modern-day Romantic poet because her work features celebration of nature, isolation, and an inner spiritual life. 

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Question

Why does Mary Oliver structure the poem "Crossing the Swamp" with short, jagged lines? 

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Answer

The poem "Crossing the Swamp" is structured in a way to mirror the difficulty of walking through a dense swamp. 

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Which book of Mary Oliver's won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry? 

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Answer

"American Primitive" won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.

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Question

What did Mary Oliver mean when she said, "I got saved by poetry, and I got saved by the beauty of the world"?

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Mary Oliver turned to poetry and the natural world as a way to escape and heal from a traumatic childhood. 

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What is Mary Oliver's poetic style? 

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Unadorned, simple-yet-profound poetry that is easy to understand. 

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

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Answer

Direct address and rhetorical question

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How many poetry collections did Mary Oliver publish? 

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Answer

33

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Question

Who is the author of 'The Black Walnut Tree'?

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Answer

Mary Oliver

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What type of verse is 'The Black Walnut Tree' written in?

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Answer

Free verse

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Question

What is the relationship between the two characters speaking in the poem?

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Answer

They are mother and daughter 

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Who is the speaker referring to when she mentions "our fathers"?

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Answer

her ancestors 

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Name at least two prominent themes in 'The Black Walnut Tree.'

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Answer

Roots, ancestry, identity, the relationship between humans and nature, the power of nature 

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Question

What is the black walnut tree a symbol for?

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The black walnut tree in the poem is a symbol of the speaker's deep connection to nature through her ancestry.

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What was the occupation of the speaker's ancestors?

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Answer

They were farmers

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What is "Bohemia"?

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Answer

A region in Central Europe where the speaker's ancestors came from

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Which of the following poetic devices is not frequently used in the poem?

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Answer

Simile

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Question

Halfway through the poem, there is a shift in tone from hesitant and dismal to which of the following?

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Answer

clear and energetic 

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Question

What happens at the end of the poem?

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Answer

The tree lives on and thrives as the family continues to struggle paying their mortgage. 

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Question

How would chopping down the tree help the family pay their mortgage?

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Answer

The wood of the walnut tree is valuable and they could sell it

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Question

Who is the author of the poem, ‘Crossing the Swamp’?

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Answer

Mary Oliver

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Question

‘Crossing the Swamp’ is written in free verse. What is free verse?

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Answer

A form of poetry that does follow a specific meter or rhyme scheme

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Question

Name at least two themes in ‘Crossing the Swamp’?


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Personal struggle, triumph, growth, the duality of nature, and perspective

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What is the meaning of the poem?


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Answer

Growth and triumph come out of facing struggles and hardships

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Question

What is the term “palace of leaves” a metaphor for?


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Answer

A tree

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Question

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


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Answer

Endearing

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Question

In the poem ‘Crossing the Swamp,’ the speaker is trying to escape the swamp. What else is she trying to escape?


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Answer

Her fears, troubles, and anxieties

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Question

How would you describe the atmosphere created by the description of the swamp in the beginning of the poem?


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Answer

Dark, hazy, foreboding

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The tone of the poem shifts from fearful and anxious to which of the following?


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Joyful and triumphant 

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Which sound related literary devices are used throughout the poem?


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Alliteration and sibilance

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Question

What does the speaker metaphorically compare herself to at the end of the poem?


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Answer

A dry tree branch that was able to grow into a tree

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Question

What type of poem is ‘Crossing the Swamp’?


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Answer

A nature poem 

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Question

Who is the author of the poem, 'Poppies'?

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Answer

Mary Oliver

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What do poppy flowers symbolize?

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Answer

death, sleep, peace, and remembrance

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What does the poem contrast through the imagery of nature?

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Answer

Life and death, light and darkness

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What type of verse is the poem written in?

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Answer

free verse

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Which of the following is not a key theme found in 'Poppies'?

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Answer

Environmental protection

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Question

The poem uses words such as "congregation," "redemptive," and "holiness" to connotate what? 

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Religion and spirituality 

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True or False: the poem ends with a rhetorical question?

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Answer

True 

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Question

What is the meaning of the poem?

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Answer

the nature of life is colored by the fate of death, yet there are still great opportunities to experience happiness in the beauty of life

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Question

The "black, curved blade" is a symbol of what? 

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Answer

death

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Question

As Oliver writes that choosing to see "light / is an invitation / to happiness," the tone of the poem shifts from cynical to what?

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Answer

hopeful 

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Question

The words "congregations" and "levitation" are an example of which literary device?

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Answer

half rhyme 

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Question

Which of the following does the poem not use to suggest death? 

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Answer

the river

Show question

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