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Mary Oliver
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Beloved poet Mary Oliver, who wrote of love, loss, and nature, has died

The American poet found solace in nature and spirituality, with plain but evocative work that brought joy to so many

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” says Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘The Summer Day’. Her words, plain and direct, remind us that life is of our own making.

Oliver, a Pulitzer prize-winning, much-loved poet, has passed away age 83. She died of lymphoma, at her home in Florida. Across her life, she published over 20 books of poetry, and won the Pulitzer in 1984. 

Oliver’s work gained an expansive fanbase from her first collection of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems, which she published age 28 in 1963 – the same year as Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Plath’s Bell Jar. Her poetry, inspired by her intimate exploration of nature, harnessed the beauty of the natural world to tap into the sublime and spiritual, a world where flora and fungi were studied in stunning, accessible detail, which provided refuge and joy for so many. She often described her art as the observation of life, and did so with conviction and dedication. 

Oliver’s devotion to nature saw her compared to Walt Whitman and Mary Shelley, her language radiating with the earnest awe and spirituality of Byron and Wordsworth, the Romantics. Many of her works are celebratory odes to nature, at times intoned with the hushed reverence of a guardian angel prayer, others extraordinary hymns – ‘Spring’ is a delicate portrait of a holy forest walk and a black bear, with other sensitive snapshots of animals and the wild like ‘The Rabbit’ and ‘Egrets’.

Oliver’s use of language was accessible, clear, and impeccably detailed – critics were said to never take her seriously because of how plain speaking some of her work is, but her mission had consistent clarity: “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” she said in her book of essays Upstream. Nevertheless, rich, evocative stories bloom from Oliver’s undergrowth that her loyal readership understood. You can find snippets of her words everywhere from Pinterest to Tumblr, as well as the epitaph of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Ultimately, she wanted to world to love what they love freely, confront their emotions, find light in the darkness spots, and be amazing at the world.

Though she’d never spoken at length about it and was private in many ways, she did say her childhood was fraught with sexual abuse and neglect. Her oeuvre, later on, touched on the more personal. Our World collates her writing and late partner and photographer Molly Malone’s pictures, intertwined beautifully. Oliver’s poetry sang of sadness and her own personal struggles, and offered others support and affirmations. “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness / It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift,” she writes in ‘The Uses of Sorrow’. 

In a rare interview, Oliver told Oprah magazine. “I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.” That solace and refuge was open for everyone, a believer that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”, but at the same time is a “life-cherishing force…something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry”. 

Reading an Oliver poem is like taking a quiet walk through the woods with her, bathing in the splendour and spirituality that the natural world can afford us, to access what we most need from deep within ourselves.

Let’s leave things on Oliver’s gentle, life-affirming words from ‘Sometimes’: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention / Be astonished / Tell about it.”