(From her own website, authorized by her.)
“A private person by nature, Mary Oliver has given very few interviews over the years. Instead, she prefers to let her work speak for itself. And speak it has, for the past five decades, to countless readers. The New York Times recently acknowledged Mary Oliver as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Born in a small town in Ohio, Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of 28; No Voyage and Other Poems, originally printed in the UK by Dent Press, was reissued in the United States in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. Oliver has since published many works of poetry and prose (the complete list appears below).
As a young woman, Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but took no degree. She lived for several years at the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upper New York state, companion to the poet’s sister Norma Millay. It was there, in the late ’50s, that she met photographer Molly Malone Cook. For more than forty years, Cook and Oliver made their home together, largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005.
Over the course of her long and illustrious career, Oliver has received numerous awards. Her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She has also received the Shelley Memorial Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award; the Christopher Award and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for House of Light; the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; and the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence.
Oliver’s essays have appeared in Best American Essays 1996, 1998, 2001; the Anchor Essay Annual 1998, as well as Orion, Onearth and other periodicals. Oliver was editor of Best American Essays 2009.
Oliver’s books on the craft of poetry, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, are used widely in writing programs. She is an acclaimed reader and has read in practically every state as well as other countries. She has led workshops at various colleges and universities, and held residencies at Case Western Reserve University, Bucknell University, University of Cincinnati, and Sweet Briar College. From 1995, for five years, she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College. She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from The Art Institute of Boston (1998), Dartmouth College (2007) and Tufts University (2008). Oliver currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the inspiration for much of her work.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
loves what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.
(Mary Oliver, from: “Dream Work”.)
Understand, I am always trying to figure out
what the soul is,
and where hidden,
and what shape
and so, last week,
when I found on the beach
the ear bone
of a pilot whale that may have died
hundreds of years ago, I thought
maybe I was close
to discovering something
for the ear bone
is the portion that lasts longest
in any of us, man or whale; shaped
like a squat spoon
with a pink scoop where
once, in the lively swimmer’s head,
it joined its two sisters
in the house of hearing,
it was only
two inches long
and thought: the soul
might be like this
so hard, so necessary
yet almost nothing.
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar;
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare;
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.
from Why I Wake Early (2004)