Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver passed away in her home in Hobe Sound, FL. Her cause of death was lymphoma. Today and as time passes, we can remember her through her work and storied achievements.
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Mary Oliver did not have a happy childhood. Subject to sexual abuse and parental neglect, Oliver managed never to lose her sense of wonder. Her poetry often concerns nature and the joy of inhabiting it, the most critical of her poems always aimed at greed and other human flaws. Oliver herself has said, “I did [spend my time walking around in the woods]. And I think it saved my life.” She began writing at age fourteen, and her bibliography is both accomplished and extensive. Just as she used poetry to endure her childhood, she helped others to do the same with whatever pain they had been given. Her poem “The Uses of Sorrow” expresses the power of all experiences, even the most challenging among them:
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
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She appealed to many through her simple language, which allowed for a real human connection between poet and reader, unobscured by the artifice of language. It was her ardent belief that “poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.” This triumph of poetry won her the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—if not always the favor of critics. But Oliver retained the respect and adoration of fans who respect how Oliver “[speaks] directly to you as a human being.” She expresses the wonder and mystery of nature through poems like “The Summer Day”:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
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Oliver lived a private life, spending her days with her agent and partner, Molly Malone Cook, until Cook’s death in 2005. The pair had been together since the 1950s. Oliver spoke of the romance: “I took one look and take a tumble.” In 2012, death came for her once more—she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors later gave her a clean bill of health. In her work, Oliver has always concerned herself with the mysteries of life. Death, of course, is another such mystery. Oliver never viewed death as an ending. Instead, she viewed it as a completion. In her poem, “Circles,” she writes: “I am so happy to be alive in this world / I would like to live forever, but / I am content not to.” Oliver hoped that her legacy might be a greater appreciation of the natural world and the integrity of the environment.
As readers moved by both Oliver and her words, let’s reflect on her life and work through a final poem, “When Death Comes”:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s 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.
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 simply having visited this world.
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