When Flowers Bring New Life: An Exploration into the Life of Mary Oliver

Katie Strickler

When Flowers Bring New Life

              I chose Mary Oliver because her work is inspiring, there is so much there that she gives in every poem and it makes me want to reach out and start writing again. I find myself not being able to enjoy many poems because I look for poems that fit exactly what I like and many don’t fit into my standard but when I read Oliver’s works I notice that I’m smiling and enjoying her work. Her work has shown me that even if you are a female author you can go far and be recognized even if you’re not liked by all. Oliver’s life and upbringing is also similar to mine and it made it easier for me to connect with her work over other poets.  

               When Mary was a child she endured much abuse, to cope with the abuse she would write poetry. Mary would go on to talk about the abuse she endured years after when she was only a child at the time of the abuse (Tippett). Oliver was known to be reserved and keep to herself, this would help her escape her abuse. Her quiet characteristics would help her succeed in life but some people would find this to be a flaw and believe that she was too full of herself. Mary learned how to protect herself and how to be on her own from the time that she was still being abused, this sad fact would help her in the long run (Poetry Foundation). 

               Mary Oliver was born and raised in Maple Hills Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. Oliver was born in 1935 and grew up in Ohio in a small town. She would leave from her abusive home to the nearby woods, where she would build huts of sticks and grass and write poems. She lived for over forty years in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with her partner Molly Malone Cook, a photographer and gallery owner (Poetry Foundation). After Molly Cook’s death in 2005, Oliver later moved to Florida. When Oliver was young she was deeply influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and briefly lived in Millay’s home, helping Norma Millay organize her sister’s papers (Poetry Foundation). 

                Mary Oliver had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her many recognizable poems. Oliver had also won a national book award in 1992 and a Lannan Literary Award in 1998. She had attended Ohio State University and Vassar College in the 1950’s. Mary also has the achievement of having over 30 books she wrote published with countless poems within them that have her most recognizable poem “Wild Geese”. Other poems that are famous of her’s are: “A Dream of Trees”, “The Journey”, “The Summer Day”, and “When Death Comes” (Poetry Foundation). 

               Mary Oliver had many different critics with different opinions on her pieces in the earlier years of her writing. Carolyne Wright wrote “in Oliver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection both stunningly original and clichéd elements.”. Critic David Barber found that in New and Selected Poems failed to adequately show her growth as a poet. Critic Robyn Selman wrote “Oliver’s composure, sincerity, and dedication to her subject.”. These critics all wrote around the same time in the mid 80’s to mid 90’s right around the time Oliver got many of her awards for her poems (ThinkTV Network). 

               Although there was much criticism of Oliver in her earlier years there is still more recent criticism of her work. A Harvard review stated “She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.” (ThinkTV Network). Maggie Smith Credits Oliver on her work touching so many people’s lives “Oliver’s work managed to do something rare: It reached people who didn’t particularly like or “get” contemporary poetry.” in 2019 (Smith). Maggie Smith stated “Oliver’s poems have been labeled “inspirational” and “accessible,” and while those adjectives may sound positive, they are too often backhanded compliments. I think this criticism comes from a deep misunderstanding of her work, and also from an ugly disdain for poetry that consoles and inspires.” in 2019 (Smith). These criticisms either were right around Mary’s death or not long after. 

             I find that Mary Oliver is an extremely thoughtful poet who understands completely how to write a well written poem. Her poetry is exactly what poetry to me should be: inspire generations of readers, teach readers how to be better, and learn from other poets. Her life’s work has been a reflection of her own upbringing and how it taught her things that others would never have even known. I believe that if anyone was going to write the poems that Oliver wrote it was perfect that it was her. I see her work as proof that even if terrible things happen to you, you can overcome anything and that is beautiful to me.