The words of Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and queer
The world lost a literary light with the passing last January 17 of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, aged 83, whom the New York Times once called as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.”
Oliver died due to lymphoma after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012. She followed her partner of 40 years, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005.
The trials and tribulations of Mary Oliver
Born on 10 September 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, Mary Jane Oliver was raised by parents Edward William and Helen M. Vlasak in a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland.
Thanks to a family that she described as “dysfunctional” in an interview with Maria Shriver, she had a hard childhood and experienced sexual abuse growing up.
However, she enjoyed going on walks and reading. She also took up writing to help her create her own world, and began creating poetry at the age of 14.
Oliver described her life in a 1992 interview with the Christian Science Monitor: “I don’t know why I felt such an affinity with the natural world except that it was available to me, that’s the first thing. It was right there.”
“And for whatever reasons, I felt those first important connections, those first experiences being made with the natural world rather than with the social world,” Oliver added.
She went to the local high school in Maple Heights. After, she went to the Ohio State University and Vassar College, though she didn’t receive a degree at either college.
Mary Oliver: The artist of the natural world
At the age of 17, she visited the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Austerlitz, New York.
There, she developed a friendship with Millay’s sister Norma, helping her organize the papers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
At the age of 28, she had her first book of poetry published, “No Voyage and Other Poems.” She won the Pulitzer Prize for her fifth book, “American Primitive.”
Her favorite subject matter in her poetry was about nature. She would normally take long walks in the woods as part of her writing practice.
She was quite a prolific writer, becoming a hugely influential poet to many readers. As an example, her most often quoted line is from her poem, “The Summer Day:”
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The great love of Mary Oliver’s life
In 1950s, Oliver met Cook, a photographer who became her literary agent. Upon their meeting, she said: “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.”
The two lived right across each other in New York’s East Village, and they began to see each other. After, the two made their home in Provincetown, Massachusetts,
In her part memoir, part eulogy, “Our World,” which Oliver wrote after Cook’s death, she wrote of her partner:
“She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.”
Afterwards, Oliver relocated to Florida, where she tried to live her own life: “I had decided I would do one of two things when she died. I would buy a little cabin in the woods, and go inside with all my books and shut the door.”
“Or I would unlock all the doors– we had always kept them locked; Molly liked that sense of safety– and see who I could meet in the world.”
“And that’s what I did. I haven’t locked the door for five years. I have wonderful new friends. And I have more time to be by myself,” she said.