Mary Oliver and her Poetry

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“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” In Mary Oliver’s poetry, imagery is profoundly symbolic and illustrates the recurring motif dealing with the journey of life and overcoming adversities. Her poetry is captivating due to her meticulous use of poetic devices including choice of words, free versing, tone, and irony. Born 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio, Mary Oliver is one of many contemporary poets that won a prestigious literary award and lauded for originality, daring, and extraordinary craft. She is the recipient of the 1979 Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature, winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for her fifth book American Primitive, and many other reputable and prestigious awards. Influenced by poets like Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and William Blake, the dominant subject matter of her poetry dealt with the fascination for nature. She wrote extensively about nature and used nature as a medium of communication for expression of our deepest feelings and emotions. This paper will discuss the meticulousness of Mary Oliver’s poetry and how she used nature in her poetry to reflect the journey of life and overcoming adversities.

Mary Oliver went through many obstacles in her life surrounding relationship issues, her upbringing, and even how she was a victim of abuse. Her poetry reflects all of those experiences. Her fascination with the natural world was eminent early in her work. She was naturally connected to the natural world throughout her childhood. Oliver would develop a higher understanding and awareness of her natural surroundings that transcended the reality usual to common people and discover lessons in nature from a completely different perspective.

In one of her most famous poems The Summer Day, Oliver contrasts the words “wild” and “precious”, implying that despite the adversities faced in life, one must also appreciate life and how valuable each moment is. This poem is one example that epitomizes her ability to combine intense introspection with elation and optimism; it contains really deep meaning. This poem also epitomizes the use of language, symbolism, tone, and other literary devices. Oliver initiates with rhetorical questions, “Who made the world?, Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?” Oliver mentions the swan and black bear, which can be considered distinct opposites in nature, even in their physical appearances and color. This is an interesting comparison. The third question mentions the grasshopper. This character of the grasshopper contains many symbolic elements and Oliver draws much attention to it. “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.” These lines describe extensive awareness to detail; Oliver uses the character of the grasshopper to convey to the reader the importance of paying attention to nature and to not overlook even the small things in life. This poem transcends the reality that resonates with the ordinary and finds symbolic lessons that allows for introspection from new perspective. Ordinary people only observe the grasshopper minding its business within its natural habitat but fail to notice the small details. Oliver also incorporates excellent use of metaphor and personification. In the last few lines, Oliver concludes with the following: “I don’t 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 scroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This can be interpreted as such; Oliver is suggesting that fascination with nature is something real and concrete and not something superficial. The natural world is something that should be experienced and much cherished. This poem is beautiful and inspiring in many ways. It is a reminder that life is all about experiencing and what you make of it. “Tell me, what else should I have done?” Oliver asks this rhetorical question to conclude her argument. Only you and your actions are in control of your fate, not the actions or influences of other people.

Mary Oliver’s poetry follows a common structure and stylistic elements that include the following: free versing, imagery, alliteration, rhetorical questions, and personification. The Journey is yet another example where she demonstrates theses elements. The poem focuses on this journey of life that every individual embarks upon. It’s about finding your own voice and speaking up in a society that imposes conformity on people. “The voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.” In this line Oliver refers to the voices of society and their tendency to get others to always conform to social demands and expectations. Oliver’s point is that people should pay close attention to their self-consciousness, which will eventually lead to success and personal accomplishments. “As you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” The imagery of stars and sheets of clouds is symbolic of enlightenment and finally realizing the impact of our own deep conscious and internal voice, the voice the guides us through this journey of life.

Mary Oliver was criticized and not taken seriously by critics and contemporaries for composing poetry about old-fashioned subjects like nature. In her day and age, television shows were more prominent in popular culture and people were being distanced from the fascination of natural world. Oliver wanted to change popular culture that was heavily influenced by TV shows with her vivid depictions of nature. Today, Mary Oliver’s poems have inspired and affected many readers. Her poetic stanza’s are often quoted and circulated around as inspirational messages. Many readers are able to resonate with her naturalistic approach to poetry and even find it therapeutic. The ability to express emotions effortlessly using imagery, metaphors, and other literary devices is what distinguishes Mary Oliver’s work from many of her contemporaries.

In conclusion, Mary Oliver is regarded as one of the most renowned poets in American history. She mastered her craft and was a major contributor to her discipline. Her proficiency to observe nature and derive awareness of detail that transcends the obvious reality, and to derive lessons that allow us to introspect from different perspectives is what distinguishes her from other poets a literary and culture force.  

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Mary Oliver And Her Poetry. (2021, May 23). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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