Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio. As a teenager, she lived briefly in the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, where she helped Millay’s family sort through the papers the poet left behind. In the mid-1950s, Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College, though she did not receive a degree.
Oliver’s first collection of poems, No Voyage, and Other Poems (Houghton Mifflin Company), was published in 1965. She went on to publish more than fifteen collections of poetry, including Blue Horses (Penguin Press, 2014); A Thousand Mornings (Penguin Press, 2012); Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Beacon Press, 2010); Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008); Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006); Why I Wake Early (Beacon Press, 2004); Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (Beacon Press, 2003); Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (Mariner Books, 1999); West Wind (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997); White Pine (Harcourt, Inc., 1994); New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press, 1992), which won the National Book Award; House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990), which won the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award; and American Primitive (Little, Brown, 1983), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.
The first part of Oliver’s book-length poem The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo Press, 2000) was selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 1999 and the second part, “Work,” was selected for The Best American Poetry 2000. Her books of prose include Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (Da Capo Press, 2004); Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (Mariner Books, 1998); Blue Pastures (Harcourt, Inc., 1995); and A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1994).
Oliver, who cited Walt Whitman as an influence, is best known for her awe-filled, often hopeful, reflections on and observations of nature. “Mary Oliver's poetry is an excellent antidote for the excesses of civilization,” wrote one reviewer for the Harvard Review, “for too much flurry and inattention, and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives. She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.”
Oliver’s honors include an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, a Lannan Literary Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Oliver held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College until 2001. She lived for over forty years in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with her partner Molly Malone Cook, a photographer and gallery owner. After Cook’s death in 2005, Oliver moved to the southeastern coast of Florida. Oliver died of cancer at the age of eighty-three in Hobe Sound, Florida, on January 17, 2019.