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Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, dies at 83

Those who knew Mary Oliver in Provincetown used to tell a story. “They say if Mary is taking a walk, and she begins to walk slower and slower, and finally she’s standing still scribbling, you know it was a successful walk,” Ms. Oliver told O magazine several years ago.

Ms. Oliver died Jan. 17 at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla.
Ms. Oliver died Jan. 17 at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla.(Angel Valentine/New York Times/File)

That success was measured in some three dozen books of poetry and essays that turned her into one of America’s best-loved and best-selling poets.

Her poem “The Summer Day” concludes with perhaps her most quoted couplet: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

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Ms. Oliver, who was 83 when she died in her Hobe Sound, Fla., home Thursday of lymphoma, had turned to poetry early in life to escape a painful childhood, and it was then that she began her practice of taking walks in the wild.

“Poetry saved my life,” she told the Globe in 2012, and nearly every day she went into the woods to encounter salvation.

In 1984, 20 years after taking up residence in Provincetown, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her collection “American Primitive.”

The morning after the Pulitzers were announced, she went to the town dump seeking shingles for her roof. “I was greeted by three men with big smiles,” she told the Globe a few months later. “One asked, ‘Are you Mary Oliver?’ I said yes. Like a lot of people in the town, they knew me only as Mary. They hadn’t known before what it is I do.”

In 1992, she received the National Book Award for “New and Selected Poems.”

Her popularity reached far beyond honors, however. Ms. Oliver noted, somewhat ruefully, that she was the kind of poet who might answer a knock at the front door to find an ardent fan.

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She preferred the company of her dogs — her 2013 book “Dog Songs” was a best-seller — and always the companionship of animals she met on her daily walks. On one autumn day, a pair of deer ate wild mushrooms from her hand. During another stroll, she spied two black snakes whipping through the woods and later wrote that “they traveled/like a matched team/like a dance/like a love affair.”

Those who loved Ms. Oliver’s work often passed her books to friends. Her poems cascaded from generation to generation.

“Thank you, Mary Oliver, for giving so many of us words to live by,” Hillary Clinton tweeted Thursday.

“You brought light and joy through your poetry to my grandmother and she shared the gift of your work with me,” Chelsea Clinton tweeted.

Though Ms. Oliver lived her final years in Florida, for many readers she was the bard of Provincetown, where she moved in 1964 to be with Molly Malone Cook, who became her life companion and her literary agent. Cook, who died in 2005, was a photographer who had run a gallery in Provincetown.

Ms. Oliver’s home at the tip of Cape Cod echoed the best parts of her small town childhood in Ohio, where she cultivated her writing discipline.

“Provincetown is the closest I have ever been to being a member of a society, a person in a community of people,” she said in the 1984 interview. “Nostalgia is involved because the town in which I grew up was as small as this town. It had a pastoral landscape, a nice countryside to walk. I began those habits very early.”

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Mary Oliver spoke during California first lady Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference 2010 on October 26, 2010 at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California.
Mary Oliver spoke during California first lady Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference 2010 on October 26, 2010 at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California.(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Mary Oliver grew up in Maple Heights, Ohio. She told the Globe she was one of two daughters whose father, Edward, was a teacher, and whose mother, Helen Vlasak, was a school secretary.

“A poet is a strange thing to want to be,” Ms. Oliver said in 1984. “I had a great sense of isolation growing up, which is true of many people who do creative work. All creative work is done in solitude.”

That isolation was partly a response to her “very dysfunctional family,” she told Maria Shriver for O, The Oprah magazine.

“So I made a world out of words,” Ms. Oliver added. “And it was my salvation.”

She also spoke in the interview of having been sexually abused as a child but shared no details.

In one poem, she wrote of looking into the “blank eyes” of her father, “in which at last/I saw what a child must love,/I saw what love might have done/had we loved in time.”

“There are millions of people walking around the world who had insufficient childhoods,” she told Shriver, “and I just happen to be one of them.”

In an e-mail, Shriver said Ms. Oliver “was a unique spirit and one of the most influential and inspirational people in my life. She was young at heart, openly curious, and fearless in the way that she lived. I will miss her dearly.”

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Ms. Oliver left her childhood home the day after graduating from high school, and later studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, without graduating.

For several years she lived at Steepletop, the former Austerlitz, N.Y., home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, where she worked with Millay’s sister putting the poet’s papers in order. It was at Steepletop that Ms. Oliver met Cook. “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble,” she later wrote.

In a 2015 interview with Krista Tippett for the public radio show “On Being,” Ms. Oliver noted that she had been diagnosed with cancer and said “it feels that death has left his calling card.” She had never shied the topic, addressing it in poems such as “When Death Comes,” which includes the passage:

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.

Information about Ms. Oliver’s survivors and a memorial service were not immediately available.

“Part of the key to Oliver’s appeal is her accessibility: she writes in blank verse in a conversational style, with no typographical gimmicks,” Ruth Franklin wrote in The New Yorker magazine in 2017. “But an equal part is that she offers her readers a spiritual release that they might not have realized they were looking for.”

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Poetry is “very sacred,” Ms. Oliver once said. A poem is “a gift to yourself, but it’s a gift to anybody who has a hunger for it,” she told Tippett.

“When you write a poem,” she said, “you write it for anybody and everybody.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.