Mary Oliver: Poetry and Prose

Mary Oliver
* Books of Poetry (alphabetical). * Prose. * Editing. * Time Line. * Books.

Mary Oliver featured in:

* Best American Poetry: 2009 (guest editor David Wagoner) with "Red".
* Best American Poetry: 2006 (guest editor Billy Collins) with "The Poet with His Face in His Hands".
* Best American Poetry: 2000 (guest editor Rita Dove) with "Work".
* Best American Poetry: 1999 (guest editor Robert Bly) with "Flare".
* Best American Poetry: 1993 (guest editor Louise Glück) with "Poppies".


Mary Oliver's tone relies heavily on the ecstatic and the shamanistic, on the throwing of her consciousness into various of the birds she writes about, and returning to her page to tell us what they feel and think. Use of the pathetic fallacy is so heavy that sometimes it is gushy, predictable, routine, and boring.

She is more successful (as in examples below for Owls and Other Fantasies) when she gives herself distance as an observer and metaphor maker.

Books of Poetry (alphabetical).

Solid; but no surprises.

Quite good in parts. The usual Oliver controlled ecstatic.

She calls the whole book a prose poem (even though she uses line breaks whereas a prose poem is usually not laid out like a poem). Perhaps the seven named sections would be called poems in other books. Each of these sections has numbered subsections (usually 7 but sometimes 10 or 12). Her style is of subdued ecstasy with a tendency to repetition. For example, subsection 8 of the first section ("Flare") is:

	The poem is not the world.
	It isn't even the first page of the world.
	But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
	It knows that much.
	It wants to open itself,
	like the door of a little temple,
	so that you might step inside and be cooled and refreshed,   
	and less yourself than part of everything.

The title comes from the remarkable Modern Painters by John Rushkin, in this quoted chapter:

Between the earth and man arose the leaf. Between the heaven and man came the cloud. His life being partly as the falling leaf, and partly as the flying vapour.

Her tone relies heavily on the ecstatic and the shamanistic, on the throwing of her consciousness into various of the birds she writes about, and returning to her page to tell us what they feel and think. Use of the pathetic fallacy is so heavy that at times it is predictable, routine, and boring.

For me, Oliver is more successful as an observer and metaphor maker, as in the glorious "Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard", whose (partial) opening stanza is:

Similar success is in "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field", whose center is:

Included poems that appeared earlier in her books:

and one poem ("White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field") that was previously published only in:

Periodicals in which some poems appeared are:

The essay ("Owls") first appeared in Orion and was reprinted in The Best American Essays 1996 and then in her own book:

One of her finest books. Favorite poems are many and include:


Dedication: "For Molly Malone Cook (1925-2005)".

A book of love and loss. Favorite poems include:


A pretty good collection in the now-familiar Mary Oliver voice.

Favorite poems:


It's an okay book in three parts. Part one has the regular Mary Oliver type poems, of which her "Black Oaks" is the best example, ending:

     Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
        little sunshine, a little rain.

     Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
        one boot to another—why don't you get going?

     For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

     And to tell the truth I don't want to let go of the wrists    
        of idleness, I don't want to sell my life for money,
        I don't even want to come in out of the rain.

Part two is the 13-section poem "West Wind" with 8 of the sections being prose poems.

Part three is a multi-stanza 5-section poem "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches".

An ok book. A significant portion are prose poems.

Good (in a Mary-Oliver way) but nothing spectacular. Favorite poems include:


Books of Prose (alphabetical).

Fifteen prose pieces on nature, writing, and herself.

Sections titled:

  1. Part One: The Rules.
    1. Breath
    2. Patterns
    3. More About Patterns
    4. Design: Line Length
    5. Release of Energy Along the Line
    6. Design: Rhyme
    7. Design: Traditional Forms
    8. Words on a String
    9. Mutes and Other Sounds
    10. The Use of Meter in Non-Metric Verse
    11. The Ohs and the Ahs
      Use them if you need them but "never when it merely suits the marching orders of the meter".
    12. Image-Making
  2. Part Two: The Dancers One by One.
    1. Style
  3. Part Three: Scansion and the Actual Work.
    1. Scansion: Reading the Metrical Poem
    2. Scansion: Writing the Metrical Poem
    3. Yourself Dancing: The Actual Work
  4. Part Four: A Universal Music.
    1. Then and Now
  5. Part Five: An Anthology of Metrical Poems.
    Very helpful, taking the last half of the book.

  1. Part One: Essays and Poems.

    From her "Once":

  2. Part Two: Four Poets. Essays on:

  3. Part Three: Intermission of prose poems. Some tiny fragments, grouped as "Sand Dabs". A longer prose poem (or essay?) on observing a spider hatch three broods and capture a cricket.

         I am a performing artist; I perform admiration.
         Come with me, I want my poems to say. And do the same.   

  4. Part Four: "Winter hours" essay. Excellent essay on who she is, as a writer, even though I am dubious that birds 'sing' in the wind:

Included poems that appeared earlier in her book:

Poems and essays were previously published in:

The essay ("Building the House") first appeared in Shenandoah and was reprinted in The Best American Essays 1990.

Editing (alphabetical)

Best American Essays: 2009

Time Line


Published No Voyage and Other Poems (1963, first edition; 1965, expanded edition).

Published River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems, (The) (1972).

Published Night Traveler, (The) (1978).
Published Twelve Moons (1978).

Published American Primitive (1983).

Published Dream Work (1986).

Published House of Light (1990).

Published New and Selected Poems Volume One (1992).

Published White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems.
Published A Poetry Handbook.

Published Blue Pastures.

Published West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems.

Published Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse.

Published Winter hours: prose, prose poems, and poems.

Published Leaf and the Cloud, (The) (2000, prose poem).

Published What Do We Know (2002).

Published Owls and Other Fantasies: poems and essays (2003).

Published Why I Wake Early (2004).
Published Blue Iris: Poems and Essays (2004).

Published New and Selected Poems Volume Two (2005).

Published Thirst (2006).

Published Red Bird (2008).
One of 48 women poets in 100 essential modern poems by women:

Edited Best American Essays: 2009.

Published poetry book: A Thousand Mornings.

Published poetry book: Felicity


Links and Books.

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