A Woman Defined

Art & Culture by Mahvash Mossaed

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

February 25, 2017

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.”

― Mary OliverUpstream: Selected Essays

I have always given my heart to the kind of poetry which is completely and hopelessly emotional, like the work of Lorca or Neruda. When reading a poem, I am not so much trying to relate and connect with it intellectually but only from the heart. I don’t care if the poet has used the language like a fine tool or if the poetry can academically sound amazing, but I care more as to how I am touched by it and if it has the ability to affect me in real, deep levels, sort of like if the poem I am reading is inviting me to its house and sits with me at its kitchen table or I if am invited by it to its formal dinng room.

Mary Oliver’s essays invite me to her formal dining room. It is indeed a very nice room. At times, it feels a bit cold, but still, it is pleasant to come to for a visit. At 82 years of age, her autobiographical writings in her new book, Upstream, are gentle but strong, poetically furnished with the kind of wisdom which only comes with age. She was only 28 years of age when her first published book of poetry reached the public. She then found more success by winning a Pulitzer Prize sixteen years after her first book and publishing four other editions of her poetry books.

Her observation of not only self but the work of poets like Whitman, Poe, and Emerson, whom she has kept close to her heart and admired forever, establishes the similarities they share when using language in an obvious way, coming from a place of assurance and complete command while communicating the message with their readers. It is almost like playing a good game of chess with someone, and, of course, always winning them over.

Oliver’s book of essays, Upstream, is open next to my laptop on my dining table, where there are a bunch of tulips in a vase and there is a newspaper in a bundle, which I have already read and I am about to toss. There is my cup of coffee sitting there, still hot, inviting me to slow down, breath. and pause. I pick up her book, open it, and start re-reading some of my favorite paragraphs all over again. This time while reading, I try to savor it, sip by sip, taste it in my mouth, feel the warmth of her words before swallowing them down. After all, that’s how fine poetry should be read. – – — Mahvash Mossaed

About Mary Oliver

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, 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.

Her first collection of poems, No Voyage, and Other Poems, was published in 1963. Since then, she has published numerous books, including Blue Horses (Penguin Press, 2014); A Thousand Mornings(Penguin Press, 2012); Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Beacon Press, 2010); Red Bird (2008); Thirst (2006); Why I Wake Early(2004); Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (2003); Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (Mariner Books, 1999); West Wind (1997); White Pine (1994); New and Selected Poems (1992), which won the National Book Award; House of Light(1990), which won the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award; and American Primitive (1983), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.

The first part of her 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 (2004); Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (Mariner Books, 1998); Blue Pastures (1995); and A Poetry Handbook (1994).

“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.”

Her 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 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for over fifty years, and currently lives on the southeastern coast of Florida.

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