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Influenced by Whitman and Thoreau, Mary Oliver is a thoroughly American poet.
Oliver was born to Edward William and Helen M. V. Oliver on September 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio, a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland. She briefly attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College in the mid-1950s, but did not receive a degree at either college. She was inspired by the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and as a teenager, lived for a brief while in her home, where she helped Millay's sister Norma organize the papers the deceased Millay left behind. During the early 1980s, Oliver taught at Case Western Reserve University. In 1984, her collection of poetry, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 1986, she moved to Bucknell University where she was honored with the title "Poet In Residence." In 1991, she served as the Margaret Banister Writer in Residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. She then moved to Bennington, Vermont, where she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington until 2001. Oliver's partner, Molly Malone Cook, served as her literary agent until Cook's death in 2005. Oliver currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Oliverís poetry is grounded in memories of Ohio and her adopted home of New England. First influenced by both Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, she is known for her facile observances of the natural world. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon and humpback whales. Maxine Kumin calls Oliver "a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms" and "an indefatigable guide to the natural world." Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and interior monologues. Her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release. Although she has been criticized for writing poetry that assumes a dangerously close relationship of women with nature, she finds the self is only strengthened through an immersion with nature. As her creativity is stirred by nature, Oliver is an avid walker, pursuing inspiration on foot. For Oliver, walking is part of the poetic process. Oliver is also known for her unadorned language and accessible themes.