Mary Oliver: a girl in the woods reading poetry



“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”Mary Oliver


In my hometown near Cleveland, Ohio, there once was a girl who liked to play hooky from school. She’d walk in the woods and read poetry. Back then, my town still had some of its original rural flavor, with creeks, farmland, and forest where neighborhood kids could play for hours. Poetry and nature were the two things in the world the girl loved most.

When she was seventeen, the young woman got in her car and drove to the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upstate New York. The poet had died, but her sister, Norma, lived there. The young woman stayed for a time, helping Norma organize Millay’s papers and manuscripts, while she also wrote her own poetry.

Years later, when this same woman from Maple Heights, Ohio won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in the 1980s, I didn’t pay much attention, even though I’d been an English major in college. I was working in New York City and had left my poetry reading days behind.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties and beginning to do some of my own writing that I thought I’d take a closer look at Mary Oliver, that girl from my hometown, to see what she was all about.

I hadn’t expected to be stunned. I mean, really. Why had I never read her poetry before?

I could describe Mary’s poetry with words like “powerful” and “transcendent” and “life-changing,” but those weak words wouldn’t do her poems justice.  Let’s just say it was exactly the right time for Mary Oliver’s poems to enter my life.  A lot of it had to do with my novice efforts as a creative writer and with believing in myself.

Mary Oliver grew up in a house just around the corner from where I did, though she left home around the time I was born. Our hometown went through especially hard times around 2008. A Cleveland neighborhood nearby was called ground zero in the mortgage disaster.

Some homes were abandoned, some torn down; wildflowers and weeds took over what used to be carefully tended lawns. Much of the wooded areas are now gone, but occasionally people spot deer, usually at dusk. The town has held its own, though; the people who live there have great spirit.

When I go back home to visit, sometimes I think of a girl skipping school, sitting cross-legged under a big, friendly tree in the once nearby woods, reading poetry.


New and Selected PoemsNew and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver, published in 1992, includes poems from 1963 – 1991.