top of page
  • Writer's pictureK.P. Gresham

Mary Oliver—Who Heeded the Call

by Renee Kimball

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

~ Mary Oliver

“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

~ Mary Oliver                          



Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, and died at the age of 83, on January 17, 2019. She published over 25 books of poetry and prose during her lifetime.

Oliver rarely wrote of her Ohio childhood.  She was a victim of extreme child abuse and family dysfunction. To survive, she escaped to nature and literature and they sustained and saved her.

She studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but left before completing her studies.

Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.  She continued to win numerous other literary awards as well as honorary doctorates during her lifetime.


—from Upstream (Penguin Press, 2016).

“. . . But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. . .I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.  It was everything that was needed. . .”

“I quickly found for myself two such blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature.  These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place. . .”

“. . . And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

—from Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994)

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine Meanwhile the world goes on.

. . .

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

—from Devotions (Penguin Press, 2017)

I Wake Close to Morning

Why do people keep asking to see God’s identity papers when the darkness opening into morning is more than enough? Certainly any god might turn away in disgust. Think of Sheba approaching the kingdom of Solomon. Do you think she had to ask, “Is this the place?”

The World I Live In

I have refused to live locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs. The world I live in and believe in is wider than that. And anyway, what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen. I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.


The world is much lonelier now without Mary Oliver.  We are fortunate that she left us a word filled legacy that advises us to be awake, attentive, read without stopping, and become a lover of nature.

Lastly,  if you are lucky and should hear the creative call, then do the work, whatever that may be that calls to you—open your arms, your mind, your being, and respond.

Those of us left behind remain immensely grateful that Mary Oliver heeded her call.


“. . . My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot . . My loyalty is to the inner vison, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. . .

 “There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

 —from Upstream (emphasis added).



Cover photos from Amazon

Mary Oliver page from Goodreads.

Mary Oliver 1935–2019. Poetry Foundation.

Mary Oliver website.  Beacon.

“On Being with Krista Tippett  Mary Oliver Listening to the World.” Radio Podcast. September 3, 2020. Original Air Date February 5, 2015.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. October 10, 2017

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. October 29, 2019.

Dream Work by Mary Oliver.  May 1, 1986


A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

#PulitzerPrizewinners #prayer #spirituality #poetry #Americanpoets #MaryOliver #nature

2 views0 comments
bottom of page