You strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do, determined to save the only life you could save.“ ” From "The Journey", in Dream Work (1986)
Oliver’s first collection of poems, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963, when she was 28. During the early 1980s, Oliver taught at Case Western Reserve University. Her fifth collection of poetry, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She was Poet In Residence at Bucknell University (1986) and Margaret Banister Writer in Residence at Sweet Briar College (1991), then moved to Bennington, Vermont, where she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College until 2001. She won the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for her piece House of Light (1990), and New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. Oliver's work turns towards nature for its inspiration and describes the sense of wonder it instills in her. "When it's over," she says, "I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms." ("When Death Comes" from New and Selected Poems (1992).) Her collections Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999), Why I Wake Early (2004), and New and Selected Poems, Volume 2 (2004) build the themes. The first and second parts of Leaf and the Cloud are featured in The Best American Poetry 1999 and 2000, and her essays appear in Best American Essays 1996, 1998 and 2001.
On a return visit to Austerlitz, in the late 1950s, Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who would become her partner for over forty years. In Our world she says "I took one look and fell, hook and tumble." Cook was Oliver's literary agent. They made their home largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook's death in 2005, and where Oliver still lived until relocating to Florida. Greatly valuing her personal privacy, Oliver has given very few interviews, saying she prefers for her writing to speak for itself. She recalls "I too fell in love with the town, that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers.[...] M. and I decided to stay." Oliver briefly attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College in the mid-1950s, but did not receive a degree at either college.