Maxine Kumin describes Mary Oliver in the Women's Review of Books as an "indefatigable guide to the natural world, particularly to its lesser-known aspects." Reviewing Dream Work for The Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America's finest poets: "visionary as Emerson [... she is] among the few American poets who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey." New York Times reviewer Bruce Bennet stated that the Pulitzer Prize–winning collection American Primitive, "insists on the primacy of the physical" while Holly Prado of Los Angeles Times Book Review noted that it "touches a vitality in the familiar that invests it with a fresh intensity."
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. [...] 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 "Wild Geese"; Dream Work (1986)
Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: "Oliver's celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk." In her article "The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver", Diane S. Bond echoes that "few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver's work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women." In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that "Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture."