Mary Oliver: Poetry Themes

Mary Oliver: Poetry Themes

Man's Place in the Natural World

Mary Oliver is highly influenced by the great Romantic poet of the past and like, like Wordsworth, the overarching thematic concern to be found throughout her long career is that of how man fits into the world of nature around him. This theme becomes most strongly manifested—as well it should—in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive. Here are the connections made between how man fits into a world also populated by natural wonders ranging from mushrooms gaining sight of the world from beneath the soil to the massive humpback whales breeching through the surface of oceans.

The Sacred Feminine

Considered a point of critical contention in her initial volume, by the time he started collecting awards, prizes and honors, Mary Oliver’s focus on the feminine became something to be lauded. In fact, nearly ten years passed between Oliver’s first collection of poetry and her second, in part because of the negative critical reception to the volume’s feminizing of her themes of man (woman) and the relationship to the natural world. By the time she came into her own, it was that very focus on the feminine that defined much of her greatest poetry and began to bring her long-delayed recognition.


Oliver’s approach to bringing the Romantic poetry’s obsession with nature into the 21st century is also defined by heightened sensuality. Reading Oliver’s verse become a textbook lesson in how to translate the two-dimensional world around us into an expression of the tactile palpability of that world. What distinguishes much of Oliver’s poetry from peers from Levertov to Roethke is the feeling of being right there in the moment as she brings descriptions of inanimate objects to life through language that touches the emotions as well as the intellect.

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