Mary Oliver, one of America’s most beloved and popular poets, died at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla., on January 17, 2019 at 83 years old. She lived much of her life in Bennington, Vt., and Provincetown, Mass., before relocating to Florida after the death of her longtime partner in 2005. Oliver was one of very few contemporary poets to have a large popular following as well as the respect of the literary establishment, winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and many other honors. In 2007, the New York Times called Oliver “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.”
Her career spanned more than 50 years—No Voyage and Other Poems, her debut poetry collection, was published in 1963—and encompassed many works of poetry and prose, such as American Primitive (1983), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, and A Poetry Handbook (1992), a seminal writing guide. American Primitive was followed by Dream Work (1986), which contained what would become her most famous poem, "Wild Geese," which begins,
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 despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Espousing a powerful connection to the natural world, celebrating love—especially between women—and centered around a powerful spiritual connection to both nature and a religious conception of God, Oliver’s poems sought to console, comfort, and, more deeply, to appeal to the collective conscience of her readers. Throughout her career, detractors dismissed her work as merely inspirational, though, as Ruth Franklin’s 2017 New Yorker review of her final book, the career-spanning retrospective Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, attests, she was always taken seriously as a literary writer: “Oliver is an ecstatic poet in the vein of her idols, who include Shelley, Keats, and Whitman.”
Ann Godoff, Oliver’s editor at Penguin Press, her publisher since 2013, said, “Mary Oliver was a woman who’s profound gifts allowed us to understand and celebrate the life we’ve been given.”
Penguin Press will publish Oliver’s as-yet-untitled authorized biography, written by Lindsay Whalen. Of the poet, Whalen said, “Mary Oliver was as generous in life as she was on the page. Her legacy is one of abundance, and I believe we are just at the beginning of understanding the wisdom and artistry of her words. It's my deep honor, as her biographer, to be able to share her work, and her life, with the readers she so cherished.“