Poet Mary Oliver Wrote Plainly and Affectingly of Love and Loss

Mary Oliver in 2010. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

On hearing news this afternoon of the poet Mary Oliver’s death, I thought of the famous closing lines her poem “The Summer Day” (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do // with your one wild and precious life?”), and I texted my mother, who had given her own mother a book of Oliver’s poems. I also thought, Man, everyone loved Mary Oliver, I bet my whole inbox is filled with quotes of hers, and it is. Below are a few of the bits I found.

From “Sometimes” (via Chris Duffy):


Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

The Uses of Sorrow” (from The Bar Method):

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.


It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

“I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly,” from her elegy to her partner (via Maria Popova):

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.

This is important. This should take

some really deep thought.

We should take

small thoughtful steps.


But, bless us, we didn’t.

Oliver, who was 83, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and the National Book Award in 1994. She wrote 15 books of poetry and essays, and in 2007 the New York Times described her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” In an interview with NPR, Oliver said: “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy.” Also: “I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.”

Oliver grew up outside Cleveland and spent most of her adult life in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she lived with her partner of more than 40 years, the photographer and literary agent Molly Malone Cook. Cook died in 2005.

Of Oliver’s first meeting with Cook, in 1959, Oliver later wrote, “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble. M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve. She denied this to her dying day, but it was true. Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?”


Here are a few more Oliver excerpts from Twitter, which was one of her favorite places. (Just kidding — although, what do I know.)

Poet Mary Oliver Wrote Plainly and Affectingly of Love, Loss