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Feminist Lessons from Mary Oliver

I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world, wrote Mary Oliver in her poem, “When Death Comes.” The best selling poet passed away on January 17th at the age of 83 and it’s safe to say that she achieved this goal. Oliver has published numerous books of poetry and prose, won a Pulitzer Prize and made poetry accessible to her enormous (and primarily female) fan base. Her passing prompted a string of moving articles with titles like “Mary Oliver Taught Me How to Live.

Oliver’s words have settled into many hearts, including my own. I don’t know if she identified as a feminist, but to me, her poetry and her life embody the idea. Here a few lessons we can all glean from a wonderful woman who approached the world with amazement!

1. Stay on your own path, no matter what critics say

Oliver lived an unconditional life. She spent over forty years with the love of her life, Molly Malone Cook, even before the gay liberation movement took place and spent much of her adult life in a profoundly simple manner, taking long walks along the shoreline of Provincetown, Massachusetts and writing about her observations of the world.

Her poetry was often dismissed by scholars for its simpleness, popularity with the masses (particularly women), and careful attention to ordinary happenings. Gendered criticisms may also have played a role. The writer Sarah Todd notes that “In a culture where qualities like kindness and sensitivity are associated with femininity and therefore routinely devalued, it’s no surprise that Oliver’s big-hearted, emotionally open writing style meant that her reputation routinely took a hit in literary publications and graduate-school writing classrooms.”

Despite any disapproval she received from the so-called experts, Oliver maintained her authentic style. Rather than bend to fit a prescription of what she should do, she stood by her belief that poetry “mustn’t be fancy.”

2. You don’t have to be perfect or even “good”

My favorite Oliver poem, “Wild Geese,” opens with these lines:

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.

This is a poem about realizing you have nothing to prove. You don’t have to, as we girls are often taught to do, strive for perfection or bend over backwards to please other people. You don’t have to win everyone’s approval, act sweet and happy all the time or apologize for things that aren’t your fault.  

Mary Oliver didn’t just write about these ideas; she also lived them. She was known for bringing her own failed poems into class to show her students that artistic struggle is normal. Distinctive and genuine, Oliver shared her work with the world but never tried to put up a facade of perfection.

3. Take responsibility for your own life

In an interview with Maria Shriver, Oliver explained, “I had a very dysfunctional family and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.” Despite enduring early traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse, she worked hard to build a beautiful life, as well as to heal her wounds through writing and therapy while still moving forward and not dwelling on them. In her essay “Staying Alive,” she writes, “you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

Oliver’s poem, “The Journey,” wraps up with wisdom on how to listen to your own heart and use its guidance to take control of your life.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do一

determined to save

the only life you could save.


Hi! I am a freshmen at the University of Oregon studying public policy and journalism. Besides writing, I enjoy dancing, reading, swimming in lakes and rivers, and eating vegan food.
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