Mary Oliver: My Mentor & Teacher

Mary Oliver, circa 1992
photo by Marv

The two summers I spent in Mary Oliver’s poetry writing workshop changed my life. A practicing psychotherapist for twenty-five years, lines of poetry had arrived in the middle of the night. At lunch with a friend one day, as I mused about the mystical quality of how lines arrive each morning, she asked how the revision process was going. “Revision,” I laughed, “I’m clueless.”  Poetry had seemed like a gift from the muse, not to be tampered with.

Tampering with grit and specificity is what Mary Oliver was all about. That first morning in July 1990, blond, lean, dressed in a yellow shirt, Mary was soft-spoken bordering on shy yet directive and clear about why we were there and what was to come. She said, “I teach what works for me.” We were there to learn language, technique, and process.

Session 1— a few highlights

  • “Sound selection is unconscious. The sense of the poem is carried by sound,” she began.
  • “You work with the equipment you get inside you.”
  • “The daylight part of the mind edits.”
  • “Any word is a help or a hindrance.”
  • “There is no such thing as a neutral sound.”
  • “Without this type of artistry, the use of sound, you don’t have a poem.”
  • “When art is right, the more bearable it is.”

I can attest to the truth of Mary’s words. I come from a line of music makers. My children are music makers as am I. Under Mary’s tutelage, I sung words to myself, tapped out rhythms, played with line breaks, varied stanzas, wrote multiple drafts of poems and rarely published. The creativity, the hope of artistry, the effort to shape the words and use the tools Mary gave me powered my effort and brought balance to my life.

After I retired from my practice, I shifted into the longer form of personal essay and memoir. The musicality of words, what I had learned about enjambment, the concept of the turning of the line, the difference between a slim poem such as Mary wrote or a long line, such as Whitman, whom she blessed for speaking to her, followed me.

In my Solstice MFA critical thesis, titled, Poetic Language and Musicality in Essays of E.B. White and Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders, I expanded on Mary’s specificity. I explored symbolism as well as elements of rhythm as depicted by beat, and melody as demonstrated by sound and physiological harmony in relationship to the particulars of imagery which evoke sight, sounds, tastes, smell and touch.

On the sad occasion of Mary’s death, I recall our private feedback meeting at Bennington in 1991. She affirmed my passion and work ethic as she offered, “Send me a few poems from time to time. I’ll run alongside you, to help lift your kite into the air.”

I am grateful for Mary’s generosity, respect and poetic commentary, which enabled me to express and trust the “equipment” I have inside. Like so many who mourn her today, I turn to her vast work of artistry, her ability to create “bearable art” and rejoice for her legacy.

12 thoughts on “Mary Oliver: My Mentor & Teacher

  1. Robin Stein

    Beautiful, Faye. Thank you for sharing your experience with Mary Oliver and insights into your poetry.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Hy, Indeed, I so appreciated her dedication to the task of the poet. What a legacy!

  2. Joan P Kerzner

    Faye – how wonderful that you had this personal experience and interaction with Mary Oliver. What a treasured gift to have, forever.


    1. fayewriter Post author

      Joan, Yes! I recall the day of my first conference when I saw her huge desk filled with my poems. I was overcome with the realization that she had paid such careful attention to my fledgling efforts.


    Wow Faye…clearly she was a brilliant teacher and a good fit for you…seems she came into your life at just the right moment. You were most definitely an eager student and open to all she had to give. Fast forward to today and now i can admire the thoughtful poet you have become!

  4. Rosemary Booth

    The writer’s noting of poetic guidance from Mary Oliver that has persisted all these years feels altogether affirming. I was especially taken by her words, to “express and trust” what a person has inside–as a writer’s task; maybe everyone’s.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Yes, the experience of Mary taking me seriously and commenting with such generosity on each piece of poetry helped set my writer’s roots.

  5. Meg Senuta

    What a beautiful tribute. As a fan of Ted Kooser (and you), I’d love to read your MFA thesis.

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