The Sweet Briar community was saddened to learn of the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, at the age of 83. Oliver taught at Sweet Briar College from 1991 to about 1995 as the Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence.
While at Sweet Briar, she received the National Book Award, and her poetry workshops at the College led to her completing her now-classic “A Poetry Handbook,” published in 1994. Oliver was instrumental in growing Sweet Briar’s creative writing program, urging then-dean George Lenz to hire a director and to offer two workshops per week instead of just one. She lived on campus with her lifelong partner Molly Malone Cook and their two beloved dogs, Ben and Little Bear. She spent her mornings walking with her dogs through the woods and along the trails of the College’s 3,250-acre campus.
Oliver’s infectious love of nature and language left a lasting impression on her students and fellow professors. Many remembered her fondly on social media as the news spread Thursday and Friday, recalling in particular a poem she wrote about Sweet Briar’s famous 200-year-old Fletcher Oak, which fell in 2005. The tree was repurposed over the years, most recently to fashion an academic mace for President Meredith Woo’s inauguration.
Board member Alice Dixon was instrumental in making that mace happen, — sharing in a Facebook post that she knew it couldn’t be just any mace, considering Sweet Briar’s 2015 revival: “Some random mace was not going to measure up to the bright future that Sweet Briar College was investing in and building.” After locating the Fletcher Oak’s remains and finding out about Oliver’s poem, Dixon managed to obtain the rights to print it in the 2017 inauguration program:
There is a tree here so beautiful it even has a name. Every morning, when it is still dark, I stand under its branches. They flow from the thick and silent trunk. One can’t begin to imagine their weight. Year after year they reach, they send out smaller and smaller branches, and bunches of flat green leaves, to touch the light.
Of course this has consequences. Every year the oak tree fills with fruit. Just now, as it is September, the acorns are starting to fall.
I don’t know if I will ever write another poem. I don’t know if I will live for a long time yet, or even a little while.
But I am going to spend my life wisely. I’m going to be happy, and frivolous, and useful. Every morning, in the dark, I gather a few acorns, and imagine inside of them, the pale oak trees. In the spring, when I go away, I’ll take some of them with me, to my own country, which is a land of sun and restless ocean and moist woods. And I’ll dig down, I’ll hide each acorn in a cool place in the black earth.
To rise like a slow and beautiful poem. To live a long time.
(“Fletcher Oak” from “WHITE PINE: Poems and Prose Poems” by Mary Oliver. Copyright 1994 by Mary Oliver. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.)
“Twenty-five years ago, Mary Oliver was teaching at Sweet Briar College, and she was one of the people most responsible for my being offered a job here,” wrote John Gregory Brown, director of Sweet Briar’s English and creative writing program, on his Facebook page. “She was a complicated, deeply private person, but she was also kind to our children, especially to Molly, our poet-in-waiting, to whom one day she delivered a nest with robin’s eggs that she had found on the ground during one of her very early morning walks. Mary believed that being a poet was a kind of sacred calling and her high-holy book the natural world, which she studied with reverence, concentration, and the unyielding, uninterrupted devotion of a cloistered monk.”
“Today, I am sad for our world,” wrote Melissa Broderick Eaton ’96 on Facebook. “A source of the brightest light has gone out, leaving behind long memory of its importance and a greater responsibility on each of us to be its bearers.” Eaton, who came to Sweet Briar “with scientific aspirations,” says it was Oliver who encouraged the poet in her. “Her guidance was candid yet respectful, incisive and succinct,” Eaton continued. “Her red exclamations next to phrases she liked were the singular most valuable feedback I received in college, and probably in my entire life. Never one to lavish praise, she pushed me to choose carefully every single word and to cut ruthlessly at anything that didn’t fit.”
While Eaton admits she abandoned writing over the years, she eventually came back to it. In a few months, she’ll publish her first poems.
“Mary Oliver saw something in me that I couldn’t yet see in myself,” she wrote. “It is entirely appropriate she left us in this season of insulated potential, because that is the state in which she found each of us as her students — full of hidden glory, ready to blossom under the stern and devoted sunshine that was Mary Oliver’s attention.”
You can read Oliver’s obituary in The New York Times here.