Mary Oliver’s Grass Roots Poetry

by Dee Horne (Author)
©2019 Monographs XIV, 192 Pages


Mary Oliver’s Grass Roots Poetry examines the poetry and essays of Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver. Her writing offers an environmental ethics that is relevant to readers interested not only in poetry but also environmental writing. She neither replicates hierarchical relationships nor romanticizes nature. In situating all as kin while also respecting differences, Oliver creates a grassroots poetics and an environmental ethics that invite readers to rethink our responsibilities and how we interact with others, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate. Respectful coexistence with differences is necessary for the survival of all.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Gratitudes
  • Introduction: Attending to the Anthropocene: Cultivating Attentiveness
  • Chapter One: Entering the Conversation: Mary Oliver’s Essays
  • Chapter Two: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Mary Oliver’s Ecotone Amid Nature Writing and Eco-Poetics
  • Chapter Three: “The Gull Beat the Air with Its Good Wing”
  • Chapter Four: “Such Unforced Love”: Mary Oliver Re-thinks Domestication
  • Conclusion: The Overview
  • Index

← viii | ix →


A book is a conversation with many voices.

I am, as always, appreciative of my colleagues at the University of Northern British Columbia. I want to thank all the members of the English Department at UNBC for their collegiality and support. Dr. Maryna Romanets read several chapters at various stages and gave invaluable feedback; Dr. Karin Beeler supported this project from its inception; Dr. Kevin Hutchings chaired the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) panel in San Diego. As well, I am grateful to Ken and Glenda Prkachin for our conversations about empathy and to Mark Shegelski in the Physics department for listening to my questions about entanglement and sharing his own thoughts on the subject.

I also want to acknowledge and thank UNBC’s publication grant committee for its generous funding. Thanks, too, to Rayson K. Alex for inviting me to contribute my conference paper to a book, Ecocultural Ethics, and to Lexington Books for allowing me to reprint that essay, with minor changes, as Chapter Four here. I am grateful to POUi for permission to reprint my poem, “Climate Change.” ← ix | x →

I presented early versions of the following chapters at the Association for Studies of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) at the Pacific Ancient Modern Language Association (PAMLA), the Canadian Comparative Literature Association (CCLA) at CONGRESS and the American Culture Association (ACA). My thanks to the fellow panelists and the audience for listening and for their thoughtful questions.

This book would not have been possible without Michelle Salyga, the acquisitions editor at Peter Lang who invited me to submit a proposal, and Meagan Simpson and Janell Harris, the editors who saw this book through to completion.

I wish to express my love and gratitude to my family. In particular, I thank my sons: Kyle and Dylan Horne Thompson. Dylan encouraged me throughout. He listened to my ideas and did a professional job formatting the manuscript. His own creative writing, creative spirit and intellectual curiosity always inspire me. Kyle provided thoughtful insights and introduced me to Object-Oriented Ontology and Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy. He provided editorial comments on the conference papers, sharing his knowledge of philosophy and science. Thanks to Peter Thompson who generously contributed his time and ideas about ecology during the early stages of this book and to his sister, Bonnie, for her thoughts about the environment. My sister, Lynellyn Long, read the manuscript at several stages. Her comments were excellent. She and Dennis Long and their children Bryerly and Cordelia Long offered their homes in Sancerre, France and in Putney, U.K., providing a wonderful break from work and the necessary distance to become intimate in different ways with Oliver’s poems. Thank you Sally Kivett and Melissa Killion for asking how the book was coming along. My brother, William Horne, also reminded me to keep the writing momentum. He, my sister and I share fond memories of time with family on Cape Cod. I thank my parents, who are no longer alive, but who taught me to remain curious and care about the world.

My love and gratitude also extend to Grant Freeman. He took the time to listen, ask questions and contribute his thoughts. Our runs along the seawall, hikes and bike rides took me away from my desk and outside, where I often found insights by paying attention. My appreciation ← x | xi → goes to Bill Donohue for giving me Lynn Margulis’ Symbiotic Planet, which made me see evolution in a new light. Thank you, too, Karin Weber for reminding me to return to the poetry and the heart. I am grateful for many other friends and students who have been supportive throughout the process. It is not possible to list them all, but they know who they are. Last, but not least, I want to thank Mary Oliver for her beautiful poems and wise essays. ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →



Attending to the Anthropocene

Cultivating Attentiveness

We live in a world surrounded by distractions that clamor and compete for our attention. There are more technological tools available than ever before to make it easier to communicate. Ironically, though, often the way we use these tools do not always improve our communication. It is not the fault of technology, but the ways that we choose to use it. We can be distracted by Facebook, twitter, email, phones, Instagram, Netflix, blogs, newspapers, magazines and books. We can re-direct our attention and focus, choosing not only what to pay attention to, but also how to engage with the world. We have more ways of interacting in the environment we inhabit. We can use technology to enhance or limit our interactions within nature. For instance, one might use a camera on a cell phone to take a photo of the trees and deepen one’s appreciation of the tree. Alternatively, instead of becoming more attuned, we can become less so and neglect what is before us. Consider, for example, a person who walks down a street reading a text on their cell phone who does not see the trees or the people around them. The American poet and essayist Mary Oliver writes about the importance of paying close attention, “all attentive to what presents itself” (Oliver 2017, 245; “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches”). For Oliver, humans (and indeed all) are embedded in, not separate from, nature. ← 1 | 2 → Nevertheless, we can become alienated from it when we distract ourselves or fail to notice our environment. It is this closing of our senses, our distractions and inability and/or refusal to be attentive that keeps us estranged. For Oliver, her choice to love and connect intimately with the world allows her to cultivate attentiveness. From her close observations of nature, she perceives all: humans and non-humans, animate and inanimate, as interrelated.1

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her fifth book American Primitive and of the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems, Mary Oliver has written twenty-three books of poetry, six books of prose, three chapbooks and special editions and two audio works. Most recently, she compiled selections from all of her works in Devotions, a volume that covers the past five decades of her work and includes poems that she selected and organized. Her talent as a writer has been recognized by readers around the world and by the numerous awards, prizes and fellowships she has received. But, as Oliver often expresses in her poems, the real reward is the work itself and the real classroom is nature, by which she means not only the particular locale but also the world and universe. Nature is where she is most at home. Throughout her work, home is a metaphor for physical as well as spiritual terrains. It alludes to where one can feel at home with others as well as with oneself (and this includes realizing one’s abilities, which in Oliver’s case is writing).

Born in Maple Heights, Ohio (September 10, 1935), she refers to her birthplace and parents in some of her essays and poems, but it is her love of the land and seascapes of Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod that shape much of her writing. Although she briefly attended Vassar College, Oliver is self-educated. As a young poet, she helped Norma Millay organize her sister’s, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, letters. This experience, along with a lifetime of reading other writers and thinkers, and Oliver’s observations of the natural world attest to her belief that learning is an on-going, life-long process. She gains knowledge from books and from what she discovers in her interactions within nature. By attending closely to nature, it is possible to expand one’s limited perceptions and acquire new insights and understanding. ← 2 | 3 →

Oliver sees the natural world as emblematic. This perspective suggests she situates nature as a text which she reads. However, this assumption simplifies the complexity of her work. The idea of nature as text illustrates how nature, as humans define it, is culturally constructed. At the same time, nature exists, regardless. In his discussion of Nature writing, Timothy Morton muses, “Is nature to be thought of as writing? Or is writing a natural process” and concludes it is a “dense chiasmus” (2007, 70). Seeing the world as text, then, merely perpetuates “a myth of mutual constructionism,” whereby the environment shapes the culture which, in our constructions, re-defines it (Buell 2001, 6).

Murray Bookchin perceives the need for a new materialism that calls into question the nature-culture dualism while Haraway (2008, 25) refutes the nature-culture dichotomy and sees a compound: “nature cultures.” Oliver chooses not to pay attention to divisive categories, which perpetuate discourses of domination and oppression. For example, the androcentric dualism in which men are equated with culture and reason and women are equated with nature and emotions perpetuates inequality. Such cultural constructions only serve to disempower women and are equally disadvantageous to men. As often as possible, Oliver refrains from identifying gender in her speakers and, in so doing, refuses to perpetuate discourses of domination and exploitation. In her writing, she illustrates how all are interrelated.

Her poetry and essays contribute to an on-going dialogue about relationships with environment. This book builds on, and extends, existing knowledge in the fields of eco-criticism and environmental ethics. As well, I draw on examples from neuroscience, biology, quantum physics and other disciplines to show how Oliver’s insights, while uniquely hers, resonate with others’ observations of the world and universe. Those interested in Nature writers, and those who have often seen Oliver as a Nature writer, will find new ways of appreciating how her work extends this genre in new directions. Although Oliver rejects labels and sees herself as a poet, not as an environmentalist or a feminist, her writing illustrates an environmentally-oriented ethic that invites all readers to re-think our responsibilities to the natural world and how we interact within it. ← 3 | 4 →

This book examines the ideas in Mary Oliver’s poetry through the lens of ecocriticism, which is broadly defined as the relationship between literature and the physical environment (Glotfelty 1996, xix). Moreover, I consider how useful the ideas she expresses are for thinking about the environmental crisis and to what extent she imagines new ways of responding. Ecocriticism also involves looking at how the writer represents the environment. Many Nature writers in the past sought to represent it as directly as possible. While Oliver attempts to do this, her writing is not ecomimetic because there is a conscious awareness and referentiality that is ever present in the speaker in each of her poems. As I discuss later in the book, she embraces paradox and tensions between literal and symbolic language. Her eco-aesthetic of interrelationship engenders an eco-ethic of love, care and respect.

Conventionally, ethics has referred to the moral principles that direct one’s behavior and/or actions. While this definition is still relevant here, I am also drawing on object-oriented ontology where “ethics is about the compound of subject and object” to foreground the importance of relations (Harman 2018, 107). The central question that intrigues me about Oliver’s eco-poetics and ethics is how to preserve individual autonomy and independence while also being in relationship with others. Moreover, what are possible ways of being in relationship with others without perpetuating colonialism, racism, sexism and other inequalities that arise from power imbalances? How does Oliver alter existing discourses of domination and, in so doing, move towards more social and environmental justice? What stories do we tell and how can we change the stories so that we create new relationships not only of being within nature, but also of “becoming-with” others? Oliver’s ethic of interrelationship is not to say there are no hierarchies or all are equal at all times. Her eco-poetics is paradoxical and complex in so far as it is both pragmatic and, in so far as it has yet to be realized fully, idealistic.


XIV, 192
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 192 pp.

Biographical notes

Dee Horne (Author)

Dee Horne is a professor in the English Department at the University of Northern British Columbia.


Title: Mary Oliver’s Grass Roots Poetry