Mary Oliver Was My Teacher—Here’s What I Learned From Her

Lessons in loving the struggle from a Pulitzer-winning poet

When I arrived at Bennington College as an undergraduate in 1996, I had almost no expectations for the type of education I was about to receive. What had drawn me there, to the other side of the country, was the promise that Bennington offered: that on this tiny campus that looked and felt more like a boarding school than a college, I would be surrounded by people who were passionate about something.

Personally, I was passionate about lots of things: about fashion history, folk dancing, choral music and hip-hop. But mostly, I was passionate about language. For as long as I could remember, I had been filling notebooks and diaries with words: scrawled stories, poems and journal entries that, when re-read, show someone tasting and testing and trying out language as I read and discovered new influences.

I was hoping that, at Bennington, someone would show me the right words to use — or tell me that my words were the right ones. I hoped someone would help me unlock the keys to my own greatness, and tell me that I was doing it right.

I hoped someone would help me unlock the keys to my own greatness, and tell me that I was doing it right.

My ignorance was as vast as my enthusiasm. When I signed up to take a poetry class with Mary Oliver, I was completely ignorant of the fact that I was signing up to do thoughtful, insightful, personal work with a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whom Renee Loth called a “living wonder” and whom Alicia Ostriker ranked as “among our finest poets.”

And perhaps it was better — for me, for her, for all of us who were her students — that I and so many of us entered her classroom in blissful ignorance, ready to show off, having been praised enough by our high school English teachers that we were assured of ourselves as something at least a little bit special.

We called her Mary, as if she were our friend, but we were not always friendly to her. Her task was to teach us to write poetry with meter, and with form, but for some reason — even though this was what we all signed up for — some of us fought her, angrily, stubbornly, turning in work that in no way resembled the assignments she had patiently given us.

She tried teach us about meter and rhyme — to convince this roomful of proud 19-year-olds that it was worth the effort to push our breathless ideas into these ancient vessels to discover what new shape they would take. We tried to resist.

She was, of course, right. She was Mary Oliver.

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I remember the sight of her: slight, serious, soft-spoken, taking up what seemed to be very little space at the end of a long, polished wooden table in an upstairs classroom in the Barn, Bennington’s main building for literature and history courses. I took all my classes in the Barn, cycling between just one or two rooms for almost my entire undergraduate career, but it was always a wonder to me how each of my teachers could transform the space into something new. In Mary Oliver’s classroom, we struggled. We struggled against the things she asked us to do; we struggled to grasp the structures of sonnets and the dictates of scansion. It felt hard, awkward, old-fashioned, strange to write long Shakespearean lines of iambic pentameter, or short, stumbling trochaic lines.

She gave us Shakespeare poems to scan, and although it felt clunky at first, I also slowly fell in love with the act of dividing each line into feet, my marks on the paper revealing a secret skeleton like an X-ray film.

Mary’s notes on my homework are written in soft red pencil, punctuated with urgent underlinings, dashes, check marks and arrows that, like her poetry, command the attention while somehow remaining quiet and calm.

“This is the marvelous thing about language,” Oliver told Stephen Ratiner in 1992 in an interview for the Christian Science Monitor. “It can always be done better. But I begin to see what works and what doesn’t work. I begin to rely more on style, which is, as I say, apparatus or method, than on luck, prayers, or long hours of work.”

In Mary Oliver’s classroom, we struggled. We struggled against the things she asked us to do; we struggled to grasp the structures of sonnets and the dictates of scansion.

The poems I wrote in Mary Oliver’s class largely make me cringe today (there is one titled “Passive Aggression” that I think I will go burn so that no one must ever read it), and they were painful to write at the time. I felt as awkward writing in trochaic couplets as I did in my French 101 seminar. My ideas came out like lumpen wrecks, lacking in sophistication or verve. I was sure that I was a failure at writing poetry.

Mary Oliver famously gave few interviews, but as sparing as she may have been with her words publicly, she was astonishingly generous with us, her undergraduate students. She did not baby or pamper us. What she did do was treat us as her intellectual equals: capable of understanding what she understood. Nothing she said or did ever suggested that there was a meaningful difference between us, her students, and her, the decorated poet.

She was almost unfailingly patient, even in the face of near-mutiny, as she calmly tried to convince the most stubborn of us that we had something to gain by crafting these lumpen wrecks of poems. And through her patience and her insistence, I finally began to understand that the struggle we were experiencing was not a problem, or a hurdle to be overcome, or a deficiency on my part.

The struggle was the point.

Through her patience and her insistence, I finally began to understand that the struggle we were experiencing was not a problem. The struggle was the point.

I had come to Bennington hoping to be given a key — or, if I was honest with myself, hoping to be given someone’s blessing. I wanted someone with more degrees and more prestige than my high school English teacher to tell me, “Yes, you’re good. You’re doing it right.”

Mary Oliver was generous with her praise. I will take to the grave with me a poem on which she wrote “Excellent” (and underlined it!) because it gives me a singular thrill every time I look at it. But it is not her praise I remember when I think about that class. It is the struggle. It is the thought of her, calmly, patiently helping us see that here was no point in doing the things that came easily to us — the things that were comfortable, or familiar.

“It’s a matter of trying everything you can try, just to see what will work for you,” Oliver told Stephen Ratimer.

What Mary Oliver did worked beautifully for her — and for so many of us who have cherished her words. She taught me what it actually meant to learn about writing — that it wasn’t simply a matter of this word or that one, finding the right adjective, or getting the line to break in just the right place. That I didn’t need her blessing, or anyone’s, on the work I had done, but that what I needed to do was to keep working.

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She showed me that learning to write is about being uncomfortable, being vulnerable and pushing, hard, into unfamiliar places, because that’s where the good stuff is.

As we remember Oliver’s life and work, I am incredibly grateful to have had the chance to learn this most valuable lesson at the feet of an amazing writer — one whose generosity has enriched us all.

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