Pulitzer Prize-winning poet

Born: September 10, 1935;

Died: January 17, 2019

MARY Oliver, who has died aged 83, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose odes to nature and animal life brought her critical acclaim and popular affection. The author of more than 15 poetry and essay collections, she wrote brief, direct pieces about her worship of the outdoors and disdain for greed, despoilment and other human crimes. Her muses were owls and butterflies, frogs and geese, the changes of the seasons, the sun and the stars.

"In my outward appearance and life habits I hardly change," she wrote in Long Life, a 2004 book of essays. "There's never been a day that my friends haven't been able to say, and at a distance, 'There's Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook'. But, at the centre: I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel."

Like her hero Walt Whitman, whom she called the brother she never had, Oliver did not only observe mushrooms growing in a rainstorm or an owl calling from a branch, she longed to know and become one with what she saw. She might be awed by the singing of goldfinches or, as in the poem White Flowers, overcome by a long nap in a field.

Her poetry books included White Pine, West Wind and the anthology Devotions, which was published in 2017. She won the Pulitzer in 1984 for American Primitive and the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. In 1998 she received the Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement.

Oliver was a native of Maple Heights in suburban Cleveland, and endured what she called a dysfunctional family in part by writing poems and building huts of sticks and grass in the nearby woods. Edna St Vincent Millay was an early influence and, while in high school, Oliver wrote to the late poet's sister, Norma, asking if she could visit Millay's house in Austerlitz, New York. Norma Millay agreed and Oliver ended up spending several years there, organising Edna St Vincent Millay's papers. While in Austerlitz, she also met the photographer Molly Malone Cook. "I took one look and fell, hook and tumble," Oliver later wrote. The two were partners until Cook's death, in 2005. Much of Oliver's work was dedicated to Cook.

Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but never graduated and later scorned much of her education as "a pre-established collection of certainties". She did teach at Case Western University and Bennington College among other schools, although much of her work drew upon her childhood and the landscape around Provincetown.

"I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It's already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we're animals, that we need the Earth," Oliver, who rarely spoke to the press, told Maria Shriver during a 2011 interview for Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. "If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like."