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American Primitive

4.38 of 5 stars 4.38  ·  rating details  ·  2,503 ratings  ·  119 reviews
The fifty poems in "American Primitive" make up a body of luminous unity. Mary Oliver's visionary poems enunciate the renewals of nature and the renewals of humanity in love, in oneness with the natural, in union with the things of this world. Lyrical and elegiac, Mary Oliver celebrates the primitiave things of America - the wilderness that survives both within our bodies ...more
Paperback, 88 pages
Published April 30th 1983 by Back Bay Books (first published 1983)
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The Collected Poems by Wallace StevensThe Waking by Theodore Roethke77 Dream Songs by John BerrymanThe Wild Iris by Louise GlückThe Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
Pulitzer Winners: Poetry
21st out of 99 books — 36 voters
Why I Wake Early by Mary OliverAmerican Primitive by Mary OliverA Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far by Adrienne RichZami by Audre LordeDirected by Desire by June Jordan
Books by Lesbian Poets
1st out of 85 books — 2 voters

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Community Reviews

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Mar 19, 2012 s.penkevich rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Your wild side
Recommended to s.penkevich by: Scott
Whatever it is you try to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you like the dreams of your body
I’ve always found that the world outside my window, deep in the immersion of nature, is where I feel most alive and at peace. I love to travel into the wild woods of Michigan, off from the beaten path, and lose myself among the trees. I look up and feel dwarfed and insignificant among the leafy giants that stretch towards the limitless sky, and allow the breeze to blow through me, taking my wo
So after years of teaching "Crossing the Swamp" and really coming to love it, I last year made an annotation for myself on my very own copy of the poem that I found this May: "Why the fuck aren't you reading more Mary Oliver?" Since I always take my own vituperative and vulgar advice, I picked up this collection.

And now I know why I don't read more Mary Oliver.

Take this example as indicative. Here's my favorite of her poems in this collection:

The Fish

The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie
The collection is dedicated to the memory of James Wright, an American poet who in 1980 (three years before the publication of American Primitive). Of James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break, Peter A. Stitt wrote that "the book's title indicates its major affirmation - the faith that nature will endure and continue to sustain man". The Branch Will Not Break was undoubtedly an influence on American Primitive, both characterized by the same optimism, by the prevalence of nature, and the celebrati ...more
Eveline Chao
Mary Oliver is so fucking cool and badass. You get the feeling reading this that she'd be great to have as a camping buddy, or backing you up in battle. The poems are all tactile earthy nature and sinewy arms ripping into mud kind of gnarlyness and make you want to run outside and shove dirt in your mouth.
Sommer Ann McCullough
Nov 02, 2007 Sommer Ann McCullough rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Love Nature. Love Earth. Feel Connected
Have you ever had that surreal feeling when you read something that you've secretly always felt but never really knew it? Mary Oliver is the person who knows these thoughts and secrets that everybody harbors and how we all feel that deep urge to connect with nature.

She opens our souls to the raw, beautiful, seductive and hidden side of nature that is all around us. Her words are beautiful, indescribable, luscious, and scrape nature down to it's core. It is a book that can relate to everything.
My first poetry collection of the year – ‘American Primitive’ by Mary Oliver :) I got it last week and dropped what I was reading and started reading this. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

‘American Primitive’ is a collection of fifty poems. It is classic Mary Oliver – it has mostly poems on nature – on animals, plants, trees, the sky, the sea and other beautiful things.

In a typical Mary Oliver poem – if there is any such thing – there is a heroine who comes out of the fore
I've been chewing on these poems on bad nights for a year now.

Happiness and the black slab of a bear clawing trees for honey until she finds it. That was the first poem I read. I read it again aloud to hear the words against each other until my ex and grumbled and told me to be quiet already.

The kitten with one eye, her body buried quietly under wildflowers. That was last spring with my cat beside me with his two eyes blinking and he was purring and the book in my hand like a dead one-eyed kitt
I seem to be one of the only people on Goodreads who isn't head-over-heels in love with this book. I thought it was strong, solid nature poetry, but without that extra dimension that makes me love poets like Robert Frost and Annie Dillard - writers who can get you so wrapped up in a completely mundane scene that you don't even see it coming when they hit you with some profound, metaphysical truth. Mary Oliver has a wonderful way with words, but she doesn't take you anywhere beyond the scene. I f ...more
It was a joy to walk her paths for a time.
I can't believe how long I've waited to read this early collection, since I've been a fan of hers for so long. She's one of the very few writers that I can honestly say has saved my life. No one else can accurately or as beautifully describe the taste of honey. Or describe why little girls dream of being mermaids! For anyone who is able to find so much humanity, beauty, morality, and even a little spirituality in Nature....well, she's one of our greatest teachers. We're lucky to have access to h ...more
I misplaced my book for a while. So glad I found it again. This time I refused to put it down again because Mary Oliver in American Primitive took me on a Nature walk. American Primitive by Mary Oliver brims over like the white waters of a waterfall with goodness. It is so easy to see whatever she sees on this walk or to feel whatever she feels. One poem is about a little girl who gets lost. The poet gives the child's name. This made me feel the loss in a deeper way. Her name is Lydia Osburn. Th ...more
I love Mary Oliver, but somehow missed previously reading this book. I've read more of her later books, I guess. She won the Pulitzer for this book in 1983, and it is one of her earlier books, and so it was really interesting to read because of that, to see her development and changes as a poet and a person. The poems were much more fully nature poetry, focused on nature for nature's sake, and were slightly less engaged in using nature as metaphor for life and God, as she does in later works to ...more
Lines I loved:

p 22, from Clapp's Pond: "like the feathers of a wing, everything / touches everything."

p 49, from Blossom: "we belong / to the moon and when the ponds / open, when the burning / begins the most / thoughtful among us dreams / of hurrying down / into the black petals, / into the fire, / into the night where time lies shattered, / into the body of another."

p 53, from May: "this sense of well-being, the flourishing / of the physical body - rides / near the hub of the miracle that ever

These poems primarily celebrate our oneness with nature. While we may appear to stand outside it, by observing carefully we begin to recognize our connection to the wild; ultimately, by taking it in—both figuratively and literally—we can live in the joy of this oneness.

The closing section of “The Fish” illustrates this well:

I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to
While not I’m not usually a big nature poetry fan – long lists of plants the poet spotted on a hike, Mary Oliver is the biggest exception to that rule. Her poems move me, pulling me into the scene and then going beyond it to astounding revelation, e.g., this excerpt from “Humpbacks”: “The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something/has to be holding/our bodies/in its rich and timeless stables or else/we would fly away.” This collection published in 1978 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and dese ...more
Jul 15, 2009 Tara rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: poetry
Actually not my favorite Mary Oliver collection (or even second favorite) but it gets 5 stars for being so freakin fantastic.
Elaine Mulligan
Classic. Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer. 50 poems previously published in 20 different periodicals (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry Northwest et al) from 1978 to 1983 available in one edition. So readily accessible for any reader of the english language. The only thing missing for me would be a forward and an afterward from the author to complete it.As you can see from those I marked they are almost all favorites of mine.

August *
The kitten *
In the pinewoods crows and owl
Mary Oliver has great attitude of ordering her poems in American Primitive. It starts with a creation story that does not try to explain things – rather it tells like it is, to acknowledge existence of self in immediate sensations of “ripped arms” and “happy tongue,” the silence growth of mushrooms, and the warm mystery of earth. She then throbs and splatters blood of joy all over the pages, and ends with a crescendo of gushing sensuality that urge us to be bold: “the only way to tempt happiness ...more
These poems are a meditation on nature keenly observed, acutely felt. At turns reverent, playful, always earthy, contemplative, Oliver pulls us into the wonder in her bones after she has drunk to the dregs the world around her. Her poems are often evocative; what I resonate with in her imagery pulls my own experience into her vision, helping me to better see what I have always seen. The stuff of silent beating wings, sprouting saplings, seasons changing - meditated. At its best, American Primiti ...more
I'm reading this ( and New and Selected Poems) in anticipation of a lecture series by a former prof of mine, discussing her and Dickinson.

I'm not a regular poetry amateur, and so missed her rise to fame in the 80s and 90s.

2/3rds of the way through... enjoying it, but suspect she's shallower than the Belle... I am enjoying the treatments of nature/death/joy, the lyrical qualities, and there's enough structure and meter to keep the quant jock in me happy.

It's easy to wallow in fear/sentiment of m
Aug 04, 2010 Dee rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People who love nature
Shelves: poetry
Her poetry makes you feel nature. I love her style. It is easy to read and although I am sure there are deeper meanings to her work, I can relate to it and make it mine. I wish I had discovered this poet a long time ago. It would be hard to pick a favorite but being that I love Native American History I would probably say I loved the poem Tecumseh.

In Part:

His name meant Shooting Star.
From Mad River country north to the border
he gathered the tribes
and armed them one more time. He vowed
to keep Oh
These poems are delicious-- sensuous. They remind you that it can be a great thing to have a body, to breathe air, to taste & smell & see. Her poetry reminds me of Whitman but somehow better (?) -- discrete but also connected with all living things and non-living things and history and place and love.
Having now read AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, I can certainly understand why the collection was awarded the Pulitzer, even while I have to acknowledge that I'm not especially fond of Nature poetry. I think my favorites in the volume were "Moles," "Fall Song," "John Chapman," "University Hospital, Boston," "Blossom," "The Plum Trees," and "The Garden."
I'm trying to read and appreciate more poetry. Who better to start with then Pulitzer-prize winner Mary Oliver? I loved the quiet, pastoral feel of this volume, and particularly enjoyed the imagery of "Rain in Ohio", "Humpbacks" and "The sea."
A friend living in Kansas City sent me this collection of poetry. Mary Oliver's poems are beautiful, rich, full: dark chocolate-esque.

American Primitive is a lyrical collection that harks back to nature and echos again and again our mortality and closeness to the earth.

I'll admit that some of the poems were literally too flowery for me. Not that I'm a doom or gloom kind of gal, maybe I'm just jealous that this gal can write 5 awesome poems about honey bees. The fact that Mary Oliver wrote a p
This was fantastic. I heard about her on Writer's Almanac. The images and feelings bring up memories of growing up around nature in Alabama. I love the blackberry picking poems.
Good collection, but not what I'm in to.

American Primative is a nice collection of poetry that ultimately fell short for me, because of the quantity of imagist poems. While the crafting is excellent the content of the poems lacks flare and the edgy topics. It's a reasonable read and worth checking out of a library or reading in a book store over a cup of coffee, but I was able to read through 10 or 12 poems without tiring or needing to stop for a moment of reflection. (You can always force a re
Terry Ryan
I had to take poetry at university, for the credits. Thought I'd hate it. Mary Oliver single handedly changed my POV with this one book. Fantastic
If you haven't picked up Mary Oliver in a while, do ;) It's a slow down, but a good one.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dream of your body,

its spirit
longing to fly while the dead weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire

where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

from "Humpbacks"


... there is no end,
believe me! to the inventions of summer,
to the happiness your body
is w
All her work is wonderful. I'm never disappointed by an Oliver poem. She's too honest not to write the absolute best of poetry.
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  • Delights and Shadows
  • Collected Poems
  • The Dead and the Living
  • The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984
  • The Wild Iris
  • What the Living Do: Poems
  • The Shadow of Sirius
  • Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems
  • Without: Poems
  • Different Hours
  • Late Wife
  • Rose
  • The Country Between Us
  • Field Guide
  • Selected Poems
  • Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000
  • Thomas and Beulah
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

“Mary Oliver. In a region that has produced most of the nation's poet laureates, it is risky to single out one fragile 71-year-old bard of Provincetown. But Mary Oliver, who won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1983, is my choice for her joyous, accessible, intimate observati
More about Mary Oliver...
New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1 A Thousand Mornings Why I Wake Early A Poetry Handbook Thirst

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