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American Primitive

4.38  ·  Rating Details ·  2,841 Ratings  ·  161 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 100 books — 36 voters
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far by Adrienne RichAmerican Primitive by Mary OliverWhy I Wake Early by Mary OliverWinter Numbers by Marilyn HackerThirst by Mary Oliver
Books by Lesbian Poets
2nd out of 188 books — 8 voters

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Community Reviews

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Mar 28, 2016 Dolors rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Those who face the rising sun
I close my eyes and it's not difficult to imagine Mary Oliver waking up right before dawn to open the window shutters of her house in Provincetown and wait for the sun to trace its slothful arch while waiting for words to come.
Words. Words that indeed do come; in deluges, in hasty frenzy, flooding the black tip of her charcoal pencil to fill her notebook and the hearts of countess wistful readers.
Words that draw a picture of the natural world by a keen, careful observer of the small wonders th
Mar 19, 2012 s.penkevich rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 03, 2016 Matthew rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
The collection is dedicated to the memory of James Wright, the American poet, who died 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 ce ...more
Apr 12, 2016 Cristina rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Nature lovers
Recommended to Cristina by: Dolors
Having Google Translate by my side I succeeded in beginning and finishing this little gem in one sitting since, I must confess, Mary Oliver builds a world that is hard to escape once you are inside.

Partly descriptive, partly narrative, her poetry left a metaphysical yet spiritual mark on the reader’s skin using natural elements as a mirror in which her own feelings can be shown always from an optimistic, but not naive, perspective.

A pair of poems:

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the w
Eveline Chao
Jun 24, 2007 Eveline Chao rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
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.
Jul 14, 2013 Chris rated it it was ok
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
Jun 20, 2016 Maria rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, poetry
I don’t know if you have ever seen it, or at least heard of it, but there’s a rather famous sculpture of a naked woman bleeding light through the cracks on her body. The piece is called Expansion and is from the talented Paige Bradley. As I read American Primitive by Mary Oliver, my brain apparently couldn’t help but connect the two.
“and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain – not a single
answer has been found –
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and t
Mary Oliver's poems should be read in the morning when the birds have first awakened, or by a woodstove on a cold winter's day with the wind blowing through the wind chimes outside your door, or even before sitting in meditation. These poems may quiet your mind or just make you feel blessed to have even read them.

Her poems take you into the beauty of a wild swamp where alligators recite their poetry and to the sadness of a kitten that was born dead, as she gives it softly back to the earth. You
Sep 10, 2016 Cheryl rated it liked it
I just could not get into this until about 1/2way through. No doubt it's just me, but there we are. But then in the second half (not that there are halves) I marked:

(from) _Vultures_

Like large dark
butterflies they sweep over
the glades looking
for death,
to eat it,
to make it vanish,
to make of it the miracle:
resurrection. ....
Too long to quote, too interconnected to sample, but worth finding if you can are "The Sea," "Crossing the Swamp" and "Humpbacks."
Apr 21, 2014 Michelle rated it it was amazing
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
Sommer Ann McCullough
Nov 02, 2007 Sommer Ann McCullough rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 16, 2014 Kristen rated it it was amazing
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
Joshua Buhs
Apr 01, 2016 Joshua Buhs rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
From the banal to the scrupulous.

As I've said before, my vocabulary for writing about poetry is limited. So take that for what it's worth.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. It won the Pulitzer, which is no guarantee of quality, but says better people than me thought it excellent. And, indeed, there are excellent--amazing--poems here. But they are mixed with some that seem simple-minded (perhaps I am too simple minded to understand them) and others that distract from and vitiate the co
Jan 24, 2015 Vishy rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 14, 2015 Betsy rated it it was amazing
It was a joy to walk her paths for a time.
Sarah Gustafson
May 04, 2016 Sarah Gustafson rated it really liked it
Shelves: garden
Every so often, you find a book that really needs to get read alongside a sister book. American Primitive is such a book, and Once and Future Giants is its no-nonsense, nonfiction companion.

Without once mentioning the word "primitive," Mary Oliver breathes it into life on each page. What does primitive mean? We can't have wildlife without death, the risk of predation and feathers flying, mysteries and terrors. One of my favorite poems here is In the Pinewoods, Crows and Owl ... our owl is:

Aug 31, 2014 Hattie rated it it was amazing
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
Elaine Mulligan
Apr 13, 2014 Elaine Mulligan rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 25, 2007 YangYi rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 20, 2016 Julie rated it really liked it
My favorite (from The Plum Trees):

Joy is a taste before
it's anything else, and the body
can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,
the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
into the body first, like small
wild plums.
Oct 11, 2010 Jessica rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
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
Kym Mulhern
Oct 02, 2016 Kym Mulhern rated it it was amazing
Although I am familiar with several of the individual poems included in this book, I had never read them . . . as a whole. More powerful. Just lovely. And just what I need right now.
Jun 19, 2014 Andrea rated it really liked it
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
Feb 27, 2014 AnandaTashie rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, 2014
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
Dec 23, 2014 Longfellow rated it really liked it
Shelves: nature, poetry

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
Maughn Gregory
Apr 11, 2010 Maughn Gregory rated it it was amazing
Maybe the most beautiful book of poetry by Mary Oliver I've read - and that's saying a lot! Of plum trees: "Listen, / the only way / to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first, like small / wild plums." After describing humpback whales: "I know several lives worth living."
Whitney Holley
Feb 12, 2016 Whitney Holley rated it it was amazing
A sublime collection of poetry I have no doubt I will be coming back to again and again. If the winter blues get you down I highly recommend reading some of Oliver's work. Her poems are exciting and honest and thoughtful and I want to read more.
Mar 22, 2016 Spencer rated it it was amazing
Superb. Exquisite. She has a masterful voice, and transports your mind to the sights and sounds and feelings she writes about. Nature is where she truly shines. I'd like to take a walk with her, and ponder flower hues and sunsets.
Kate Lawrence
Nov 17, 2015 Kate Lawrence rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Oliver's poetry is gorgeous but simple, quietly stated but with deep feeling and a particular sensitivity regarding the natural world. This volume won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. Some sample lines:
From "Cold Poem": "Maybe what cold is, is the time/we measure the love we have always had, secretly/for our own bones, the knife-edged love/for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe/that is what it means . . ."
From "In Blackwater Woods": "To live in this world/you must be able/to d
Jul 15, 2009 Tara rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
Actually not my favorite Mary Oliver collection (or even second favorite) but it gets 5 stars for being so freakin fantastic.
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  • Delights and Shadows
  • Late Wife
  • The Dead and the Living
  • Collected Poems
  • Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems
  • The Wild Iris
  • The Country Between Us
  • The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984
  • Rose
  • The Branch Will Not Break
  • Without: Poems
  • Different Hours
  • Facts About the Moon
  • Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000
  • Selected Poems
  • Field Guide
  • Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
  • Native Guard
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
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