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American Primitive

4.39  ·  Rating details ·  4,554 ratings  ·  345 reviews
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Her most acclaimed volume of poetry, American Primitive contains fifty visionary poems about nature, the humanity in love, and the wilderness of America, both within our bodies and outside.

"American Primitive enchants me with the purity of its lyric voice, the loving freshness of its perceptions, and the singular glow of a spiritual l
Paperback, 88 pages
Published April 28th 1983 by Back Bay Books (first published 1983)
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Average rating 4.39  · 
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 ·  4,554 ratings  ·  345 reviews

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Dec 28, 2015 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
Bill Kerwin
Sep 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, 20th-c-amer

American Primitive, Mary Oliver’s Pulitizer Prize winning collection, is essential reading for anyone who cares about American poetry. Moreover, it well deserves the Pulitzer, which is more than I can say for many of the books that have won this coveted prize.

Now I’m not knocking the Pulitizer. But it seems to me that book awards—and poetry book awards in particular—are never quite on the cutting edge, but always trying to catch up. They give awards to the author who deserved the award for his l
Dec 24, 2011 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
mwpm mwpm
May 16, 2015 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
Eveline Chao
Jun 24, 2007 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. ...more
David J
Mar 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry

I love Mary Oliver’s poetry. This is the fourteenth collection of hers I’ve read and it’s everything I’ve come to expect when reading her words (though her earlier poetry is distinctly different from the majority of her work). Oliver won the Pulitzer with this collection and it’s easy to see why: she writes simply but deftly, and each poem is impactful.

Most poems focus on the nature around Oliver, around us. The beauty, the fierceness, the life, the death, the wildness, the love, the horror,
Apr 15, 2013 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
T.D. Whittle
In the brutal elegance of cities
I have walked down
the halls of hotels

and heard this music
behind shut doors.

(from Music)
I never tire of Oliver's poems. I've been reading this collection, in particular, over and over again since it was first published in 1984. Whole lines of beautiful poetry and their accompanying dreamlike images are woven through my life thanks to Mary Oliver's shared vision of our world.
Now you are dead too, and I, no longer young,
know what a kiss is worth. Time
has made his
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
Dave Schaafsma
Feb 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
RIP, Mary Oliver, 1/17/19

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean b
Jun 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, favorites
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
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
5 stars.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

This collection of 50 pastoral poems is about as good as I’ve read — particularly if you have a childlike wonder for the natural world.

Oliver’s poetry is conventional and clear. She makes heavy use of familiar images to evoke nostalgia. She was one of the most popular poets of the past half century and hailed from the suburbs of Cleveland Ohio.

Here is one of my favorite poems from the American Primitive collection about Johnny Appleseed.

John Chapman
Feb 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
(3.5) Although it won the Pulitzer Prize, this collection isn’t quite as strong (at least for me) as Dream Work. However, it still has plenty of memorable lines, deceptively simple but densely packed with wisdom and, as always, Oliver encourages the reader to appreciate nature and the seasons afresh. There are also a handful of poems about relationships: human tragedies, love and its loss.

Some favorite lines:

“you do / what you can if you can; whatever // the secret, and the pain, // there’s a de
Jim Puskas
Jun 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: prose-poetry
Mary Oliver is all about love, loss, living, dying; and a passionate physical immersion in nature. Harkening back to Thoreau and Whitman, her language is even more accessible than either, somehow closer to the earth, its smells, its endless decay and rebirth. Many of her images will stop you in your tracks while reading.
As with other of her collections, this one is replete with little glowing masterpieces. One can imagine her passing through a meadow, woodland or marsh and plucking lyrical image
Sep 02, 2016 rated it liked it
I just could not get into this until about 1/2-way 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."
Joshua Buhs
Mar 31, 2016 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
Oct 10, 2010 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
Jun 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
It was a joy to walk her paths for a time.
Apr 12, 2016 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
Sommer Ann McCullough
Nov 02, 2007 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.
Apr 21, 2014 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
Jun 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
I returned to this 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems after reading a literary journal stuffed with nature poems that just seemed unnecessary. As I read through the journal I kept thinking that Oliver had covered this terrain so much more powerfully. And after rereading her collection again I remain wowed and convinced that American Primitive is and will be a much deserved classic that lyrically evokes the natural world without forgetting our place in it. Search this one out if you ...more
Feb 13, 2014 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
Maughn Gregory
Apr 11, 2010 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." ...more
Edmund Davis-Quinn
Oct 07, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: library, biblio-ct, poetry
I love Mary Oliver's "Dog Songs" and "Blue Horses" but I don't seem to be inspired the same way with her earlier work.

A lot of good poetry here but it didn't grab me. Actually took a very long time to finish. Looking forward to reading her most recent book soon.
Mar 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: wax-poetic
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.
Jan 19, 2015 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
Laura (Book Scrounger)
A great collection of poetry for National Poetry Month. So much good imagery, and the theme of the "primitive" and wildness of nature is all through it. ...more
In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be
Dec 25, 2007 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
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“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 observations of the na

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