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American Primitive

4.38  ·  Rating details ·  3,651 ratings  ·  251 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
Paperback, 88 pages
Published April 30th 1983 by Back Bay Books (first published 1983)
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4.38  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,651 ratings  ·  251 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
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
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.
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
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
David 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
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
Jun 17, 2016 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
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
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
Sep 02, 2016 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."
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."
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
Khashayar Mohammadi
Cottage Poetry
Mar 08, 2019 added it
Shelves: poetry
Review to come.
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
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
Dec 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: garden, poetry
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:

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
Jan 24, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Edmund Davis-Quinn
Oct 07, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: biblio-ct, library, 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.
Whitney Holley
Dec 21, 2015 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.
Kerri Anne
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an older (first published in 1978) + new-to-me collection of Oliver's and like all of her collections I've read, it's beautiful. It's also almost entirely naturalist-themed, which makes my reading heart quite happy. Poignant/stark/vivid/honest in all the right places.

As a bonus, this is a used copy, and there is some seriously stunning handwriting littering a handful of early pages. (Yet another reason I'll always prefer physical books to e-readers.)

My favorites:

"Blossom" — "What/we k
Isaac Jensen
Nov 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, poetry
Beautiful. My favorites include: August, Tasting the Wild Grapes, First Snow, Flying, Honey at the Table, Humpbacks, Music, Climbing the Chagrin River, In Blackwater Woods and The Garden

From Blackwater Woods:

"To live in this world

You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go."

Sep 24, 2016 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.
tortoise dreams
Aug 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
The Pulitzer Prize winning fourth book by American poet Mary Oliver, published when she was 48.

Poetry Review: American Primitive is a book of nature poetry. If you like ponds, wind, trees, herons, wild grapes, bees, you will find them here in abundance. Mary Oliver is a nature poet. If you like passion, joy, exuberance, feeling, all of it honest, unironic, clear, credible, open, vulnerable, all that too is here. Mary Oliver is not hip or cool; she may be the best selling poet in America (I think
Oct 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Mary Oliver is a national treasure. She is our sparkling Emerson, our prairie Whitman, our up early and strolling Oliver.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read this collection. I’ve previously read only Why I Wake Early, and I enjoyed it very much. To be totally honest, there was probably some terrible and embarrassing elitism on my part; Oliver is often described as America’s best SELLING poet. Rarely, America’s best poet. Hard stop. But after smacking myself and reading American Primitive
Jan 10, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: poetry
My problem with Mary Oliver is that she has always seemed too marketable, too appealing. How is this a bad thing? Well, for a poet with so much talent to spend their careers writing poems about nature during a century blighted with war and seems a waste of that talent. Yes the moon is beautiful and the describing snow falling or trees in winter is nice, but isn't there anything else to talk about? I'm not dismissing Mary Oliver, but when I hear her name I feel sad that she hasn't ...more
Shin Gaku
Jan 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
There is breathtaking beauty in Mary Olivers' poems. She can become one with nature. It means throwing away one's ego. Her works shine with the rare beauty which comes fron the humble attitude of admitting a human being is just the part of nature. Her theme is often nature. But sometimes she wrote about a ordinary life such as "University Hospital, Boston" in this volume.
The poem is full of compassion for war wounded Americans. This poem shows she is the true poet with the insight of penetrating
May 18, 2015 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.
Jul 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
A workshop leader once spoke about Oliver's practice of waking up early and exploring the world outside her home. Observant is the one word which describes Mary Oliver's poetry.
Jul 15, 2009 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.
Feb 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014, poetry
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
Aug 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 04, 2014 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
AJ (Andrea) Nolan
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
Jun 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library
I am a total nature junky, so this poetry collection was right up my alley. Each poem was personal and described these meditative moments that I wished to have. Every poem has to do with nature but they are also about how Oliver sees herself in these moments. You can just tell how connected she is to the land and how much inspiration and solace she gets from it. I will read this collection again and again.

Favorite poems in the collection:
1. Mushrooms
2. The Kitten
3. In the Pinewoods, Crows and Ow
Dec 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Done and dusted in one day! Maybe I should have lingered with them longer, but it was cold and dreary and I was in a sappy mood so, I guess, this was exactly what my soul needed that day. They warmed me like a soft blanket. These poems are based in nature and I loved that. I have also heard it's Oliver's "thing". Whether the poem is about a season or a tree or an animal, I felt. I, in particular, loved the ones about seasons in general or the herons (I believe my dear mother-in-law was reincarna ...more
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  • Collected Poems
  • Late Wife
  • Delights and Shadows
  • Different Hours
  • Field Guide
  • The Dead and the Living
  • Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000
  • Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems
  • The Country Between Us
  • The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984
  • Given
  • The Wild Iris
  • Without: Poems
  • Donkey Gospel
  • Selected Poems
  • Given Sugar, Given Salt
  • Book of My Nights
  • Repair
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

“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
“How shall I touch you unless it is everywhere?” 11 likes
“Fall Song"

Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, moldering
in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries — roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time's measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay — how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.”
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