By Katy Steinmetz
January 24, 2019
Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

If you know only one line of Mary Oliver’s poetry, it is likely a question she posed, one that sums up the infectious wonder that ran through her verse like veins through a leaf. “Tell me,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet wrote in “The Summer Day,” “what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

Oliver, who had been treated for lymphoma, died at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla., on Jan. 17. She was 83 and a rarity even among poets. She was not merely prolific: the Ohio native published more than 20 volumes of verse, including American Primitive, the collection that won the Pulitzer in 1984. Her work also sold well. Writers borrowed her lines as epigraphs and readers held them close–and taped them up and tweeted them out and even tattooed them–because Oliver gave fresh spirit to old ideas in purposefully plain speech.

She found perspective in the march of seasons. She envied the secret lives of animals. She reminded her readers that life is a blessing, that mischief can be healing, that uncertainty isn’t a reason to disbelieve. She also left us with helpful instructions, some written as she grappled with growing older and wondering what comes next. “Keep some room in your heart,” Oliver wrote in 2009, “for the unimaginable.”

Write to Katy Steinmetz at

This appears in the February 04, 2019 issue of TIME.


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