Award-winning poet Mary Oliver will enlighten the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) with readings from her renowned works this Sunday. The audience will also have a chance to ask the poet questions in a Q-and-A section after the presentation.
“The short lines in her short poems record moments of wonder and amazement in solitary encounters with nature: a sunrise, vultures gliding overhead and scavenging road kill, poppies,” English professor Steven Marx said. “Her language is simple, but so fresh and striking, that it allows you to see what she describes as if for the first time, and to hear the words she uses as if they were never used before.”
Oliver was born Sept. 10, 1935, in Maple Heights, Ohio. She started her “poetry adventure” when she was 14. Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College, but did not receive a degree from either school. She later taught at Case Western Reserve University, a private research school in Cleveland. Currently, the poet lives in Providence, Mass.
Oliver’s first collection of poems, “Voyage and other Poems” was published in 1963. It was her fifth collection of poems, “American Primitive,” that won her the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. “New and Selected Poems,” published in 1992, won her the National Book Award.
Oliver also wrote a novel-length poem called “The Leaf and the Cloud.” The first part made its way into “The Best American Poetry” collection in 1999 while the second part, “Work,” was selected for the 2000 edition.
Other awards and distinctions Oliver holds include an American Academy of Arts and Letter Award, Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Oliver also held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College until 2001.
Oliver also wrote essays that can be found in the “Best American Essays” 1996, 1998 and 2001.
Throughout the years, the PAC has seen many different types of performers, according to PAC managing director Ron Regier. When Oliver takes the stage, it will be just as important as any past performance.
Steven Lerian, director of Cal Poly Arts, said he chose Oliver because he was looking for a major literary figure to be a part of the program’s Speaker Series.
“Oliver, being a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner with a broad following, seemed like a perfect choice,” he said.
Oliver’s work can also be found in Cal Poly classes. Marx has assigned Oliver’s works in his environmental literature, or “ecolit,” class (a general education course) for approximately the past 10 years.
“Poems by Oliver have had a strong impact on all students,” Marx said. “From English majors to ‘aggies’ to computer engineers.”
Marx classifies Oliver’s work as Romantic — or emphasizing the wonders and importance of nature. Romanticism’s roots travel back to ancient classics and the Bible. Marx said Oliver’s forerunners include William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.
“Many have found that her poems enlarge their ability to appreciate the sensual and spiritual values of the world we inhabit,” Marx said.
Oliver will read selected pieces from her many works for approximately 50 minutes, beginning at 7 p.m. A Q-and-A period will follow the presentation. Tickets can be purchased at the Performing Arts Ticket Center.