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Mary Oliver received an honorary doctoral degree at Marquette earlier tonight.
Mary Oliver received an honorary doctoral degree at Marquette earlier tonight.

Mary Oliver receives honorary degree, gives moving reading

Poet Mary Oliver received an honorary degree at Marquette University at 4 p.m. this afternoon and proceeded to give a 50-minute poetry reading, a question-and-answer session and a book signing.

The program opened with a video of Marquette students reciting her poem "What I Have Learned So Far."

The 77-year-old Oliver, who has won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, among many other awards and recognitions, was sharp, funny, reverent, moving, easy-going and open. She read mostly from her latest book, "A Thousand Mornings," but drew from many other collections, which included a few of her best known poems: "Wild Geese" and "The Journey."

Oliver is one of the few contemporary poets who is popular beyond academia and is "America's best-selling poet" according to The New York Times. Oliver was born in Ohio, but has lived in Provincetown, Mass., for more than 40 years. Oliver lived there with her partner and literary agent, Molly Malone Cook, who passed away in 2005.

Oliver's poems reflect loss; she read a poem about death and also two tributes to her dog, Percy. "Does everyone here love dogs?" she asked at one point. But it is resilience of spirit and her ability to speak to the human condition through her observations in nature that make her work extremely accessible.

She reminds us that roses don't wonder "what's next" like we humans do.

Oliver gave advice to young and aspiring writers tonight, warning them (us) against thinking about success instead of the work. "Forget about the apartment, the car," she said.

She also spoke tonight of living simply. She opts for the unfancy, both in words and food. She told us she often eats mushrooms found in her yard for breakfast and mussels plucked from the nearby harbor for dinner. This love for the natural simplicity in life resonates in many of her poems, like "The Sun" which ends with: "or have you too gone crazy for power, for things?"

Oliver said people always ask her why her poems are long and skinny and she said she usually doesn't answer. But tonight, she decided to share the story about when she was a poor young poet and got a job as a collator at a printer where she made $2 an hour and could take home discarded strips of paper that were trimmed from full-sized sheets.

Because the narrow paper strips were free, she made the poems fit.

Oliver is a genius of the last line, and tonight, these final lines were particularly poignant when read aloud: "Announcing your place in the family of things," "Determined to save the only life you could save" and "Be ignited or be gone."

Considering the reading was a Mary Oliver retrospective, her decision to omit "The Summer Day" was noted, especially since it contains what is probably her most known and loved final line.

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"


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