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A Wild and Precious Life: Poet Mary Oliver’s Legacy and the Library of Congress

All images courtesy of the Library of Congress

by Steve Desroches

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

That last stanza of Mary Oliver’s gorgeous poem, “The Summer Day” hangs not so much as a question, but rather a reminder that life is fleeting and should be lived with passion and intention. And indeed, Oliver, who died in 2019 at the age of 83, lived such a life and left behind such a body of work that her legacy will echo strongly for many years to come. And her life and life’s work will further be cemented into American culture and history as her extensive papers have become part of the collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the world’s largest library.

The announcement was made by the Library at the beginning of April, which is National Poetry Month, though the papers were officially acquired last December when longtime friends of Oliver’s and executor of her estate Bill and Amalie Reichblum donated the remarkable collection. The couple also created the Mary Oliver Memorial Event Fund for Emerging Poets at the Library, as Oliver was always supported of new talents in the poetry world. 

“The interest has been immediate,” says Barbara Bair, curator and public historian at the Library of Congress. “We’ve already begun hearing from people who are eager to access her papers for research. We’re working as fast as we can to make them public.”

In total, the Oliver papers consist of about 40,000 items, which arrived in about 46 record boxes, says Bair. While the term “papers” is used, often collections of any person’s papers also include various artifacts. So, in addition to written documents, correspondences, and works in progress with edits and notes, the papers also include feathers and seashells Oliver collected, most of which was done here in Provincetown, as well as an electric typewriter with the word “courage” written on paper and taped to it. The collection also includes multiple notebooks in which Oliver would write notes as she went for walks in nature, much like one of her major inspirations, Walt Whitman, whose papers are also at the Library of Congress. There is also a significant amount of photographs by Molly Malone Cook, Oliver’s longtime partner and literary agent as well as celebrated photographer, with many capturing moments of their 40-plus years living in Provincetown. From back issues of Provincetown Magazine to records of events with the Fine Arts Work Center to materials relating to John Waters, (who was hired by Cook in the early 1960s to work at the Provincetown Bookshop), Provincetown is well represented in the papers and will be a major finding aid for those using the collection, says Bair.

It’s estimated the paper will be fully processed by the end of the year, says Bair, but there have already been fascinating discoveries proving that this collection is indeed the treasure the Library knew it would be. 

An early discovery is that within the papers is an account of how Oliver and Cook met. Oliver began writing poetry at the age of 14 and in addition to being inspired by the works of Whitman so, too, did she find inspiration from poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. When she was 17 Oliver visited Steepletop, Millay’s farmhouse in Austerlitz, New York, where Millay had died after a fall two years earlier in 1950. There Oliver met Millay’s sister Norma, who was at Steepletop assembling Edna’s papers. She hired Oliver as an assistant to help with the Herculean task of assembling the collection, that would end up at the Library of Congress. That this young aspiring poet would come to the home of one of her idols only to many years later have her own papers join the stacks along with Millay’s has a certain magical poetry of its own.

“Isn’t that wild,” says Bair. “Just wild.”

But Steepletop proved to be more than just professionally and artistically prophetic. It’s there that Oliver and Cook met around 1959, in a moment Oliver called “love at first sight.” The couple would move to Provincetown together not long after. And so began a beautiful love story not just with each other, but with their beloved Provincetown, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005, and Oliver stayed for some years until relocating to Hobe Sound, Florida, where she passed in 2019.

The very first Mary Oliver Memorial event was kicked off in early April at the Library by United States Poet Laureate, and former Fine Arts Work Center fellow Ada Limón with Molly McCully Brown, Jake Skeets, Analicia Sotelo and Paul Tran. In addition, the Library of Congress launched their new “You Are Here” program in cooperation with the National Parks Service. Come June, Limón will launch “You Are Here: Poetry in Parks,” an initiative with the National Park Service and the Poetry Society of America. It will feature site-specific poetry installations in seven national parks across the country. These installations, which will transform picnic tables into works of public art, will each feature a historic American poem that connects in a meaningful way to the park, with the first event focused on Mary Oliver and her featured poem “Can You Imagine?” which will be featured in various spots in the Cape Cod National Seashore with a special event planned for June 14, with other dates and poets to follow throughout the year at Mount Rainier National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and more.

For more information on the Mary Oliver Papers, the Mary Oliver Memorial Event Fund for Emerging Poets, and the “You Are Here” program visit

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