Poet Mary Oliver receives honorary degree

Acclaimed poet Mary Oliver, 77, received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Marquette University in front of a sold-out audience of 800 people at a ceremony in the Alumni Memorial Union yesterday. During the ceremony, she read several of her poems and answered questions about her writing process and inspirations.

“Today, Marquette thanks Mary Oliver for speaking to our hearts and releasing energies that inspire us to be agents of change in a world waiting to be made more gentle, more just,” said University President, the Rev. Scott Pilarz.

The event began with a showing of a video of Marquette students reciting Oliver’s poem, ‘What I have learned so far,’ which was created last fall and shown at Pilarz’s inauguration.

Pilarz, who has taught numerous poetry and English courses at Marquette and other universities, was very excited to listen to Oliver recite her work.

“On a personal note, for this English professor and poetry-lover-turned-president – this is a thrill,” Pilarz said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Oliver, who decided she wanted to be a poet when she was 13 years old, is an Ohio native and has been active in the poetry scene since the 1960s. She has received more than 10 literary awards, including a 1984 Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems, “American Primitive” and a 1992 National Book Award for her book, ‘New and Selected Poems.”

Oliver’s poetry focuses on occurrences in nature and has been widely lauded and read by both academics and non-academics.

“Perhaps most significantly, she has achieved a rare distinction among poets – her work is popular,” said Angela Sorby, associate professor of English. “People – not just English teachers – read Mary Oliver.”

Despite being described as a “private person by nature” on her website, Oliver charmed the audience with her wit with anecdotes between readings and drew chuckles for some of her more humorous poems such as ‘Green, Green is My Sister’s House.’ The poem, which is about the desire to climb a tree despite the dangerous prospect of falling from it, brought back memories about her own ventures as a child.

“I couldn’t even get to the third branch,” Oliver reminisced about the tree, to the laughs of the audience.

While some poems – such as the many about her dog, Percy – were lighthearted, others, such as “As Death Comes,” were somber and reflective. While she read some of her earlier poems, Oliver also read some of her current pieces, from her new book, “A Thousand Mornings.”

Oliver offered some advice to young writers who want to be successful. She stressed the importance of always being prepared to write down verses when the inspiration comes – even if you are sitting up in a tree.

“You have to write down as it comes,” Oliver said.

However, Oliver warned against relying on the notion of economic success as an indicator of literary success.

“Think nothing of being successful,” Oliver said. “Think only of writing good books. Love your work. Believe in art. Forget the car you want to buy. Forget the apartment. It’s very, very hard from an economic standpoint.”

After the ceremony ended, Oliver signed copies of her new book.

Past recipients of honorary degrees at Marquette include Dick Enberg, renowned sportscaster; Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America; Martin Sheen, award-winning actor, director and producer; Milwaukee archbishop Timothy Dolan; former first lady Barbara Bush; former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson; and former Supreme Court chief justice, William Rehnquist.