The Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I don’t remember where it was that I first saw this poem, but I keep finding it in different places around my house as I clean, and finally I decided it just wanted to be shared. I’ve scribbled it down in three different notebooks (that I’ve come across so far), and I’d also typed it up a year or two ago and included it as part of a birthday gift for my friend in December. Every time I find it, I sit and read it over and over and fall in love with it again.

It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite line because I mark every one as important when I’m reading. I remember a poetry professor trying to explain that concept to a class of naive writers years ago – we were workshopping our pieces toward the end of the semester, and in exasperation, he told us to take our poems and draw through every line that wasn’t essential. We all just sat there staring at him. Didn’t he know that our egos were far greater than our inner editors? Every line was a miracle! Every word we had written and brought to class was sacred! (It is almost impossible for me to read any of those poems now without cringing, laughing, or going in search of match to burn, burn them all!)

I realize now that I had almost no comprehension of what he was asking from us, and I also know that what he wanted was nearly impossible. Creating a poem where every line lives and breathes, where each new moment builds a greater whole – that’s a gift. I appreciate what my teacher was struggling to share with us though; it’s an idea I cherish now that I’ve had the opportunity to see it and explore the idea in other writers’ work. It’s also a structural concept I wish longer form writers would take into consideration. It’s easier when writing a novel to allow fluff and mess to slip in, and as a reader, I’m willing to let more slide, but I certainly wouldn’t mind the  detail Oliver levels at her poem in some of the books I read (or write, for that matter)…

To learn more about Mary Oliver, go here.

3 thoughts on “The Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

    1. I’m so glad you liked it! It is one of my all-time favorites, and in many ways, it reminds me of why I love to read:

      “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
      the world offers itself to your imagination,
      calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
      over and over announcing your place
      in the family of things.”

      It just sort of sums up my whole philosophy about books and how powerfully important reading and an active imagination are to me.

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