Featured Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Wild Geese by 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 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.

(1986, Dream Work)

Last January 17, the world lost one of its brightest and finest literary luminaries. At 83, the National Book Award- and Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver passed away at her home in Florida. Oliver was undeniably one of the most well-loved and influential poets of the last century. She was also an incredible rarity; a titan of literature who enjoyed both commercial and critical success throughout her lifetime.

Oliver was an exceedingly skilled and introspective poet. Her poems often garnered favorable comparisons with the works of the legendary Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Oliver had no qualms delving deep into the human psyche. She would use sharp and beautiful imagery that often featured the elements of nature to help illustrate mankind’s unbreakable connection to his environment.

Now, Mary Oliver’s extensive literary repertoire is stock-full of stellar poems. But for this post, I’d like to feature a piece that’s very close to my heart. It was a gift from a treasured friend, (hi, Lauren!), and is one that I keep coming back to. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese is one of those poems that hold in their words a wellspring of wisdom and meaning. It’s one that gives me immeasurable comfort when I’m feeling down and inspires introspection when I’m stuck in a rut. At the risk of sounding cheesy, to me, Wild Geese is an effective balm for the overthinking mind. A much-needed breather we all can use once in a while.

An Analysis of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

In Wild Geese, Oliver demonstrates her keen understanding of man’s restless pursuit of purpose and innate sense of displacement. She urges the reader to look to nature for the answers to his/her unspoken questions. Written in simple verse, the poem is both an easy and comforting read.

Now, in terms of structure, there’s really not much to dissect here. Wild Geese is written in freestyle with eighteen lines and a single stanza. It’s devoid of rhymes and reads more like advice from a wise friend rather than a traditional poem that begs for translation or analysis. But don’t let its simplicity and straightforwardness fool you. For what Wild Geese may lack in grammatical or structural complexity, it certainly makes up for in depth and impact.

Now, one of the things I love most about Wild Geese is its incredibly strong and unforgettable first line—You do not have to be good. As far as first lines go, that one is pretty golden. In my opinion, it ticks a lot of boxes. What do I mean by this? Well, by using the word You, Oliver is both able to command the reader’s attention while establishing both an atmosphere of intimacy and urgency in the work. It’s almost as if the line tells you, “hey, listen for a moment. This is important and this is for you.”

And then there’s the actual message—You do not have to be good. It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? A little left-field and off-kilter. First off, the line carries a certain level of gravitas that you usually find in the middle or at the end of a, particularly poignant piece. It’s almost in media res, as if you blinked and suddenly found yourself already in the middle of an existing and serious existential conversation. And then the line sinks in and it’s strange advice. Almost as if the poem is urging you to unlearn one of the first lessons you’re taught in school and at home—be good/do good.

The rest of the stanza continues in this vein, before culminating into solid advice:

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.

I could be over-reading, but in this humble reader’s opinion, the words good and repent, and the image of walking on one’s knees through the desert, seem suffused with religious subtext. It might be the Catholic in me, but to be good and to repent for one’s sins are basic moral requirements of the faith. As for the kneeling, it seems to suggest both worship—an acquiescence and prostration to some societal/moral/religious higher power—and penance for sinning, which if you think about it, aren’t most of the seven deadly sins essentially products of giving in to our baser “animal instincts?” And then you have the final two lines of that stanza—“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I’m 150% sure that Mary Oliver isn’t encouraging us to throw all mores and scruples to the wind and to lead sinful and meaningless lives. But I do believe that she’s telling us that if we want to be happy, we need to shrug off any and all unrealistic and irrational expectations and demands that society may have of us. We need to trust our own judgment and instincts to define and direct our lives.

To illustrate, I sincerely believe that there is “being a good person” and then there’s society’s idea of what being a good person (woman, wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, father, etc.) would entail. And the very notion of ‘good’ being somewhat subjective allows for its multitude of definitions and descriptions. As the definition of good expands, so too does its conditions and caveats—and sometimes, these caveats are antiquated or have very little to do with the notion of good itself. So, why then, do we have to be burdened by outdated, irrelevant, and unhelpful societal expectations? Through Wild Geese, Mary Oliver tells us, “It’s okay. Go ahead and drop that ball.” Pretty darn good advice, if you ask me.

Now, apart from urging us to unburden ourselves of society’s demands, Mary Oliver also encourages us to look to Nature for comfort and guidance. As we fret and fuss over the direction of our lives, as we lie awake at night feeling anxious about the future and feeling so very alone, as we go through the numerous human crises that will plague us in one lifetime—identity, quarter life, midlife, late life, etc.—

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.

Through this beautifully written passage, Oliver encourages us to find comfort in nature. See how its many elements and creatures remain unperturbed—absolutely sure of their place in this earth. Like the wild geese, we are called to “head home” back into nature. To regain our appreciation and sense of awe when faced with its wild beauty and undeniable order. There is no need to be lonely, because as Oliver reassures us, we are not alone. We are a part of something bigger.

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.

 

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