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.

 

Featured Poem: The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by WB Yeats

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The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats (1892)

All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
The wrong of unshapely things, is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew, and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

Notes and Analysis:

Back in freshman year in college, about a decade ago, the class was asked to pick a poem from our poetry book and to present our analysis of said work. I picked The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart by William Butler Yeats. Having had little exposure to W.B. Yeats’s works and little access to the World Wide Web, I ended up with a rather rudimentary and straightforward assessment of what I would later discover to be a historically rich piece.

Armed with handwritten notes, acetate film, and a projector, I proceeded to tell the class my limited understanding of the work. I spoke of how the simplicity of the every day becomes an affront to a man in love. The lover speaks of wanting to rebuild the world to suit the perfection of his loved one. The “wrongness” of the commonplace when set beside the luxurious line “re-made like a casket of gold,” implies the wealth of emotion the speaker feels for the addressed. How the mundane quality of everyday things pales in comparison to the depth of his emotions and the beauty of “the rose in the deeps of his heart.”  And while there may be some merit to this surface-level analysis, there are certain themes I feel I’ve missed. Consider this an attempt to correct my earlier report.

W.B. Yeats was born in 1865 in Dublin, Ireland. When he was a child, his family moved to London to help further his father’s career as an artist. Much of his youth and early adulthood was then spent in the capital city of England. In fact, Yeats purportedly wrote The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart during his stay in Bedford Park in 1892. Despite the long years spent abroad, Yeats seems to have remained profoundly devoted to his homeland. Closer examination of the abovementioned poem even discloses allusions to life in Ireland—“the cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart/the heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould/Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.”

Could the “you” being portrayed here be something other than a person? Could it, in fact, be the land itself? He speaks of a “hunger to build them anew,” these “unshapely things.” Consider “you” to be Ireland, and the poem takes on a whole new meaning. This makes it altogether possible that the poem isn’t so much about romantic love as it is about nationalistic ideals—the desire to connect with and improve a country that is much beloved though distant. That’s one idea that can be explored.

The other, is that the piece is, in fact, really just a wonderfully written love poem dedicated to Yeats’s long-term love; the English-born feminist, actress, and Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne. Maud figured heavily in Yeats’s writings throughout the span of his infatuation. She is said to have inspired works like “No Second Troy,” “This, This Rude Knocking,” and “A Man Young and Old.” The poet was so enamored with the Irish revolutionary that he proposed marriage to her, no less than five times (in 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, and once again in 1916). Though by the time of the last proposal, the romance had reportedly long since fizzled out. It must have been an amicable break because that same year, the 52-year-old Yeats also proposed marriage to Maud’s 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. She also turned him down. When seen in this context, the straightforward analysis of yore works.

And here’s a personal observation from my 28-year-old self: how terribly prophetic that Yeats would use “re-made like a casket of gold” in a poem dedicated to Maud—how a grand gesture could in fact signal the end of a grand, long-standing romance, as one reads too much into the word “casket.” But that’s overreaching and over-reading, as a lover of words is wont to do.

The last idea, which is my favorite, is that like all great works from master wordsmiths, The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart is actually a complex combination of these ideas, and more. It’s a love poem written for both a ‘dream lover’ and the ‘dream of a better nation.’ I could also say that it’s an example of how great poetry works—with its ever-shifting meanings borne of the reader’s active imaginings.

The Sylvia Plath Connection: At this point, it’s no great secret that I am a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s works. It was Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” which awoke my desire to write for a living. Being also a fan of W.B. Yeats’s writings, imagine my surprise when I found out that the two shared something other than great talent. At the time of Sylvia Plath’s death, she was living in a flat where William Butler Yeats once lived. She had taken it as a sign of greater things.

And that concludes today’s lengthy ramblings.