Lessons from Wild Geese

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.

                                       – Mary Oliver

In college, I often found myself in groups of men, posturing about poetry. With regularity, someone would critique a female poet, in the midst of espousing the craft of Ezra Pound. On more than one occasion, the female poet they questioned was Mary Oliver. Oh her work is so trite. Her language is overwrought. The work is so obvious. Blah blah blah. I would do my best to defend Mary’s genius and the arresting simplicity of her poems, but my mansplaining colleagues would, without fail, fashion some response with the subtext: you like Mary Oliver because you are a woman.

I first read “Wild Geese” in high school, when I was struggling silently beneath the surface. I was reckoning with the rigidity of the faith within which I was raised, with my body’s needs, with my relentless perfectionism, with my distant friends and boyfriend. Reading Oliver’s lines felt like bathing in cool water on a stifling summer day. From the first line, my defenses dropped, and warm tears began to collect in the corners of my eyes. It was like an organic baptism, and I repeated the poem like a prayer. I wrote the lines on my bedroom walls in chalk. You do not have to be good. 

“Wild Geese” is a poem about belonging and place, both literally and metaphorically. It contains spiritual prescriptions for self-healing, for redemption in the the waters of the world. Inspiration and transformation in the hands of wild things. About humility. About God’s love. About self-love. All the things I needed to hear at that time in my life, all the softening I needed to allow in my life, was contained in Oliver’s poem.

This poem, true, is not complicated like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You do not need to learn Middle English or understand the work’s historical positioning to cull wisdom from the work. But then again, the only line that rings in my ears, years after having studied Chaucer’s work, is the first line of the prologue, “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,” which in and of itself does not teach me anything about the human condition. I had to force myself to memorize the very line when my professor said, You all need to memorize the Middle English, the preface in its entirety, while looking directly at me.

Mary Oliver’s work is not designed to rival the complexities of ancient works of English literature. She once said, “Poetry musn’t be fancy.” Her works are not crafted to trick or shame the reader for her literary innocence, her greenness. Oliver, within the bounds of her poems, creates a resting place, a sanctuary in which to recover and learn. Mary Oliver points the reader toward life and redemption, toward consolation and softening.

“Wild Geese” speaks for itself. Any traveler who finds Oliver’s work etched along her path will cull it for wisdom and carry it with her. To me, that is the truest and most beautiful work poetry can do in the world. Where we find ourselves, within the noise of soundbites, across the landscape of 140-character tweets and the tyranny of information overload, makes clear how desperately we could use more distilled language that helps us to become more courageous and wholehearted individuals, language about how the human and ordinary meets the sacred in ways that we can fully understand.