The Weekly Verse: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
It’s Pride Month at IB, so I’ve been looking for related poetry for The Weekly Verse. I came across this article at Autostraddle and I was like, welp, that looks like an excellent place to start.
A lot of the work featured on the list looked promising, but “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver particularly stuck out to me. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising–she’s won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer for her poetry and the NYT referred to her as America’s best-selling poet . . . which is quite a feat, and I feel a little insecure that I’d never heard of her until today.
But hey, that’s why we continue to educate ourselves, amirite?
Oliver is also from Ohio, which just makes me like her that much more. She made her home in New England, though, with photographer partner/wife Molly Malone Cook. They were together for more than forty years. I am kind of a sentimental sap for people who stay together for a long time.
But the poem.
The poem caught my eye from its first line. I admit, it lost me a little bit after the beginning on my initial read-through; I had to read it a few times before it coalesced into a whole. (Nature imagery sometimes makes my mind wander. It’s a particular weakness in my reading ability.) Once it came together, though–wow, what a poem. It feels like a tender Georgia O’Keeffe painting made into words.
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.
Sigh. In a good way.
Bang-pow with “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees . . . repenting” right off the bat. How many of us struggle so hard with having to live up to some arbitrary standard set by society and tradition that we simply can’t fit without burying deep an essential part of ourselves? How many of us are taught that something natural to ourselves is “evil” because some people are “uncomfortable” with the idea of it? To read those first lines loosens something inside of you; you’re just a little undone reading the rest of it if you can relate to them at all.
I don’t think it’s any accident that Oliver talks about natural feelings (loving who you love) and then follows it up with a boatload of nature imagery. It seems pretty obvious to me, though I obviously don’t know for sure, that she’s talking about being a lesbian or talking to someone else who has a non-hetero sexuality; the overarching point seems to be that, even though society wants to force you down on your knees in apology for being who you are, you have a place in the natural order of things, just as you are.
And this doesn’t just have to be about being gay. Lots of us live in the margins of society for various reasons; lots of us are bullied into subservience, into normality, because we are different and there is a raw urge to beat down the different ones that permeates the less civilized. We are different for who we love or what we look like. We are different for what opinions we have. We are different because we don’t care about certain things, or care too much about others. This poem tells us that we are okay. We have a place, too.
I also got a sense, and I don’t know if this was deliberate, of comforting smallness from the nature imagery. Do you know what I mean, how sometimes a feeling of insignificance can be cozy? Like when you contemplate the universe and all of time, and you know you’re not even a heartbeat in the history of everything. It’s freeing. Even the most famous and influential people in human history will someday blink out of importance, so why waste time trying to impress anybody who disapproves of you or follow someone’s rules for how to live your life? They don’t matter. We don’t matter. Nobody matters, so do what you’re gonna do and be free.
Probably that wasn’t in the poem, but that’s something I love about poems–when the words blend with your own associations, they can spark all kinds of ideas.
What did you think of the poem? Were you familiar with Mary Oliver? I think I need to read more of her work ASAP.