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.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the
voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road
full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left
their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver is often characterized as a sort of nature poet, an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” as Maxine Kumin wrote of her. However, in addition to the ways in which she artfully utilizes particular natural details in her poems, what I appreciate about her work, and these poems in particular, is the way in which she refuses to allow an assumed separation of emotional and physical experiences. Through the direct linguistic mechanism of metaphor, the inner experience of emotion is leveled with the acknowledgement and sensory experience of external natural phenomena.

Within the worlds of these poems, emotional journeys are physical ones. Although her poem The Journey seems to convey the immaterial experience of “coming into oneself,” the action of the poem’s object, the “you” of the poem, consists of physical struggles in harsh circumstances. Likewise, what is the spiritual and emotional action of “repenting” is described in the early lines of Wild Geese “walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles in the desert.” The body is “soft animal” that loves what it loves and epiphanies (The Journey) are experiences in our lives like “stars…through sheets of clouds.” The truth that life goes on is a vision of geese flying homeward, and the invocation life directs towards us to participate in its beauty sounds like their harsh cries.

The natural world in her poetry is a part of humanity that could not be removed from experience – those are stars in the eyes of her speakers, those are geese that mark the passage of time, those are animals that are human bodies. Rather than separating her speakers from nature, allowing them to reflect upon it as the Romantic poets did, Keats and the like, it seems the way she positions her speakers within the natural world is much less “meta-analytic” and much more primal. Rather than the speaker grasping for the natural analogy (a la Keats), at least in these poems, the speaker is subject to the analogy. Nature is larger than the speaker, subsuming the speaker’s point of view, and is as inextricable from the existence and experience of the speaker as are Oliver’s stars from the sky.

The more I read of Oliver’s work, the more I sense that the clarity of her poetry and strength of her art are transformative and needed in our society.


What do you think of the two poems above? Do you share my interpretation of Mary Oliver’s work? What other poems of hers do you love? Or what other poets?