Not very long ago, the world lost the excellent and wonderful poet Mary Oliver. I don’t want to say too much about her poem “Wild Geese,” which is a poem I love, except that tonight it is exactly what I need in my life. Although I don’t know her entire body of work, I haven’t sought it out, because a strange thing happens to me with her poetry, which is that every time I come across one of her poems, often randomly, that poem is exactly what I need in that moment, and I don’t want to mess with that beautiful magic.
We have come again to April, National Poetry Month here in the U.S., and as has been my custom for several years now, I’ll be posting a poem each day to celebrate. (That’s the plan, at any rate, all other things being in equilibrium.) If you’d like to see past series of poems I’ve curated, there will be links at the end of this post.
For now, here is the text of Mary Oliver’s poem and also a video of her reading it, which is also, quite frankly, exactly what I needed in my life tonight.
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.
To read past years’ Poem-A-Day series, please click on the following links for April 1st of each year and then follow the links forward at the bottom of each post.
Mary Oliver, (born September 10, 1935, Maple Heights, Ohio, U.S.—died January 17, 2019, Hobe Sound, Florida), American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with the natural world.
Oliver attended the Ohio State University and Vassar College but did not earn a degree. She worked for a time as a secretary for the sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay’s influence is apparent in Oliver’s first book of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems (1963). These lyrical nature poems are set in a variety of locales, especially the Ohio of Oliver’s youth. Her childhood plays a more central role in The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972), in which she attempted to re-create the past through memory and myth. The Night Traveler (1978) explores the themes of birth, decay, and death through the conceit of a journey into the underworld of classical mythology. In these poems Oliver’s fluent imagery weaves together the worlds of humans, animals, and plants.
Her volume American Primitive (1983), which won a Pulitzer Prize, glorifies the natural world, reflecting the American fascination with the ideal of the pastoral life as it was first expressed by Henry David Thoreau. In House of Light (1990) Oliver explored the rewards of solitude in nature. New and Selected Poems (1992), which won a National Book Award; White Pine (1994); Blue Pastures (1995); West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems (1997); Why I Wake Early (2004); and A Thousand Mornings(2012) are later collections.
Oliver also wrote about the writing of poetry in two slender but rich volumes, A Poetry Handbook(1995) and Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (1998). Winter Hours (1999) includes poetry, prose poems, and essays on other poets. In Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (2004), Oliver explored the “connection between soul and landscape.”
In addition to her writing, Oliver also taught at a number of schools, notably Bennington College (1996–2001).
This biography is quoted from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Mary Oliver.