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 your 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.
There is something very accepting welcoming about a poem that begins with the line: "You do not have to be good." To me, Mary Oliver’s poetry is stark and clear, and also so very deeply kind. When I read: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” I feel a warm invitation to lay down any load I am carrying, maybe just for a while, and turn my attention to “the family of things,” so that I don’t miss anything wonderful.
Oliver has been described as the patron saint of paying compassionate attention, and poetry is the way that she offers her gift of attention to the world. She has explained that people can own poetry, that they can “speak it as a prayer.” The spiritual mystics Rumi and St. Augustine influence her simple and profound writing. Her poetic imagery combines her own sense of mystery with the awe that she found in the wildness of New England, where she lived for fifty years.
In an interview about her creative process, Oliver calls poetry “ropes let down to the lost.” She relates that her childhood was extremely difficult: “...it was a very dark and broken house that I came from,” and explains that she found escape and solace in wild spaces. For Oliver, being in the wild was an act of survival: “I saved my own life by finding a place that wasn’t in that house.”
Oliver has written about the anger she connects to her childhood, her grief over her partner’s death, her transformative “cancer visit,” and her own self-criticism. She explains that for her, writing is therapeutic: “…there is no nothingness…what we are made of will make something else, with the passage of time and with understanding.” Wild Geese is one of her most well known poems, one of the poems that she says was “dictated” to her. It is also a poem that has been said to have saved lives…
Listen to her read it here: http://www.onbeing.org/blog/mary-oliver-reads-wild-geese/5966