If your social media circles are anything like mine they crumpled in grief this week at the death of Mary Oliver. People who professed themselves not to be "poetry people" sent their gratitude for what she'd brought into their lives: strength, healing, a connection to some ineffable and needed something. Some capacity they'd had locked inside them that her poems broke wide open. Which is a great strength she had, a great strength her poems will always have, and a great opportunity for me to revisit my own snobbery at loving the work of a popular, accessible poet. I found a much more articulate expression of this examination in this tribute from the poet Sam Sax:
So every month I go to a poetry recitation night at my favorite neighborhood bookstore and every month I have a tiny identity crisis about what poem to memorize. While I love the process of memorizing and reciting a poem — the ritual of making the words present in your body, letting them unspool — still I cling to a teenage-weirdo idea that I have to project a certain coolness in my choices. I have to impress some nameless attendee of this incredibly friendly and welcoming poems-night with my impeccable, eclectic, obscure taste. And so when a Google result for Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" on some decidedly middlebrow blog talked about its popularity in yoga studios and wedding vows, I shied away from making it my poem last month — even though it heals me.
Here is "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.
It occurred to me as I sat on a slow city bus watching Mary Oliver read "Wild Geese" that "Meanwhile" here does the same work that "While someone else…" does in that Auden poem I love so much (and which I previously discussed here). It's calming to be merely a small bit in "the family of things" in painful times. It's calming to tell yourself "You do not have to be good" when you tend towards having a brain that tells you at every turn you never will: I was riding the bus home from getting my antidepressants refilled. Which is to say I have such a brain, a genetic or learned tendency towards despair.
"Tell me about despair, yours" is at once sweeping and intimate: the broad and life-devouring "despair" alongside the secret-whispering pact of "and I will tell you mine." I'm sure that this sort of invitation, unhidden behind a veil of metaphor, is exactly why snobs and critics don't like Mary Oliver. But I want to argue my inner snob away from avoiding sentiment. Because I've found so much else of use in this poem. The geese, the rain, and "the world offers itself to your imagination": suddenly I noiticed that this poem encapsulates a daily practice I've pursued since mid-2017. I call it "one lovely thing." I was struggling to write, to be in my mind in a way receptive to making new sentences, new poems. It was frustrating. But I walk the dog every day, I leave the house and I try to look at the world. So I started collecting one little moment every day that was lovely and writing down these scraps of things before I go to bed.
The world offers itself to your imagination, as loud as the wild geese or as quiet as snow. Some of the lovely things I've seen are mundane: a crow in a tree, a bright-colored piece of garbage in the street. Some seem worth a photograph: a wall of steam shot through with headlights so it looks like a gathering of ghosts, or a pair of twin-Santa-dressed buskers playing "Despacito" together on violins between two arriving trains. And someday some of them could become poems, but they're also enough in themselves. After all, you do not have to be good, at writing or at life, every moment of every day. You only have to allow yourself love, to be in your soft body and in the world.
I love these words, the tender and tough offering of "Wild Geese." I hope they bring comfort to you too. And now I plan to recite it at next month's Other People's Poems on February 11. Maybe I'll see you there.
Send me your favorite Mary Oliver, or anything that occurs. I always love hearing back.