Poetry Picks: 'Wild Geese' by Mary Oliver

The Canadian geese are calling, and I am listening. Their sounds from above recall me to the here and now, to the ground below my feet. The poetry of wild geese in flight has long called out to me, in this way: it reminds me of the present moment and restores me to it. The singular poem, “Wild Geese,” has done similar service for me, over many years. Mary Oliver first published “Wild Geese” in 1986, and I first read it the following year. A friend sent it to me then, and the poem has remained a true gift in my life. Each time I return to Oliver’s lines, they return me to a state of awareness. In this poem, Oliver turns to nature, in her Oliver way, to speak about loneliness and belonging, existence and place. In an instant, her words evoke presence and acceptance.

To hear the poet herself read “Wild Geese,” listen to the On Being podcast from October 15, 2015, the same episode cited by Maria in her April 2018 blog about another Oliver poem. Oliver also discusses the origins and life of “Wild Geese” during this podcast, and I enjoyed listening to her and reading the transcript of her remarks. For readers who would like to contemplate “Wild Geese” within the context of additional poetry by Oliver, I recommend Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, published in 2017. Reading this extensive collection, I was reminded that many of Oliver’s works could serve as ‘my favorite poem,’ along with “Wild Geese.” Are you able to name one poem as your favorite by Mary Oliver?

"Wild Geese" 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.