Wednesday, April 2, 2014


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.
Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” begins with a reminder to the reader, or a revelation to some, that we do not have to be good.  Whatever guilt, shame, whatever confessions we hold inside, can be let go. We do not always have to repent, either. Why? Because we, too, are animals like the wild geese. Instead of suffering, or spending our lives trying to find forgiveness, we only have to do what we love to do. This is a relief to the reader, and after reading the first few lines we are softened, ready for whatever comes next.

Then Oliver writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…” Everybody has his or her own despair, everybody needs to be told we do not have to be good, everybody would have a reason to repent. Talking about our troubles can help us heal from them, and hearing other people’s pain can create a primal connection between two people, loyal and deep like the bond between birds.

“Meanwhile the world goes on.” The repetition of the word ‘meanwhile’ soothes and is, in the poem, cyclical like rainfall in naturel. This is also how Oliver’s natural imagery comes through: the reader can see the movement of the rain across America, across the world even – like humans and wild geese, the rain also travels. The geese are travelling home again, but where is home? Are they flying ‘home’ south for the winter, or ‘home’ back north?

It is as if Oliver understands this question that her work asks, and so she writes, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely…” Oliver has no specific direction that points toward home, but rather, notes that it does not matter where you call home. Oliver invites the reader to listen to what the world tells us, contrasting and comparing us with wild geese, who fly alone yet in an inclusive form, honking to keep in contact with each other in flight, connected in the “family of things.”

“Wild Geese” embodies everything that I value in a poem: captivating opening lines; carefully chosen and concise language; similes and repetition; natural imagery; enough room for the reader to understand Oliver’s point of view while still imposing their own; and ending lines that make the reader feel complete. Her work pulls the reader out of a moment in our pressured world, and puts us into another moment – one vastly more real, more understanding.

                                    — Maddy Levy

Maddy Levy is a junior from Washington, D.C., majoring in psychology and minoring in mind/brain studies. She listens to Springsteen, and loves gardening but is a terrible gardener.


Mairead said...

I love this poem - I am studying across the world from you, Counselling Psychology in London! I find myself in complete agreement with your analysis of this wonderful poem which has touched me so deeply. There is healing in telling of despair and a recognition of life going on, and hopefully freedom to choose one's place in this world.

jason said...

I weep profusely whenever I read this poem. It resonates with me on so many levels. I was brought up in a religious household. My parents are Jehovah's Witnesses. I knew from an early age that I was homosexual and heard through sermon and scripture that it was bad. I grew up feeling the greatest burden of judgement.
I am estranged from my parents, and have been for more than half of my life.
I have suffered from depression and self doubt.
And this poem in the very first line put me at ease.
It reminded me that I am a creature of the planet and a product of cosmic dust.
I am one with this unique spinning blue and green jewel hanging in space.
I don't have to surrender to feelings of depression, because I'm never the only one feeling it at any given time.
I have a common bond with any given number of my fellow man at those times.
But she helped me realize I can't stay in that space, because life is going on around me
And I have to be a part of it.
And though I don't have my biological family in my life, I am part of a far bigger family that
openly welcomes me into it's arms with no judgement and is receptive to all I have to offer it while I am alive.

Julia said...


Reading your post was just as beautiful and heartfelt as the poem itself. You have captured Mary Oliver's message so beautifully and translated it to your own beautiful narrative. I am proud of you for accepting yourself for who you are.

I am proud of you for finding your new place with your new family. They seem to love and accept you and that is the greatest gift of all time.

Thank you for sharing! It warms my heart.