Thursday Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Hello, and welcome, you magnificent bastards. Firstly, I’d like to say thank you to those of you who responded so kindly to my poem – I truly appreciate it. I’d also like to say, since it was raised in the comments, that if you’re keen to introduce yourself or say hi, I’m aware you can’t do so on my About page, but you can always go over to the Facebook page I recently made for the blog. It could do with some loving anyway. Ultimately, as I’ve said before, I’m not here just to hear myself talk – so to speak – I’m here to start a conversation. If you’re so inclined, go ahead and start talking.

Now, this week’s headline is perhaps a little misleading. See, what I really want to talk about is the article which led me to the poem. Bringing A Daughter Back From The Brink With Poems by Betsy MacWhinney is an extraordinary story about a mother trying to get through to her self-harming daughter. I’m going to quote liberally from this piece now because it’s so endlessly wonderful, but I urge you to read the entire thing:

I started leaving poems in her shoes in the morning. She had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest, so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well. What I wanted her to know is: People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe…

One of the joys of writing this weekly blog, of this challenge to find a new poem to talk about every week – generally from authors I haven’t read before – has been the feeling of discovery. The way I seem to just trip over a poem at the last minute, or when I am least expecting it, as if it was some kind of house cat — something we think domesticated, but which is still wild at heart, and always getting underfoot, always making itself the centre of attention —  thrills me to no end. I love being surprised. I think this is why this idea of finding a new poem in your shoe each day resonated so strongly with me.

You will have noticed the poem linked to in the quote above is Wendell Berry’s ‘Made Farmer Liberation Front’, which is itself a truly exceptional poem propelled by furious rhythm; it is a manifesto for living and I can’t recommend it enough. However, I didn’t choose to make it the focus of this piece, I chose Wild Geese, referenced later in the above article, partly because above all, I favour simplicity, and partly because it ties in so well with the theme of the article, with the anguish of adolescence, and the crushing nature of depression.

Because, most of all, it offers hope. It begins:

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.

I fucking love these five lines. Forget the rest of the poem, lovely as it is. Let’s linger here. Poetry is all about lingering, anyway, staying in a moment long after the moment is gone, luxuriating in it, exploring, finding more and still more beneath the surface. That first line alone is a clarion cry – so much of our everyday struggle is to be good, whether we realise it or not. When we are children, what are we told? Be a good boy. Be a good girl, you wouldn’t want to be a bad one would you now? Shudder. Perish the thought.

There are times, however, as an adult, where this isn’t possible. You aren’t being bad, in the absence of good, you’re just unable to reach the ideal, to shoulder the constant, exacting burden. It’s too much. You struggle, you fall. If you’re lucky, in time, with help, you get up again and the struggle begins anew. This is why the opening line, ‘You do not have to be good’ is a clarion cry – it slices right through the bullshit, right through that notion that you must be anything, it frees you from expectation, unhooks the anchor lodged in your spine. As far as necessity goes, you need only concern yourself with the last of those five lines.

All you have to do is let yourself love what you love without discrimination, without judgment. Love it, and let it end at your love. Remember, too — this line is so fucking good — we are animals. There is something so delightfully undercutting about that, in the best possible way. We have a tendency to self-aggrandise, to attribute everything to our own actions, and in so doing, tend to judge ourselves on an equally obscene scale, which can only end badly. We’re just soft meat, in the end, like the geese in this poem.

Like them, too, we are always looking for home.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

  1. I love this – we have an exhibition on at my work at the moment with one artists work inspired by this poem! Quite amazing to see it pop up here 🙂

  2. Hi Omar – I found the piece comforting and reassuring; thank you for sharing it. I don’t have a FB page, so I will talk to you here. You don’t like dropping f-bombs do you?! I see it was your chosen descriptor for my country – lol. Love the line, “The world offers itself to your imagination” – I can relate to that right now in my life.

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