When Krista Tippett interviewed the late poet Mary Oliver on her radio show ‘On Being’ back in 2015, she referred to Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’ as “a poem that has saved lives”. This might seem an exaggerated claim, but for me at least, it holds some truth.
For a teenager in the last year of school, caught in the frenzy of applying to universities, success seemed rigidly defined. Six years of formal schooling was successful if I got into the university of my choice. Failure was not getting the requisite grades at A-levels. We were writing and constantly reworking essays for American colleges to make ourselves sound interesting, outstanding. I was torn between what a future career should look like, and what I desperately wanted to do.
This period of time, although so distant and so inconsequential now, felt tumultuous then. It was a time when we were trying to give our nascent, till then constantly-evolving identities, some shape.
It was during this period of uncertainty that a friend slipped ‘Wild Geese’ into one of my notebooks, and thus introduced me to Mary Oliver. “You do not have to be good”, read the opening line. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” While I was caught in the decisions of my small life, the poem reminded me that “meanwhile the world goes on”, like the wild geese that are heading home again, like any other day.
While the poem certainly didn’t save me from a burning building, it went some way to saving some part of my soul. It reminded me that there were larger things in life, that expectations were externally imposed after all. It reminded me to look to nature and wonder at its vastness and my place in it. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the word offers itself to your imagination”, and no one can take this connection from you.
As I discovered more of Oliver’s poems, I realised that this was the beauty of her words – to evoke nature so simply and deftly, and relate it to personal struggles. Oliver’s poetry is rooted in the Romantic nature tradition, and reminds one of Emerson’s essays and the poetry of Whitman and Wordsworth. She writes of vast painterly landscapes – the sky, the sea, the rivers – but also celebrates the smaller detail of nature. “How great was its energy, / how humble its effort”, she writes in ‘Song of the Builders’, contemplating the efforts of a cricket moving the “grains of the hillside”, then relating to “each of us going on / in our inexplicable ways /building the universe.”
Rather than ostentatious displays of natural beauty, Oliver chooses to focus on quiet, unassuming images of nature. In capturing these so perfectly, her poems encourage a constant sense of wonder and appreciation of the beauty all around us. As she describes in ‘When Death Comes’, “When it’s over, I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement ./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” Indeed, if her poems are any indication, she has certainly lived her life amazed at the world, humbled by its beauty.
While Mary Oliver is one of America’s best-loved poets, she had often not been taken seriously by poetry critics in her lifetime. None of her books received a full-length review in The New York Times, and in its review of a magazine in which Oliver was interviewed, David Orr laughed at the idea of poetry as self-help, revealing the general contempt of poetry that meets popular culture. Oliver was by no means unrecognised, though – she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her fifth poetry collection American Primitive and New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award in 1992.
In fact, it is precisely the accessible nature of her work that makes her such an important poet. A few of her books have appeared on bestseller lists; Gwyneth Paltrow reads her, and Cheryl Strayed used her poem ‘The Summer Day’ as an epigraph to her memoir Wild: “Tell me, what is it you want to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
To speak to people of all walks of life is, I feel, a marker of poetic success. Her poems are in blank verse, easily understandable but by no means basic in its construction. The images are deftly woven together, the cadence of her words bring out these images. To reveal the simple beauty of mundane images is her forte. To inspire personal responses with these images is her genius.
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.