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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Number 52: Mary Oliver "Wild Geese"

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

Hap Notes: If Mary Oliver's (born 1935) poetry is looked on as missives she is writing to us as she takes her daily walk, who, I wonder, could not see them as love letters? And who can resist falling in love with her when she courts us with such dazzling descriptions and bright pronouncements? Of course, she is not in love with us, or at least, just us, but the natural world in all its remarkable beauty and mystery. She's sending fan mail to the earth.

Nature is the muse of Oliver like art was for Rilke. Her descriptions are lush and intricate (as when she describes the features of the bird in "The Swan") and never seem overly-sentimental or trite. I tire of the observance of both the literary critics and her fans that she uses "plain speaking" and "effortless language." Get real. You try to write with "plain English" like this and see how you fare. Her words are carefully selected and juxtaposed. "Plain English" doesn't sound like this. One of the hardest things to do in poetry is to write with this kind of beauty and not come off like a Hallmark greeting card that you would send to your grandma.

The call of wild geese is exactly "harsh and exciting"-- it's very a precise and well thought description. But she's not just reeling off description, she's telling you something harsh and exciting about the natural real world we live in- the one on which we build skyscrapers and parking lots and roads. She wants to bring you back to your body on the deep good dirt of the earth. You get the bounties of the earth just because you live- you don't have to be good or repentant to get this reward. What an extraordinary thing that is. Her poetry often exclaims this in amazement. The calls of the geese are not just the vague honking of birds but a wake-up call, reminding you of who your family really is, with all its harshness, beauty and excitement. The earth is sending you a love letter, too.

And doesn't "clear pebbles of the rain" strike you (no pun intended) as a wonderful way of describing it? The earth turns while we rejoice or despair, patiently reeling out strange beauty and sometimes harsh truths. What can compare to the wonders of the earth? No video game or movie or YouTube moment is as complex.

I don't know that the Rilke comparison is always so apt for Oliver but if he'd been born just outside of Cleveland instead of Prague, who knows? Oliver went to upstate New York and worked on Edna St. Vincent Millay's papers with Millay's sister Norma. Rilke worked with Rodin. The parallels have some little merit; they both describe the world through the filter of their muse. They both come up with startling statements. And Oliver actually uses a Rilke line from his breathtaking poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" in her poem "Invitation." You must change your life.

Oliver went for a time to both Ohio State and Vassar but took no degree. She's been a poet or writer "in-residence" at several colleges. She's won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among many other honors. She is notoriously reticent about public appearances and prefers to let her work speak for itself. I suppose it's pretty obvious in her work, but she likes to take long walks around her home in Provincetown, MA. She calls the town a " marvelous convergence of land and water."

Here's a wonderful Oliver quote: “Whenever I would leave home, I would say ‘I’m going in. Whenever I would go back in the house, I would say ‘I’m going out.’”

You can find more Oliver here:

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