A Tribute to Mary Oliver

mary oliver
Mary Oliver, Sept. 10, 1935 – Jan. 17, 2019

Mary Oliver said in an interview once that she was in a classroom, composing a poem for students on the white board when a flock of geese flew overhead honking. She incorporated that event into the poem she was writing for them on the fly; the poem that later became “Wild Geese”. I shared this story with a friend who loves Mary Oliver’s poetry and “Wild Geese” in particular. My friend was not pleased. She preferred her own imagined story that the poet had been inspired by one of her many walks in nature.

It matters not where we are,
we’re always in the natural world
Be open to its inspiration

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.

by Mary Oliver

Photo courtesy of goodreads.com





21 thoughts on “A Tribute to Mary Oliver

    1. Here is Oliver talking about writing this poem. Upon revisiting it, I realize that I had some of the details wrong but this is basically what was printed on On Being:

      I don’t know about you, but I imagined Mary Oliver wandering in an idyllic setting — writing these lines while reflecting and meditating in the clean, open air. Funny thing is, as she tells it, the poem didn’t come about while she was wandering about in nature or reflecting out a window. It flowed out while demonstrating technique and structure to a student in a poetry class:

      “This is the magic of it. That poem was written as an exercise in end-stopped lines. Period at the end of the line. Not every line is that way. I was trying to show the variation, but my mind was completely on that. At the same time, I will say that I heard the wild geese. I mean, I just started out to do this for this friend and show her the effect of the line end is — you’ve said something definite. It’s very different from enjambment. And I love all that difference. And that’s what I was doing.
      I was trying to do a certain kind of construction. Nevertheless, once I started writing the poem, it was the poem. And I knew the construction well enough that I didn’t have to think about, just if I need an end-stopped line here or… It just worked itself out the way I wanted for the exercise. That’s kind of a secret. But it’s the truth. It was there in me. Yes. Once I heard those geese, and said that line about anguish. Where that came from, I don’t know…

      To read the whole article and hear her read, see https://onbeing.org/blog/mary-oliver-reads-wild-geese/

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have followed Mary Oliver for a long time, as poet and as woman rising above odds, amazed at her longevity and continued poetic expression. Her poem “The Journey” was my introduction to her work, and a framed copy hangs on my wall. Now her journey has led her “home” (to whatever comes next that none of us still journeying can quite pin down). This is a beautiful tribute to her – showing teacher as well as poet. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with you. Often, we look for inspiration, but sometimes, inspiration surprises us and comes to us unexpectedly. If that happens, we need to hold it as best we can before the inspired thought disappears.

    Liked by 1 person

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