You Don’t Have to be Good

“Wild Geese” – a Tribute to Mary Oliver

The title of this post is the first line of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

The poem continues:

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 came upon this poem years ago.  It was the first poem that I loved, that I could pull around me like a homemade quilt.  It became my anthem of sorts. 

Now the interesting thing is Oliver did not set out to write a greatest hit, nor any work of great meaning.  According to an interview with OnBeing, she created this poem quite informally to illustrate the difference between end-stopped lines and enjambment to another poet.  But words are powerful and when she released this poem to the world it spoke deeply to many people.  It’s become one of her most loved poems.

For me, it permitted me to do the work I needed to do regardless that I sucked.  Do it anyway.  Over the years I’ve agonized over my work like every other creative, but her poem on my wall makes me understand that it’s not the likes, the money, or the accolades.  I do not have to suffer for my art. Ultimately, it’s the daily practice of doing and honing my craft. It’s what my soul calls to me to do (which did not include quitting my day job). 

Time is no excuse. Write the poems in grocery lines, at stoplights (using voice memo), doodle designs in boring meetings.  The dream won’t happen unless you do it- unless you listen to the voice of the wild geese within.

I never was interested in poetry until I read “Wild Geese” until I read Mary Oliver and discovered more poetry.  Now I write it.  Here is the poem in its entirety…

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

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.

Spring Migration

Celebrating National Poetry Month

Artwork by the author

9 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to be Good

  1. I have always loved this poem, too. And it’s a good message to remind us that the outer accolades are not what’s important. It’s the love that’s within us that can bring fruit with our craft, our actions, our conversations. I feel sometimes I’m just starting to learn the fullness of this–and often forget it, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful artwork, Alanna. I heard that On Being podcast, too, and was amazed how she could come up with that on the fly (no pun intended, maybe!). I especially like that stanza that you quoted first. It is sort of a mantra of how to live life.

    Liked by 1 person

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