Wild Geese—A Great Introduction to Mary Oliver’s Poetry

Are you interested in Mary Oliver’s poetry, but not sure where to start? The poem Wild Geese is a perfect introductory point. It highlights all of her writing’s strengths and her soft-spoken style.

Mary Oliver (1935–2019) is often heralded as one of America’s finest poets, renowned for her breathtaking and personal nature poetry. Her poems tend to combine delicate nature imagery with a personal, human touch.

If you’re looking to move on from your romanticist era poets and move towards studying someone more recent—she’s as close as it gets to a household name for a modern-day poet.

With over 25 prose and poetry books published, it might be overwhelming to decide on a starting point for Oliver. This is why we recommend reading Wild Geese, which is regarded as one of her most well-known and is easy to digest.

Wild Geese (1986)

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.

I’ve always struggled to get into wildlife poetry, but I found Mary Oliver’s writing, especially in Wild Geese, accessible. The lines don’t drown you in over-the-top prose, instead, they softly build up a picture and emotional journey.

The lines that struck a chord with me were ‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ and ‘Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.’

For me, the poem doubled down on the idea that to know somebody is to love somebody—and there is nothing more human and soft than loving someone despite all their despair.

In between the lines painting a beautiful scenery filled with life and animals, Oliver fills it with talks of humanity—a gentle reminder that we, too, are part of nature.

If you decide to read more of her other poetry and prose after Wild Geese, you’ll find that an intimate approach to wildlife and nature is common in her writing.

I’ve put off reading Mary Oliver’s works for the longest time, but I’m glad that I decided to finally jump in after a friend recommended her. Two other poems I recommend are The Uses of Sorrow (2007) and Invitation (2008).

I plan on covering poems and other written works on my blog more. So, if you’re interested and want to stay up to date, join my weekly email newsletter!

By Camellia Hao Ren

Camellia Hao Ren is an Australian journalist and editor. When they aren't writing, they are usually playing games or reading.

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