“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
I’ve repeated and mulled over these lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” for hours. And this poem has been quoted to me and sent to me and uttered in ways few others have. It’s a testament to the power of her verse and its capacity to speak so deeply to so many types of people and personalities.
Yet we rarely hear her read her own work. So, from a living room in suburban Florida, she read “Wild Geese” for our program, “Listening to the World”:
“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 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…