I recently bought a Mary Oliver collection. I’ve never particularly like her writing and for some reason I’ve always found her to be quite dull. But lately, reading this book, I seem to be coming around.
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 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 suppose that it’s taken me awhile to get used to her simple, natural style. She never tries to do “more” with her poems—she does just enough. She paints a very clear image and connects it to a very clear message and comes out with a very clear poem. (Notice a pattern?)
This poem is very representative of her style. It’s probably her most famous poem, or at least one of her most famous, though I’m not positive about what separates this one from a lot of others. The idea is just that you can always find comfort in the wonders of nature. It’s nice, clear and understandable—but certainly not original.
The first three lines of this poem are wonderful. Walking on your knees is hard enough, but to say “you do not have to” do so implies that there is a reason for doing something so difficult; which in turn implies that you have committed a great sin. Coupled with the first line (“you do not have to be good”), this idea is somewhat disconcerting. You do not have to do things, but maybe you should do them.