This is one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite poems. I know Mary Oliver herself is said to have grown tired of everyone loving ‘Wild Geese’, but I can’t stop. It’s the unexpectedness of the lines that make that impossible.
The first: ‘You do not have to be good.’ The first time I read that (a long time ago now) I couldn’t believe it. The relief. Then, before we get comfortable: ‘You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.’ The combination of depth of feeling, with ease of expression utterly compels me. I was thrilled at how extreme the situation was that she’s describing: that degree of shame and toil. The desert like the decades we live (walk on our knees) through. She’s saying we don’t have to, but with maximum compassion: there’s no doubt she knows we have, and we do, and that she has too.
Each line in the poem is a full, clear, simple sentence. There are so few adjectives – so the first that does appear leaps out: ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.’ That ‘soft’.
(I like noticing the adjectives in this poem: ‘soft’, ‘clear’ [‘pebbles of the rain’], ‘deep’ [trees – which is just lovely], ‘wild’ [geese, of course], which then allows the positive outburst of: ‘the clean blue air’ through which those geese fly high.)
And then there’s the line I started with:
‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’
The acknowledgment in this line. I like the fact we’re now together in this. There’s no room for doubt: you have your despair; I have mine. This poem (poet) meets us here: joins me on this vital similarity. That, in itself, is quietly marvellous: it leaves this (at times, despairing) reader so much less alone. It’s GENEROUS…
The Girl Who Cried
So what brought me back to this line now? Sitting here, thinking how will I introduce my own, new, strange book, which just arrived for preorder in the HappenStance shop? And of course, in the midst of this awful, global situation – which none of us could have anticipated.
(Bloodaxe, by the way, chose ‘Wild Geese’ as the epigraph poem for its famous anthology Staying Alive with good reason.)
My book. Why have I written it? Well, to start with, I couldn’t stop myself. I mean, if I was to go on writing poetry at all, these were the next poems that insisted on being written.
It is a(nother) quite brave book for me, detailing as it does the most basic, long-lasting and embarrassing inner struggle. This was the book that sat for me behind the first I wrote – Noir. I had to write that to get behind it to this – although once I did, I saw I had also, over some years, been writing them in parallel.
I carried on, writing poetry as simply and as clearly as I could. At one stage, I thought of these as ‘woodcut poems’. But there was something too thin or harsh about the book – as opposed to ‘harsh and exciting’ – and so I started introducing my drawings. I realised they were needed – to accompany these poems out into the world.
They brought a bit of air, and together the poems and pictures lifted a little off the page. (Helena Nelson, publisher at HappenStance, also suggested removing each poem’s title – which helped lighten the pages further.) Something happened… The pictures, along with certain phrases in the poems (e.g. ‘I know / I shouldn’t walk on flowerbeds’ – phrases I think of as ‘human bridges’), HELPED.
‘Meanwhile the world goes on’, wrote Mary Oliver. And later:
‘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 could never have foreseen, of course, publishing in the midst of a global pandemic: the awful loss and pain and anxiety so many have suffered and are suffering and will suffer, and all of us gripped in this thing…
I guess some things remain human. I’m not certain why it is we go to such lengths not to tell the truth about ourselves: why the shame is so pronounced. This is my attempt to do something different – ‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine’ – and by doing so, too, perhaps to further discover my ‘place / in the family of things.’
Here is Mary Oliver reading ‘Wild Geese’.
Here is a link to The Girl Who Cried.