Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems—“Wild Geese,” “Mindfulness,” and “October Dusk”
This continues a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem and poems that speak to, or resonate with, that poem. This week’s poem is “Wild Geese,” written by Mary Oliver. The second poem, “Mindfulness” by Wang Wei, fits well with the spiritual message of the Oliver poem. The third poem, “October Dusk” by Diane Mayr, resonates Mary’s poem in subject matter.
The complete Poetry Foundation entry on Mary Oliver is available at Poetry Foundation: Mary Oliver. In part it states: Poet Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books,[1993–ed note] “particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” Kumin noted that Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” Oliver’s poetry has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a Lannan Literary Award. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson”
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.
In a recent article by Trent Gillis, the Executive Editor of On Being, he reveals that this poem grew out of a class Mary was teaching (the quote is Mary’s):
“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…”
Here’s a YouTube: Mary Oliver Reads “Wild Geese” with Illustrations
* * *
The first line of Mary’s poem seems to speak directly against how many of us have been raised. How many times have I told my children and pets what a “good boy/girl they are”? Her challenging first line begs many existential questions. In some ways, it puts the individual in the center of the universe. The poem that came to mind when I thought about the spiritual meaning of “Wild Geese” is an old one, “Mindfulness” by Wang Wei–from Encyclopedia Britannica.
I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this mindfulness, but the poem is so precise and simple that Wang Wei has made the concept much more understandable for me:
By Wang Wei
The spring flowers, the autumn moon;
Summer breezes, winter snow.
If useless things do not clutter your mind,
You have the best days of your life.
* * *
As I was doing my research on “Wild Geese,” I came across this poem by Diane Mayr, who is best known as the author of popular children’s books. The ‘hook’ of this poem for me was the way the leading goose wears down and another leader moves forward.
By Diane Mayr
stamina is tested by the
lack of uplift. Up, out, down.
Up, out, down–how many strokes
in 1,000 miles? The honks grow louder–point,
counterpoint–honks strong, distinct. The
encouragement continues as the leader
back, his position quickly
assumed by another. Up, out, down.
How many strokes…
The honk, honk, honk,
I couldn’t find any comments on Diane Mayr’s poetry, but here’s a YouTube of her most popular children’s book: Complete reading of Diane’s “Run Turkey Run.”