Mary Oliver Reads "Wild Geese"

Monday, February 9, 2015 - 4:41am
Photo by Liz West

Mary Oliver Reads "Wild Geese"

"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...


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Trent Gilliss

is the cofounder of On Being / KTPP and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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Mary, Ms. Oliver..your spirit has collided in the gentle rhythm of life with mine. Your words move my soul to a time I love for, a time I live for.
Thank you so much for removing the periods.
Krista & Trent, you both are a beautiful reflection of all that is pure, right and silent in this world.

The vulnerability of lfe and nature. Nature is both gentle and harsh, but it is a cycle we must accept if we are to enjoy its beauty.
The lack of stops is a wonderful way of reflecting cycles. Nature is like that. No harsh stops - just the gradual lenthening of days, the warmer climes and new shoots sprouting . And then we know Spring is here upon us. And the harsh winter is over. I have come from a harsh winter. A blizzard of a relationship. And when it ended, Spring was here. Like these wild geese flying.

I have longed for this pacing of reading aloud these many years. Many speakers write well, yet dull their message by failing to pace and give the passion they possess. This is not so with "Wild Geese", read by Mary Oliver.

Summer School / 1998 / Hamline University / Saint Paul, Minnesota /// Mary Oliver's, "House of Light", was one of the books in a summer school course I attended. \\\ February / 2015 / Hilo, Hawaii /// Often frustrated, disappointed, I've found a kind of redemption in beekeeping thirty miles south of here. More than a few times I've been reminded of one of the images in Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese" --- " . . . harsh and exciting--- / over and over announcing your place". \\\ Hilo, Hawaii, is a wonderful place. \\\ David Gray's song, "Say Hello Wave Goodbye", might be one urban counterpart to Mary Oliver's often misappropriated poem, "Wild Geese". /// Mary Oliver is an important poet.

How amazing to listen to this wonderful, insightful poet guided in her revelations by Krista Tippett. Many blessings come to me via On Being.
The respect shown to each guest is valued by the listener, always.

Some days dont end quietly,there is pain, relentless thoughts may cascade through our minds that break our hearts. Other days come to a close with the sounds of nature sighing, the skies aflame in the colours of sunset, and our heartsmay be full of gladness. Such is the human path. Nothing stays the same for very long.

I am breathing in such deep truth and bliss ~ thank you!

Dear Mary,

This is without a doubt my favorite poem. I do not know any poem which has spoken to me so directly in the way that Wild Geese does. I just cannot thank you enough. Thank you for using your brilliance with language to touch and open us to the real mystery and the very obvious in life that we seldom take time to notice or relish.
Bill Lamond,
Palm Springs, CA

Mary, Wild Geese is absolutely my favorite piece of modern poetry. It captures the truth and the imagination so brilliantly. Thank you for using you enormous talent
with words to enrich us all. Warmly, Bill Lamond

Have been a fan of Ms. Oliver's for years and this was such a special treat to hear her read Wild Geese. Made my day!

Krista, thank you. It is my first reveal of Mary's writings and voice. The authenticity of her words issue forth from the same well inherent to all but embraced by so few.
"Wild Geese" just nudged me from a place where few (Elliot, Thomas, Yeates...) tend the cover used to keep cultural detritus out. It is difficult to save from corruption that which seeks to nourish. In trust of your readership, I welcome private comments sent to JohnClarkeSociety @

To find my "place in the family of things" is to find my being, my soul, in the universe of love. I am called to love.

These words offered me hope when there was none in my own soul. I had depression, two young sons and lived inside a marriage that did not fit. My mother in law had this poem handwritten on her coffee table where I found it. She was a lady I admired,but the soft belly of vulnerability never showed . It was almost ironic that the poem had a message that led to me leaving her son, sad but necessary. Fifteen years later,we are all alive, all hopeful after surviving the onslaughts of separation, cancer, depression, and the lesser but daily challenges of parenting and loving.
Thank you. I read too the 'Fourth sign of the Zodiac' .' Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.' When I visited his bedroom in Rome , I was astonished by how close to him I felt. I even wrote a poem!

First time I heard this poem. Speaks to me so deeply. I'm enthralled.

I can't get the sound. Please teach me.

I found your name while reading "Tatoos on the Heart" by Gregory Boyle
The Chapter on gladness and your quote 'music with nothing playing'were very
Instructive to my study on "Today a delight".I was so happy to find your poetry
I am a painter and recent widow.I am working through the steps of grief and crave poetry. Thank you,Ann


How do you mentor the morning?

This is one of my top 3 poems. Your gift of language and pace is excellemt. I hope we meet some day. Charles A. Paone

I heard of Mary Oliver via David Whyte - and memorized this poem soon after my divorce in '94. It gave me hope for finding/making a new home and new life for myself. Still, the idea of walking a labrynth, on my knees, penitent, still arises.

I really enjoyed hearing her read it.

Thank you Mary Oliver of rewriting with courage, honesty, strength, humility, love and beauty. When I found this poem it brought tears to me eyes and it served as healing salve to my heart.

Oh that the world loved poetry more! It is the soul of a culture and brings us all into our own being. Mary Oliver is one with nature and comes to her beautiful words through trees, waters, winds, and then delivers it to us. A blessing.

I always loved this poem about geese as well.

Something Told the Wild Geese
by Rachel Field
Something told the wild geese
It was time to go,
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered, "snow."
Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers
Something cautioned, "frost."
All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
At remembered ice.
Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

" wild geese, high in the clear blue air, " The heart flying free.

Mary you speak to the spirit and the heart