Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Here is a poem analysis of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese, which informs the reader on how to live a worthwhile, good life. Throughout the poem, Oliver furthers her message by using specific images from nature. American poet Maxine Kumin once wrote in the Women’s Review of Books that Oliver is the “indefatigable guide to the natural world…” and the majority, if not all, of her poems include sharp images and natural motifs. Oliver is one of the most beloved American poets, and she has won prizes for her poetry such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. This particular poem first appeared in her 1986 anthology called Dream Work, and it provided the title of her 2004 selection of poems.


Wild Geese Summary

In short, this is a poem, which you can read in full here, written by Oliver that expresses what one must do in order to lead a good life. The speaker, presumably Oliver, is talking directly to her reader, imploring them to not worry so much about being good; rather, the reader should be true to nature and the beauty found in it. Throughout the poem, Oliver uses the word “you” to speak to the reader, which lends an intimate, almost urgent air about the work.


Breakdown Analysis of Wild Geese

Structurally, there is not much to the poem. It is comprised of only one stanza and eighteen lines. It is written in free verse, without the use of internal or external rhyme. The simplicity of its structure seems to reflect the themes of nature that are so prevalent throughout the work.
The poem begins with the speaker talking directly to the reader. Oliver writes, “You do not have to be good,” and she follows with “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” These first lines create what feels almost like a guideline on how to live one’s life. Oliver tells the reader what they should not be doing—trying to be morally good or repenting one’s sins through punishment and penance.

Instead, the speaker informs the reader that he or she only needs to turn to nature and follow his or her heart. She writes, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” She seems to be reminding her reader that he or she is a human, yes, but he or she is still an animal who needs to survive and thrive, just as other animals in nature do.” In line six, she begins a two-way conversation with her reader. She implores, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” as if she wants to commiserate with her reader on the more unfortunate experiences of life. Her next line, however, is more sobering: “Meanwhile, the world goes on.” Oliver is reminding her reader that regardless of what is happening in one’s life, time will not stop. The world will keep turning, and everything in nature will continue just as it was. The lines that follow exemplify Oliver’s ability to provide vivid and beautiful imagery in her poetry. She describes the sun and rain moving across the land.

Related poetry:   The Waterfall by Mary Oliver

In nature, time marches on, waiting for no one. Oliver continues to conjure up scenes in nature, this time referring to the birds in her title: wild geese. She writes, “Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.” She once again conveys to her reader that while they are experiencing life’s emotions, the wild geese are flying back to their home, perhaps in the north after winter has finally ended. They, too, have endured.

The final five lines of her poem marries the reader to nature, itself. She writes, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination…” This line is spoken as a reassurance to Oliver’s reader. If one feels lonely, one only needs to walk outside to see that nature, a living, breathing entity, is all around: “…the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese…” Oliver’s use of a simile in this section further connects the world, the reader, and nature together. Just as one can hear the call of the wild geese, one can also hear the world calling, as well. In the last two lines, Oliver explains what the world is saying to the reader: it is “…announcing your place in the family of things.” This last line wraps the poem up very nicely, explaining to the reader that all is as it should be. There is order to the world, and the human experience, while seemingly lonely and torturous at times, is just as it should be.


Historical Analysis of Wild Geese

As a poem focusing totally on nature, there does not seem to be much historical analysis to be applied to this poem. However, its reproduction in Wild Geese in 2004 does seem quite timely: the world, particularly the United States, was going through a tumultuous time. The years immediately after September 11, 2001, were filled with devastation, war, and fear, and Oliver’s poem is a reminder to us all to keep going, to look inside ourselves and take a moment to go outside and experience the beauty and peace that still resides on Earth.

For a particularly unique experience, I would recommend going here to listen to Mary Oliver recite Wild Geese.

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