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.
Mary Oliver’s poem begins with a statement to the reader. That we do not have to be good. Whatever guilt, shame, and whatever confessions we hold inside, can be let go. We do not always have to repent, either. Why? Because we, too, are animals. We are just like the wild geese. Instead of suffering, or spending our lives trying to find forgiveness, we only have to do what we love to do. This gives reassurance, and after reading the first few lines readers are given a sense of ease.
Then Oliver writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine…” Everybody has his or her own regret, but everybody needs to be told we do not have to be good. Talking about our troubles can help us heal from them, and hearing other people’s pain can create a primal connection between two people, like the strong bond between animals
The repetition of the word meanwhile is comforting, and in the poem, cyclical like rainfall in nature. This is also how Oliver’s natural imagery comes through: the reader can see the movement of the rain across America. Just as the geese travel across the US. The geese are travelling home again, but where is home? Are they flying ‘home’ south for the winter, or ‘home’ back north?
It is as if Oliver understands this question that her work asks, and so she writes, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely…” Oliver has no specific direction that points toward home, but rather, notes that it does not matter where you call home. Oliver invites the reader to listen to what the world tells us, contrasting and comparing us with wild geese, who fly alone yet in an inclusive form, honking to keep in contact with each other in flight, connected in the family of things.