“You do not have to be good.”

mary oliverIn many ways, my life hinges on the six months I spent traveling in the Andes region in my early thirties. Shortly before leaving Seattle to begin that open-ended trip (there’s nothing quite like flying to a new continent on a one-way ticket), a friend gave me Mary Oliver’s New and Selected, Vol. 1.

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.

As it has for so many, “Wild Geese” entered my being and reverberated with a whole set of previously unarticulated questions. I carried that poem with me as I walked in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, grieving the end of my aspirations as an actor, heartbroken over a failed relationship, and suspecting that poetry was my next path.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.

Even now, after memorizing and teaching and sharing “Wild Geese” for 20+ years, it still ricochets around in my psyche. To have written a poem that could do that!

I was fortunate to record Mary Oliver reading at a sold-out Town Hall event in Seattle, as part of my work for KUOW.  She read “Wild Geese,” which you can hear here, among many other poems. (Hang in there for the first couple minutes.)

As there should be, there are and will be many tributes to Mary Oliver and the reach of her deceptively plain-spoken poems. Today, I just want to listen to the poems in her voice, and let them enter and open the person I am now.

3 thoughts on ““You do not have to be good.”

  1. Kathy

    Thank you for sharing this, Elizabeth. Mary Oliver has brought beauty to the mind and soul of countless numbers of people. Such a beautiful woman!

  2. Lucie Huang

    Love it!! Thank you.
    Those poems also give me shivers no matter how many times I read them. She was a remarkable poet.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Peggy Cummings

    Thank you for sharing. I have loved all of her poetry since I was first introduced to her poem Hawk, in “New and Selected Poems”. Her beautiful words and phrasing brought life to everything she pictured for all to sense and possibly understand. I had the privilege of hearing her read at Benaroya Hall and treasure the memory of that event.

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