Friday, April 18, 2014

You Do Not Have to be Good

For a bit of background: This is a poem a dear friend sent to me in my first years of teaching.

I was despondent.

I was a wreck.

I felt like I had failed in everything I had ever wanted to do. This is what had happened: I had won the lottery, and secured a full time job. I was working, full time. I was teaching four classes a semester. I was feeling like the ultimate failure. My students would not listen, would not learn, would not hear. Or was it that I could not communicate? Was it that I was simply inadequate? I had won this incredible bounty, but I was unworthy? I was truly overwrought. I could not sleep. I needed meds, but did not have the wherewithal to even ask for them. This poem.....this poem helped me. This poem gave me solace in that dark place. I was reading it again, this month, which is National Poetry month, and as it helped me so much in the dark places I found myself in my early days of trying to teach writing, I thought I would share it here. Long live Mary Oliver, the author of this poem!

Wild Geese

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 your 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.


  1. Lovely! A family member gave me a Mary Oliver book for Christmas a year or two ago, and I read and enjoyed a few poems, then let it get buried in the general impending book-avalanche. You have inspired me to dig it out.

    I also find myself thinking about Greta, and hoping she is doing okay. Did she ever pop up over here? She was visiting somewhat sporadically at the old place; I hope she hasn't lost track of us (because I don't want to lose track of her).

  2. Unfortunately, those students who would not listen, learn or hear may not think they have to be good either.

  3. It's a lovely poem and I get it. It does run smack into the problem that geese don't need tenure. And, even if I could be this, I don't know if I could release wanting them to do well, to attend, to be better.

    1. It does not release those things, at least not for me. What it did for me was allow me to go on, even though I was not succeeding with so many. I was continuing to try to improve and change, but still, so many were being lost. I was doing my best, and that was all I could do. In fact, it was more than enough. It was hard-won success, that I could keep on trying and improving in the face of such obstacles. It's obvious, but somehow this poem brought it home to me in a new way.

  4. "Wild Geese" is a lovely poem, but frankly I liked the preamble that you wrote better. ("I was despondent. I was a wreck...I needed meds, but did not have the wherewithal to even ask for them.") While I am glad that Bison got himself a tenure-track job, all the while I reminded him: Are you sure you want one? Thanks to you, Bella, it's good for me to know that I'm not the only one who feels like he's won the booby prize. One thing that keeps me going is knowing that I am providing my students with much better than what my professors provided me with, but life loves its ironies. My old professors were abusing their tenure, coasting to retirement: now, I have no shortage of students who squander the opportunities I knock myself out to make for them. But at least, I get to be an astronomer while doing it, and that's even better than being a cowboy.

    1. *Another winner of the booby prize checks in*


  5. Great poem, and I don't say that much about any poem. It brings a moment of peace in the chaotic frenzy of life.