The Story of “Wild Geese”

Mary Oliver is arguably the most popular late, great poet in America today. And “Wild Geese” is arguably her most famous poem — which makes it, if not the most famous American poem, certainly one of our most indispensable. And in this age of pandemic, it’s a poem for the moment. Its central themes — loneliness, despair, hope, and consolations of the natural world — define our days.

Oliver once wrote: “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision — a faith, to use an old-fashioned term… For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

The origin of “Wild Geese” may come as a surprise. Oliver was working with a fellow poet, attempting to demonstrate the power of “end-stopped lines” — that is, lines that end with a period. Like this one:

“You do not have to be good.”

Oliver’s goal was to show her colleague how an end-stopped line can have the effect that “you’ve said something definite.”  And so she wrote out a sample poem, an “exercise” demonstrating what she had in mind. Years of preparation, of writing other poems, of thinking and living and honing her craft — all these things and more resulted in an “exercise” that turned out to be fully-formed, powerful poem. And there it was: “Wild Geese.” A fire for the cold. A rope let down to the lost. Bread you can put in your pocket.

As COVID-19 grinds through its second year, one thing is clear: though the pandemic is made of viruses, it’s also made of isolation, loneliness, and even despair. And so Oliver’s message, urging us to continue to open ourselves to the natural world for solace and companionship, has never been more pressing. The repentance (or “change of mind”) we need isn’t masochistic — rather, it’s a renewal of imagination, a passionate embrace of how God’s creation is already “very good” (Gen 1:31).

It’s a gospel message worth spreading, and so the team over here at SALT created this one-minute animated film version of the poem, complete with illustrations inspired by Henri Matisse, who once said, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

Here’s a link to where you can download the film (for free) to use on your website, Instagram, Facebook, etc. to spread hope, comfort, solidarity, and flowers far and wide. To download, visit the link, scroll down, and look for the “download” button on the right.

Light the fire! Let down the rope! Stuff your pockets with bread! “Say something definite” with a poem full of end-stopped lines, beautiful images, and a renewed imagination for these difficult-yet-hopeful days.

The SALT Team