Scott Domes

How to accidentally produce great work

Mary Oliver and poetry that saves lives

October 17, 2020

Mary Oliver writes simple poems about nature. She writes poems that change people’s lives.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a sampling of quotes from readers:

“Mary Oliver, you’re helping me see the world clearly again. In the way of the very best writers – you’re saving my life.”

“But then I found Mary Oliver’s poetry. And it saved me.”

“Mary Oliver’s poems taught me how to live.”

“When hearing uniquely talented poets read their work, we can become transformed and inspired, both personally and professionally. Listening to Oliver made me feel this way.”

Her most popular poem is entitled Wild Geese. Krista Tippett, when interviewing Oliver for her radio show, echoed the above by calling it “a poem that has saved lives.” (I’ve included the poem at the end of this article)

Yet in that same interview, Oliver revealed a startling truth: she never set out to make a masterpiece. Oliver wrote Wild Geese as a way to show a poetry student how end-stopped lines work (a line that ends in a hard point of punctuation, a period instead of a comma). It was supposed to be a technical exercise; that’s all.

Of course, it ended up being much, much more.

This, I think, is the essence of great talent. Mary Oliver wrote thousands of poems, many of which she through away. She wrote and wrote and wrote, during long walks in the woods. She practiced her craft over and over again.

Eventually, she got to a point where, almost by accident, she could produce a poem that changed people’s lives.

As creators, what more could we possibly hope for? What higher aim is there?

Here’s the poem:

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.

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Scott Domes

How to learn complex skills, without getting discouraged. Subscribe to my newsletter. and follow me on Twitter.