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.
Here she is reading it:
She grew up in Maple Heights, Ohio, about a half hour southeast of where I’m typing this. When she gave a (rare) reading in Cleveland, she joked, “I have to read ‘Wild Geese’ or I shall be chased from the city.”
She said she wrote it while in Cleveland, trying to coax a student to practice the end stop lines technique. “You write one and I’ll write one,” she offered, resulting in “Wild Geese.”
Later in the reading she was asked what it takes to be a poet.
“Read a lot of poetry; find poetry you really love. Don’t be afraid to imitate it. That’s how we learn most everything in the world — love and imitation. The second part is to seek primary sources, to go out into the world. Go to the art museum, yes, but go out into the forest, too. Pay attention to the world.”
This really is the great message of her work: Pay attention. And pay attention to what you pay attention to. (The message of most great art, really.)
It’s spelled out in her poem, “Sometimes”:
It’s there in “A Summer Day”:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
It’s there in “When Death Comes”:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
I think she did it right. And showed us how we can, too.