“you do not have to be good”

May 31, 2007  |  poetry

The Poetry Thursday prompt today is on Life/Lines, which the Academy of American Poets did a collective project with and defines as such:

We each carry lines of poetry with us. Words that others have written float back to us and stay with us, indelibly. We clutch these “Life Lines” like totems, repeat them as mantras, and summon them for comfort and laughter.

Anytime I think of my favorite poetry, poems that changed my life, significant lines of poetry, I always, always, always think of Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. And while I can think of a dozen – two dozen – more poems that have profoundly affected me (Under a Soprano Sky by Sonia Sanchez, Eating Poetry by Mark Strand, Otherwise by Jane Kenyon, Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich), it is always Mary Oliver that I come back to when I have to name just one, and it is always Wild Geese.

At first, it was the opening lines:

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.

The simplicity of it. The miracle of letting go of suffering, and only allowing your body to “love what it loves.” Gorgeous. As if Oliver lept from the pages and plucked a diamond from my heart cavity and said, look. Just look what you have inside you.

But lately, it’s been the ending:

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.

… that has really gotten to me. No matter how lonely or alone, or scared or tiny or uneffective you may feel, you still have a place in the family of things. You still have one particular little pinpoint of light on the map, on the earth.

I’ve carried this poem with me for a long time.

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1 Comment


  1. Yes! I agree with you wholeheartedly (as opposed to half-heartedly, I guess.) This poem is the one I can recall with ease, and it is the first line I love. So simple. You do not have to be good. If only I had this tatooed somewhere prominent…

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