April 12, 2016

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Source Poems: "Wild Geese"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Poet and educator Margaret Simon -- one of our Pantone Poetry Project regulars -- is today's guest blogger. Margaret blogs at Reflections on the Teche.

Margaret Simon
Words are the gift of poets, and Mary Oliver is a master. A good friend gave me one of the first poems I heard by Mary Oliver. At the time, I was struggling with a professional position. This was one teaching job that I thought was IT, the perfect one for me. Then the unimaginable happened. My administrator found me inadequate, not good enough.

In my contract, I was being forced to go back to college for math. At the time, I had completed a masters program in gifted, been a teacher-consultant for the National Writing Project for 10 years, and had taught for nearly 20 years. My whole body revolted. I knew without a doubt that I would never be able to be a passionate math teacher. And a part of me was deeply insulted that it wasn’t enough to be a passionate writing teacher. I quit. I didn’t sign the contract. But my spirit was devastated. I was not good enough, a failure.

Mary Oliver saved me.

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 soft animal of my body fell in love again and again with this poem. Her words were more than a comfort; they empowered me. I could move on, be good again, and be a part of the world.

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.

My dear husband asked, “What do you want to do?” He encouraged me to pursue a job that would fit me, one where I could teach what I love. I did find it. I have been happily teaching gifted elementary students for the last 7 years. Ironically, I do have to teach math sometimes, but I find a way to work in writing, too.

I still go back to Mary Oliver’s words over and over. I am an achiever, a do-gooder, never-say-no kind of person.  "Wild Geese" has taught me to honor the person I am and to be willing to make mistakes, to not always be perfect. I realize that no matter what, I am loved. And I can love what I love without excuses.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver
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.
Read the rest at The Writer's Almanac.
Or watch Mary Oliver read the poem:
            a response to “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

The moon glows in rings of light.
My soft body relaxes,
Jupiter is shining in the predawn sky
You are enough.
You do not have to be good.
Love what you love.

to the train in the distance
shouting its presence
to the world.
write a poem from your heart.
for the train to pass.

I stop to pay attention
to the fading full moon
and Jupiter and
the endless cars of this train.
I can become one
in the family
of things.

--Margaret Simon
italics indicate Mary Oliver’s words

Mary Oliver
From The Poetry Foundation
Margaret Simon is a Mississippi native who married into a Louisiana life. She lives on the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana with her husband, Jeff. Their now empty nest once housed three daughters, Maggie, Katherine, and Martha. Margaret has been an elementary school teacher for 28 years, most recently teaching gifted students in Iberia Parish. She has published poems in the journal The Aurorean, and wrote a chapter about teaching poetry to young children for Women on Poetry published in 2012 by McFarland  & Company, Inc. Publishers. Border Press published her collection of poems with her father’s Christmas card art, Illuminate in fall of 2013 [featured at AuthorAmok here]Blessen, a novel for young readers, was published in April 2012, also by Border Press. In her teaching profession, she has a Masters degree in Gifted Education and certification by the National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards. Margaret writes a blog regularly at

Previous posts in this series:
Diane Mayr on a haiku by Basho
Shirley Brewer on "The Singers" by Eavan Boland
Renee LaTulippe on "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath


Irene Latham said...

This poem has long been a favorite, and I find much to love in Margaret's beautiful response poem! Love what you love. Yes. Thanks, ladies! xo

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Irene. I know this poem has been a ladder for many people, helping them to climb out of difficulty and stay true to themselves.

Margaret, you were brave then to remain true to yourself and you are brave now in sharing this story.

Linda B said...

I too think it is terrific that you quit, Margaret, and did what you felt what right for you! The poem gift was also wonderful, wasn't it? You remind me of that quote that's something like "if you don't know who you are, others can define you". And although your feelings were hurt, you held strong. Thanks for sharing. It's an inspiring post.

Diane Mayr said...

Mary Oliver has a gift; I'm glad she shares it. You have regifted it to us, along with your story. Thank you to you both, and to Laura, who has conceived of this NPM project.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

I too have made some "wrong" choices-- choices that I thought would be right, but didn't turn out so. Thanks for sharing your heart today, Margaret, Mary Oliver's words, and your own beautiful response.

Tabatha said...

Go Margaret!!
Laura, you have gotten such eloquent and lovely responses to your call for source poems!

Margaret Simon said...

Thank you all for your kind comments. I have continued to love Mary Oliver and have not lost my passion for poetry, even though the road has not always been easy. This community feels safe. Thanks for that, too.

Renee LaTulippe said...

Margaret, thank you for sharing your story. All I can say is GO, YOU! Wonderful to see you hold out for what YOU needed, and to have this gorgeous poem to sustain you. Lovely and inspiring response. Grazie! :)

GatheringBooks said...

Such a beautiful and heartfelt post. Thank you Laura and thank you Margaret for sharing this and for reminding us of the healing power of poetry.

Ann said...

Margaret, Thanks for your lovely and very honest post. I love "Wild Geese" as well and found it an amazing source of strength and inspiration during my depression and then beyond. I love the idea that "you do not have to be good, only have to love....." Another great gem from Mary Oliver. Good for you for staying true to your dreams and for finding the right job for your gifts.