Do you have to be good? Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese opens emphatically saying no – ‘You do not have to be good’. A common way to begin a poetry therapy session is to ask members of a group, after reading a poem, which line or lines stand out for them, and why. That opening line is one that resonates with many people. Sometimes, there’s a palpable sense of release that someone, albeit a stranger, via text on a page, has given some kind of permission for something. Watching physical reactions to poems is always interesting. Simply reading or hearing certain words can lead to a softening in the facial expression, a sense of release or relief in the body.
Wild Geese is an iconic poem, it stands in its entirety as an epigram to the best-selling Bloodaxe Staying Alive poetry anthology. I’d be interested in theories about why it strikes such a chord with so many. It’s a praise poem. It locates us in the natural world. It addresses the reader directly, creating a kind of intimacy. It literally calls to us, both in the voice of the speaker of the poem and indirectly, by invoking the wild geese. (Bird poetry is an enormous subject in its own right). The final line, ‘your place in the family of things’ is also comforting.
Although it’s written in one long stanza (a so-called ‘talking poem’ – I owe that term to poet David Hart), I experience it as three distinct stanzas, or ‘rooms of meaning’. The first ‘stanza’ is the one that locates the moral position of the poem. The opening line – ‘You do not have to be good’ – wakes us up. It’s surprising, transgressive and grants permission. The next two lines openly diss traditional religion practices such as pilgrimage and repentance. The final pair of lines in this section postively command the reader to seek pleasure and also, using the words ‘soft body’, imply that snuggling up in bed is preferable to working out. Physical fitness in our culture is a kind of secular goodness.
This poem often pops into my mind and especially so last week, when I was reading the latest Patrick Gale novel, A Perfectly Good Man. The good man of the title is a priest serving in a rural parish in remote West Penwith, the far tip of Cornwall. The novel opens with him assisting a suicide, or at least not preventing one (a sin of omission). The book then gradually reveals the lives of people around Barnaby, by describing them at different ages and unpicking how they came to make the decisions they did. There’s real suspense. It is another brilliant and sharply-observed book by Patrick Gale which illuminates, but never judges, the muddle most of us make of our lives. One character is definitely ‘bad’ (a sleazy, gossipy sex offender) but the challenge in the novel, as for all of us, is how to accommodate what we don’t like within whatever we understand of community. There’s lots in it about parenting, especially fathers, and by extension, given that the protagonist is a priest, the notion of God the Father, whether loving or judgemental.
The novel and Mary Oliver’s poem pose similar questions. Do we have to be good? If so, why and how? What’s the opposite of good? Is psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s ‘good enough’ a cop out? How do outer displays of goodness relate to inner badnesses? Do parents make their children good or bad? Can spouses, lovers or friends make each other good? Is Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese a ‘good’ poem? Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man a ‘good’ novel? Aha! I’m already well over my target 500 words. The sun’s out. I’m starting to relax after this tense, windy weather. Feeling good.