Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
~Mary Oliver, from her poem “The Summer Day”
Mary Oliver is a prolific contemporary poet. Her work has received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize, and Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She has also been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Oliver was born Maple Heights, Ohio in 1935. As a teenager, she worked with Norma Millay, sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay, to organize St. Vincent Millay’s papers. St. Vincent Millay’s work was a major influence on Oliver, as well as other romantic nature poets such as Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Oliver lived much of her life in Provincetown, Massachusetts with her partner Molly Malone Cook. She published her first book of poetry, No Voyage, and Other Poems, in 1963. She began to receive attention in 1983 when her fifth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize. Since 1990, she has published collections of poetry every one to two years, as well as numerous works of prose. Her latest book, Blue Horses, came out in 2014.
Video: Mary Oliver reading her poem “Wild Geese” Full text of 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.