Mary Oliver’s Poetry Found a Second Life As a Meme

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

I remember exactly where I was when I read the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese” for the first time. I was waiting at the 15th Street–Prospect Park subway stop in the summer of 2012, a summer so sweaty that recalling it still summons up the sensation of damp hairs curling at the back of my neck. “You do not have to be good” is a stunner of a first line, an all-time great, an opening sentence for the ages, the kind of opening sentence that demands, and gets, its reader’s absolute surrender. There is no possible way to support an assertion like “you do not have to be good.” It resists all evidence and specificity, while at the same time feeling so personal to any one individual reader that to read it is intoxicating. I felt like it was speaking to me in my exact personal situation in that moment. But of course, the magic of the poem, and that of many of Oliver’s poems in particular, is how it creates this sense of being implausibly singled out and told what you were waiting to hear. You do not have to be good.

Oliver published more than 15 books of poetry in her lifetime, and received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. I came to her work late, in my mid-20s, because of the pervasive misogyny that so often overshadows the work of female artists and writers. For a long time, I dismissed her work without having read it; surely a poet this popular must be sentimental and facile, an aging hippie mom writing about flowers and nature and God. I was aware of her most famous poem, “The Summer Day,” because it is almost impossible not to be; its final lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” have gained a stratospheric level of ubiquity, appearing on everything from posters to mugs to T-shirts and crowding Pinterest boards and Instagram posts (the #maryoliver tag on yields almost 81,000 results on Instagram, while the #maryoliverpoetry and #maryoliverquotes contribute another 7,000 or so). But I hadn’t given her work any real consideration as poetry, until I happened to open a book that had “Wild Geese” as its opening epigraph. I hadn’t expected the poem at all, and I came to it unprepared; by the time I got to the end of its 18 lines, standing on that subway platform in the middle of that unbearably sweaty summer day, I wanted to lie down on the ground. I was overwhelmed by its generosity; if her work was sentimental, it was sentimental like a knife, unyielding.

Despite her numerous publications and awards, Oliver was never quite taken as seriously by critics as she should have been, and was often misread by people carrying the same misogynistic snobbery I carried as a young reader. Before I’d given the work a closer read, her poems appeared simple; they welcomed in anyone who arrived to them, including people who wanted to read them as “stop and smell the flowers”-type affirmations, poetry made for a Pinterest board.

Perhaps it was this wide accessibility that gave them their second life on the internet. When Oliver’s death was announced by the New York Times yesterday, people posted her poems all day in tribute to her work. But the internet had already built an online tribute to Oliver, while she was still living, by making memes out of her poems. Those famous lines from “The Summer Day,” in particular, had gained unlikely popularity on Twitter and Tumblr, and on the dearly-missed humor website The Toast. They were often employed as a sly insult, setting up the ridiculousness of someone’s getting worked up about something. “Sure, if that’s really what you want to do with your one wild and precious life.” Oliver’s exhortation to let in more of life, in the hands of the internet, turned into a gentle mockery of those who actively failed to do so.

The humor came from the contrasts: The expanse of Oliver’s openness to the world in her work made for a hilarious juxtaposition with the petty shittiness of the social internet and its small, bitter feuds and grudges. The joke also worked by way of the poem’s familiarity from its earnest quotation across Pinterest and Instagram and sincere Etsy merchandise. It was obviously funny to turn something so often referenced in the sincerest and sweetest way possible on its head, inverting it into a caustic, sarcastic comeback.

But these memes offer a more accurate reading of Oliver than the one that understands her as a kindly, open-hearted grandmother walking serenely through nature in flowing pants. Many of her poems touch on grief and death. In response, they offer the smallness of oneself in comparison to the larger natural world, a severe and anxious comfort, a difficult truth to face. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on,” she continues in “Wild Geese.” That second line enacts the same reversal as pitting someone’s petty online dramatics against the grandeur of the phrase “your one wild and precious life.” Her poems acknowledge grief and suffering, and then acknowledge that these things are very small and that the world does not stop for them.

The level of ubiquity at which one becomes a meme is uncommon for poets, but growing less so. Instagram and Twitter have made small celebrities of contemporary poets, while classics such as William Carlos Williams have gained new and absurd popularity online. Poems frequently go viral, in part because it is easy to fit one into a screenshot. Poetry mimics many of the conventions of social media: Its affinity for the ridiculous, its attention to seemingly unimportant detail, its brevity, and the skill with which it elides devastating insult and kindness. Poems, in their simultaneous smallness and largeness, in their approach to the universal through the specific, might be understood as the original “it me.” Mary Oliver probably didn’t know that she was a Twitter meme, but I like to believe that had she known the way her most famous poems had been repurposed, she would have loved it. In reflecting on her body of work, this unlikely aspect of her fame offers one more way to push past misogyny and misreading and get at the ruthless heart of these poems.

Mary Oliver’s Poetry Found a Second Life As a Meme