Vox Populi

Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry

Mary Oliver: The Artist’s Task

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.


From Upstream: Selected Essays. Copyright 2016 Mary Oliver. Quoted in BrainPickings.

28 comments on “Mary Oliver: The Artist’s Task

  1. Rosalie Steward
    August 10, 2017

    Brought me right back to center.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JohnAmes
    August 9, 2017

    Reblogged this on Frog Pond Journal and commented:
    This isn’t one of my photographs…It’s much better!

    Like

  3. John
    August 8, 2017

    Excuse me? No. I find these self-aggrandizing definitions of an artist (or of any one way someone must be to be considered legitimate) infuriating.

    Had Mary Oliver titled her essay “My Task as an Artist” and written in the first person about her experience, how much more profound and receptive her essay would be.

    I am an artist. I am a poet. This is how my mind works, how my heart works. This is who I am. That I don’t, at this time, shut the world out to produce tangible evidence of my artist “credentials,” that I choose always to put my children’s needs first, especially my special-needs daughter’s needs, doesn’t make me not an artist or even less of one. Being an artist is exactly that: a way of being. It’s not a way of doing.

    And yes, I’m aware that Mary Oliver is talking about being a “productive” artist, but even that there is no universal definition for. To attempt to proscribe what it means for all artists is contemptible and wrongheaded. There are plenty of artists whose way includes, even thrives on (to recast her narrrow-minded and pompous edict) responsibility to the ordinary and the timely, especially including mustard, or teeth, and extending unabashedly to the lost button, or the beans in the pot, wholeheartedly part and parcel of the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may therefore be encouraged to arrive.

    Her closing paragraph is so appallingly patronizing and insulting, I want to throttle her. Perhaps if she’d spoken from the first person, I could admire her for her singlemindedness:

    For me, there is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success is worth everything. My most regretful thing on earth would be to have felt the call to creative work, to have felt my creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

    How much more powerful such a personal admission (rather than a universal edict) would have been

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      August 8, 2017

      Thanks, John. I find your argument intriguing. Mary Oliver’s post is one of our most popular on Vox Popul, garnering hundreds of thousands of hits. If her argument is morally suspect, as you claim, why do you think it is so popular? Are our readers so misled about the life of an artist, or does it appeal legitimately to the life many people aspire to? Please tell me your thoughts: I want to know.

      Like

    • janet lyons
      August 9, 2017

      Such a narrow, serious, old fashion idea of “artistic expression” I work with creative people who laugh, go off topic, question, ponder and write amazing material. It does not need to be this solitary, quiet, inner experience. Get real

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erica Lindberg Gourd
        August 14, 2017

        I think it comes down to Introverts vs Extroverts perhaps? Introverts need time alone to recharge enough to think clearly – while extroverts are charged fully by group speak and brainstorming!?

        Liked by 1 person

    • susan olsen
      August 10, 2017

      John, I understand where you are coming from. I have been blessed with 2 beautiful Grandchildren to care for as my daughter works. Watching toddlers in my retirement was not part of my plan, but as we know, life doesn’t always go as planned.
      I agree with Ms. Oliver. because my desire to pursue my art has not diminished. But the environment for it thrive is now filled with PBS, back and forth trips to pre-school, Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…etc.
      She is right as far as I am concerned, my creative spirit feels squashed and abandoned. It will always be with me and I may have another chance at it when the kids grow up and don’t need Grandma and Grandpa as much. Time will tell.
      S. Olsen

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dove
      August 14, 2017

      It’s a moment’s insight captured…one person’s experience…Take a deep breath! 🙏🏼

      Like

  4. colleenlynn99
    August 8, 2017

    Reblogged this on Cornelia Fick and commented:
    Wonderful essay on creativity

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dorothy Corrigan
    August 7, 2017

    How apt, how inviting, how propelling : “artists not helping the world go round… helping it go forward….” I love it !

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Phyllis Capanna
    August 6, 2017

    Reblogged this on my website. It’s beautiful: “…I am stained with light and I have no shame.”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Carol Browning
    August 6, 2017

    She describes the challenges and the many distractions that can cause an artist to lose her focus. This is why we need time and space to be on our own, that our creativity has a chance to be expressed and not lost.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. federicagaletto
    August 6, 2017

    Reblogged this on La lepre e il cerchio and commented:
    Mary Oliver e il compito dell’artista

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ilona fried
    August 6, 2017

    Reblogged this on à la carte spirit by ilona fried and commented:
    “But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.” – Mary Oliver

    Moshe Feldenkrais wrote something similar in The Potent Self: “One ought to learn to be as polite with oneself as with anybody else, and to feel just as awkward disturbing oneself with irrelevant problems when doing anything of consequence.”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Joani
    August 5, 2017

    what a flash of light to life this is

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Carole
    August 4, 2017

    At 6 a.m. I’m on my front porch with my morning coffee watching the neighborhood deer begin their day. Often the same ones — Mama deer and fawn checking out breakfast from our various lawns and the solitary deer who seems ignored by all others. Has she been banished? Do deer do that? I watch and then turn to the NYTimes, read for a while, feel terrible about the fires in our world, and hope the deer return with some natural reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Martta Karol
    August 4, 2017

    Reblogged this on Martta Karol.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Martta Karol
    August 4, 2017

    Ah, Mary Oliver! This essay was just lovely. I felt compelled to read it aloud so that I could hear the beauty and music of her words as well as savor their insightful resonance with the creative process. I’m reblogging the essay on Martta Karol: Writing Words on Life and Love. It’s too wonderful not to share it.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Cheryl Levinson
    August 3, 2017

    This leaves me breathless

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Fiona Summerville
    August 3, 2017

    Reblogged this on Fiona Summerville and commented:
    I adore this amazing soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Alayne Peterson
    August 3, 2017

    Reblogged this on Clockwork Professor and commented:
    This is timely, as we were talking about this last night after dinner–that I let myself be interrupted and find it difficult to get back into the Flow. So it’s yet another sign that I need to get back to work…

    Liked by 1 person

  17. daisy Le Dez
    August 3, 2017

    excellent and true !

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Joy Keegans
    April 3, 2017

    I have lived my life in this vein, and strive to not have regrets. And, I flew a small craft (first time for night flying) less than one year ago. That, too, was art, flying into the beautiful face of our full moon that night, for two hours…

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Peter Prest
    April 3, 2017

    To be unapologetically absent from life in order to be fully present in art is our task and each day we show up at the desk or easel or keyboard with the quibbles of life gnawing behind our ears of other commitments. If we are lucky the concept we are pursuing makes a fleeting appearance early on, and the hunt is on. It is much more difficult if the concept remains hidden for a morning or a week. Then the quibbles become louder and likely win. We retreat back to life and put the elements of art aside for that day.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Grace E. Henderson
      April 9, 2017

      Yes, we do, Peter. And thank you for expressing it so succinctly and perfectly.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. anisioluiz2008
    October 23, 2016

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2016 by in Art and Cinema, Opinion Leaders, Personal Essays, Poetry and tagged , .
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