Guarding the egg
The moment of surprise

The things that stop us in our tracks

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"It is a silver morning like any other," says poet Mary Oliver (in her essay "Power and Time"). "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 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 work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist."

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"One must work with the creative powers," Oliver continues later in the essay, "for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place. Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration. A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example. Also, it is enough to tell them. Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all our conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings -- disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion."

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"It is six a.m., and I am working," Oliver concludes. "I am absent-minded, 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."

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I recommend reading the essay in full in Blue Pastures by Mary Oliver (Harcourt Brace, 1995) -- and all her wonderful other books too. Photos: Tilly on the village Commons, and the village nestled in the surrounding hills.

Comments

Stained with Light

“I have wrestled with the angel and I am
stained with light and I have no shame.” --Mary Oliver


I lie there on the grassy knoll,
print of the angel’s hand on my leg.
My mouth tastes of dirt, grit,
while he breathes in my ear,
not with passion but rejoice.

A hallelujah rents the air.
Between us the poem curls,
stained with light, its rough birth
still shining on its small form.
Tangles of hair, wet as worms,
lay plastered against its head.

I count the precious fingers, toes.
Tomorrow I will fix the rest.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I am changing that last line to: Tomorrow is the bris.

It does three things: identifies the sex of the poem/child. It identifies the religion of the poet. And it tells us that, in poetic terms, each cut is a holy sacrifice to the God of Poetry and to the health of the poem. A sacrifice that marks out the poem as dedicated to the people of poetry. That's a pretty weighted and freighted word, "bris" just as the act itself is weighted and freighted and is--in this day and age--arguable. But in poetic terms, necessary.

Hope the change works.

All change in writing comes with inherent danger and glory. Though (she shrugs) unlike life it can be changed back in the very next breath.

Jane

World Book Day today, so we'd better get on and wrestle that angel for some more tomes to fill the world. Though personally speaking I'd sooner sit down, have a cup of tea and a quiet chat with mine. Amongst all the gossip and giggling there're are volumes to be found; just add a beer or two and a whole library opens up!

Mary Oliver is such a wonderful poet. I haven't read the book you mentioned but I will have to I think. Her passion is palpable in her words. As for me, I'm off to commune with the painting angel for whom I dress in second hand clothes in order to afford paint. Whilst I would sometimes rather not feel so poor, I certainly would not sacrifice painting for money, or indeed clothes!

Thank you for this. It is my daily struggle, one I usually lose to the demands of What Must Be Done. My biggest challenge is finding the strength in me to give permission to not do, to create instead.

Ah! Exactly the line that struck me, too.

Tolstoy: "...such is my idea of happiness."

A dog, a field, a blue sky. Such is my idea of happiness. Currently I have no dog, a city, and gray skies. Thank you for sharing these photos.

Your landscape looks like a painting in those long panorama shots.

Nice.

Loved this. Especially: "there will be a hundred meals without mustard" and those lines on guilt: "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."

It's amazing how much guilt a person (at least me) has to shrug off for art (in my case, to write).

I love "Between us the poem curls,/stained with light, its rough birth/still shining on its small form."

Terri, three thousand miles away, and having met neither you nor the folks who most frequently comment here in the flesh, I am nourished - again! - with exactly the food I need this morning.
Thank you, and thank you all.

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