The Experience of the Artist

Let us open with one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees”:

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company.
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.
There is a thing in me that still dreams of trees,
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.
I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

In these words we see the brilliant struggle of an artist laid out in beautiful words. How, Oliver asks, can an artist create the important work of their life if they live outside of what is important?

Here she likens this to moving outside of the action where everything is slower, calmer, and less dramatic. But how, she wonders, can she do such a thing when an artist must engage in “true involvement”? 

In my favorite line of this poem, she says, “Homesick for moderation, half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.”

I feel that I am one of those artists, in many times, and in most cases. I do shrink away – not falling, yet, into obscurity – but I do shrink. Intentionally, out of fear. 

I navigate safely away from controversy, from high opinions and lofty statements. From divisive rhetoric. From the guts of our world. 

Instead, I navigate inward. In this, I live in the crisis point. I am constantly meeting a new edge within myself. There I thrive. But in the world, I cower. 

I say this because you do this, too. In some way, you cower. We all do. It is the experience of the artist. We touch certain issues, topics, ideas and ideals. We push ourselves, but there is always more to explore. I know of no entirely courageous artist; I only know of those who try radically hard, and others who do not. Many who do not.

It is the job of an artist to always explore. This is what Mary Oliver means when she tells us that artists are homesick for moderation. We are homesick for safer limits. We are homesick for ease. And many of us take that road. I have lived on that road too many times, slept under its branches and bathed in its creeks. I know the comforts of familiarity. 

Only this, I say in conclusion: Who ever made music of a mild day?
Create a windstorm that you can dance in.
Show the world your soul.

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