Poetry is not exactly something which can be forced. Okay, it can be forced, but in general, the result is terrible. Hence, you are reading this today instead of the regularly scheduled Poetry Friday. Instead, I want to talk about something poetry-ish while not actually writing poetry. Okay, so maybe I’ll write some poetry; it is Poetry Friday after all. I mean, limericks technically are poetry…technically.
Sculpting Don Juan like Myron,
“Hail, Muse! Et cet’ra,” wrote Byron.
What poets invoke
He saw as a joke
‘Midst the Romantic environ.
(My scanning is not wrongly done. Byron pronounced Juan, “JOO-ən.” Professors do say that this is the way it is, judging by his scansion.)
That was my semi-poetic introduction to today’s semi-poetic topic: The Muse.
George, Lord Byron was considered a bit of a Romantic era apostate for his view of the Muse (amongst other things). One of my very favorite lines of Don Juan is when Byron opens the section by writing, “Hail Muse! Et cetera.” This was a bit of a stab at those Romantic era writers who still employed the invoking of the muse as part of their poetry.
Back in the good ‘ol days of Greek yore, the Muse was a semi-deity who supposedly came to the poets and gave them their inspiration for writing. Greek writers frequently invoked the Muse. Later, the invoking of the Muse fell into disuse, particularly with the advent of shorter poetical forms such as the sonnet. The decline of polytheistic religion and the rise of Christianity’s prominence throughout the Western poetry-writing world also contributed to the poetic Muse’s demise. By the time the Enlightenment rolled around, the idea of the Muse was laughable.
Enter the Romantic Poets. The Romantic movement was largely a pendulum-like reaction to the Enlightenment. The Romantic philosophy saw a return to nature and the ‘primitive man.’ Much of the poetry of this era is characterized by pantheism and the idea of the poet as semi-divine. Whereas for the Greek poets, the Muse was an actual deity, to the Romantic writers, the Muse was in fact part of the whole natural universe, flowing through each of us. Of course, some were especially tuned into this, so they were elected by the divine spirits to be poets. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the earlier Romantic poets who subscribed to this; in “The Eolian Harp” we see him as the harp (poet) played by the wind (the divine pantheistic Muse). Likewise, in “Kubla Khan,” we see the poet as one who has been elected by the powers of the earth. (Apparently brought on by feeding on honey-dew. Your individual results may vary. )
So, the Romantic poets returned to the custom of invoking the Muse—though not as such. Instead, you see nature taking the part of the Muse. Part of the reason Wordsworth and Coleridge (particularly his earlier works) are such a pain to read is due to their rambling on and on forever about nature before they get to the actual point of the poem (I’m talking about you, “This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison”).
Even Byron’s fellow Romantic apostate Percy Bysshe Shelley still subscribed to this semi-divine poet business. Though they both saw nature in decay rather than in glory, if you read “Ode to West Wind,” you will see a very depressed Shelley calling on the spirit of the wind to inspire him. (I knew an English professor who referred to Shelley as the emo kid of the poetry world.) However, Byron’s delightfully satirical writing mocks the idea of an all-inspiring Muse (not to mention a few less-than-friendly jabs at Wordsworth). “Hail Muse! Et cetera” is his flippant rejection of such a concept.
After the Romantic era, the idea of the Muse once again fell into disuse, except for the occasional reference. Saying “the Muse is upon me” is just a way of saying you’ve had a brilliant idea. Heck, that’s even where we get “to muse,” as in to ponder or think about.
So, now that you have read this little introduction to the notion of the Muse, I want to ask:
Is there such a thing?
Granted, I don’t believe in a Greek semi-deity or a pantheistic, milk-of-paradise-dispensing spirit that inspires people to write, but I have to admit, there are times that a writer just gets those I-have-to-write-it-now-or-I’ll-explode moments (mostly at terribly inconvenient moments). Contrast these with the “meh” moments where you can’t seem to put a single word on the page, and even if you do, you strike it out.
Think about it. We call it writer’s block, or the writing doldrums. Doldrums are places without wind; a place where you get stuck while sailing. It seems as if a lot of writers feel like their ideas are beyond their control, just like being a leaf blown around in the wind. (Hmm, where have I heard that idea before?)
I know that I feel this way. Sometimes, I’ve got nothing, and then I feel “inspired” and just write and write and write. On the other hand, I am capable of forcing myself to write without feeling inspired, and frequently do. I admit that the quality is diminished in these cases, though.
Now, if you read Writer’s Digest or similar types of things, you will frequently hear people support the idea of writing whether you “feel like it” or not. Waiting for inspiration will get you nowhere. The best thing to do, so the advice generally goes, is write whatever and then go back and fix it. And this is sound advice. I have used that advice on multiple occasions
There is something to be said for the “you can’t edit a blank page” camp, but without the inspiration, without the Muse, is what you’ve written even worth editing? At least, this is how I’ve been rationalizing my lack of writing lately. In all honesty, I think there is something to be said for waiting for inspiration; on the other hand, the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy is useful as well.
But I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if it doesn’t ever work for writing poetry. Sometimes, it doesn’t even work for prose. It does work for blog posts, though, which is mostly why this one is so terrible.
Perhaps I need to feed on some honey-dew. Now, do you think that's the melon or some kind of nectar? And where can I get some milk of paradise to chase that down with?
What do you think of inspiration versus perspiration in writing? Does it work for all forms or just some? If you write poetry, do you have to feel ‘inspired’ first? Did you find the second limerick hidden in the post? Did you like it? Why am I asking so many questions? Leave your thoughts or pleas for me to shut up in the comments.