Tag Archives: muse

Calling the Poem: 6. ‘Of Sacrifice’

You learn to call, to pray, and to invoke
the gods with incense, roasting meat and smoke,
the smell drawing the gods like flies.
They like being honoured, they like gifts and sacrifice.
How do you gift a god of writing? Write!
Write when you have a thought, write day, write night.
How do you sacrifice? Accept this hardship:
you give up all activities
(regardless of your duties, your proclivities,
relationships) – for bardship,
because you don’t have time for them and writing.
Downgrade all love, work, striving, fighting –
for you must write.
You read, read, write, recite,
write and rewrite,
reread and rerecite.
(The modes you read impact the words you write,
impact the thoughts you have, and how they’re phrased.
Read novels, you’ll have thoughts in prose: straight, trite;
read verse, your thoughts will ramble, rhyme, be crazed.)
How bargain with the gods? Well, you can offer.
Can you demand? Well, no; you can’t.
Do they play fair? Take care with what they proffer;
you’re never sure if it’s a loan or grant.
How long will favours last? While you’re in favour;
a god or goddess owns you like a slaver.
And while for them you still produce,
still honour them… you still have use.
So keep on writing until you collapse,
and they’ll continue liking you. Perhaps.

*****

This is the sixth in the 15-poem sequence on Calling the Poem. The basic idea is that if you pay attention to the little scraps of poetry that come your way, in a random rhyme, a stray image; if you write them down and expand on them as you can; if you respect what comes to you, even if it isn’t what you want to hear; if you spend more time immersed in the medium that you want to develop… then you are encouraging the further communication from the mysterious force that provides the insights and images and words, the force that appears to be both inside and outside of you, the force that can be thought of as a muse or god. But the process is unreliable, because gods are unreliable, being inherently uncontrollable by us.

Matthew Arnold has a typically lugubrious and pessimistic overview of ‘The Progress of Poesy’:

Youth rambles on life’s arid mount,
And strikes the rock, and finds the vein,
And brings the water from the fount,
The fount which shall not flow again.

The man mature with labour chops
For the bright stream a channel grand,
And sees not that the sacred drops
Ran off and vanish’d out of hand.

And then the old man totters nigh
And feebly rakes among the stones.
The mount is mute, the channel-dry;
And down he lays his weary bones.

But that’s Matthew Arnold for you. He had a remarkably mournful muse. Perhaps he spent too much time as a responsible Victorian, a dedicated Inspector of Schools, and not enough time in the state T.S. Eliot called the “necessary receptivity and necessary laziness” of the poet. Eliot again: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” You are striving to be at the mercy of forces outside your conscious control – there can be no guarantee that it will work out exactly the way you want.

Illustration: “Sacrifice” by Tamara Artis is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 5. ‘Of Muses’

When thoughts, fantastic dreams, bright images,
invade you from inside without relief –
thoughts that aren’t yours, nor come from the outside –
then, heedless of the real world’s scrimmages,
you can’t ignore, forget, refute, refuse.
Forces not you, that ride you and bestride,
when viewed with self-delusion, self-belief,
must therefore be some spirit, god, or muse.

*****

This is the fifth of the 15 poems in the ‘Calling the Poem’ series, published as a Snakeskin e-chapbook. From the awareness of the creative mood to the valuing of an idea, to the attempt at expression, to the crafting and polishing of the item, there are several stages in the creation of a piece of art. I am trying to lay out my sense of this process, and of how any individual can choose to develop it, and produce more and better art.

It’s my belief that many, many people could be the most amazing poets or other creators, but they don’t go down that path because they choose not to pay attention to the stray thoughts and images that come their way. For those of us who try to follow and develop the images, there is always the question of where they come from: from within us, or from the outside? I think humanity’s self-understanding is very primitive so far, and that there are layers under layers still to be peeled back. All our answers are best guesses, working hypotheses, delusions… but they are all we have, and valid and valuable when seen in that light.

Most of the poems in this series are semi-formal – they have enough rhythm and rhyme to facilitate their recitation, but lack the formal structures, the appropriate patterns, that can be aspired to. To me the recitation is key, because poetry is auditory in nature, in its origin, at its heart. It is almost as old as singing, which is in turn almost as old as rhythmic babbling and drumming. The poem printed on the page is not the poem itself, it needs to be read (aloud, or in your mind’s voice) in order to become the poem.

So I don’t have strong opinions on whether to capitalise the first letter of each line of a poem: it doesn’t impact the sound. But if it can help with the reading and comprehension – by not capitalising and thereby showing the flow of the sentence, or by capitalising in order to differentiate from spillover part-lines and thereby retaining the metre or rhythm – then an appropriate choice should be made. The version of this work that I am using is all first-letter capitalised. I’ve modified that today because I felt the poem was more comprehensible when the individual sentences were more clearly marked; the issue isn’t otherwise important.

And, no, I’m not impressed with concrete poems or shape poems as verse, although they can be excellent as jokes and witticisms.

Photo of “Henri Matisse – Dance [1910]” by Gandalf’s Gallery is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 3. ‘Self-Belief’

Can you handle the wild poem? Can you tame the thing, or kill?
The certainty, uncertainty, of writing as a skill,
The being told to “find your voice”, the crawling like an ant
Across the skin of Literature, that giant, to implant
Some token of your individuality, some pin
To jab into the giant’s vast and ant-infested skin,
To make your mark by scrawling words, tattoos, to claim a win…
You can’t succeed alone against such odds!
But there are gods…

*****

This is the third poem in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook sequence in Snakeskin. The question of self-belief can be difficult for any artist – given the thousands of years of recorded paintings, sculptures, poems, music, etc, how can you know that your tiny ant-like efforts will be enough to make a mark in the world? Can you hope to succeed? The choice might seem to be between the hubris of Yes and the defeatism of No – but you have a secret ally, if you pay attention: the Muse. If you are self-aware and mindful, if you stay alert for scraps from the unconscious, the dream-world including daydreams, if you are respectful enough to try to capture the little hints you are given, then the Muse (She, or He, or Them, Yourself, your unconscious, God or Gods or Angels, however you visualise this force and process) will provide you with insights and material you never knew you could access.

Your Muse is available to you… if you stop and listen, remain open and respectful of the unexpected. Again, the learning and the workloads imposed by others tend to act against this attitude. Take heart from T.S. Eliot: “a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness.” That was not a flippant comment of his: it goes to the heart of learning to work with your Muse.

Photo: 8/17/09 Houston – Fire Ant Bite by stefan.klocek used under OpenVerse license

Calling the Poem: 1. ‘Invocation’

O Odin,
Living outside me or within,
Share your mead of poetry you earned in night’s delight,
Spare me from the mead you shitted out in flight and fright.
By Thought and Memory, I swear
A poem needs your care,
For poems… magic poems… are nothing,
and come from your nowhere…

A poem comes in flurries:
A phrase that catches, sticks,
A rhyme that matches
With some thought that dog-worries,
And a verse that clicks.

*****

Just to be clear, I’m no more a believer in the Norse gods than I am in Yoruba, Hindu or Christian deities. Also, I’m not a white nationalist. But mythology has a couple of uses for me: pure enjoyment of the tangled tales; a way of looking at historical mindsets; and a tool for trying to communicate with the unconscious, i.e. to let the creative unconscious funnel ideas and images to the conscious mind.

What I do believe is that invoking the Muse, or a god, is a way of telling your unconscious that you are receptive to its comments… it is a fishing expedition, and you never know what you’re going to get. But I believe it is a system that works (sometimes), and I don’t practise another. (Various drugs are alleged to get results, too.)

So a few years ago I set out to describe the process that I follow to try to bring poetry to me. The result was a series of 15 poems, published by Snakeskin as an e-chapbook in January 2017. It was available as a free download from Snakeskin No. 236, and it should be again, when the Snakeskin archives are again operational. I named it ‘Calling the Poem’.

‘Calling the Poem’ starts by invoking the Muse – male, female, human, animal, I think the Muse can be however you choose to imagine it. But the Muse should be a dream-image, for the Muse, the unconscious, is as likely to communicate through dream as anywhere. Odin is a good figure, with his ravens of Thought and Memory who give him the news of the world, his eight-legged horse Sleipnir who can carry him through all the worlds, his ability to shapeshift and prophesy, the sacrifices he made to obtain wisdom such as gouging out an eye to put in Mimir’s well, and of course the mead of poetry that he stole and disburses as he feels.

And so the first poem – somewhat rough-hewn, semi-formal – is the invocation addressed to Odin.

Photo: “Odin on Sleipnir” by Hornbeam Arts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Poem: ‘The Entertainer’s Servant’

See the violinist
blocking, enchanting passing crowds with his bowing
and watch some ragged child, the very thinnest,
with held-out cap through those crowds coming and going.

Or the organ grinder
haunting the emotions and memories of all,
his songs life’s bittersweetness’s reminder….
but it’s his well-dressed monkey makes the coins fall.

And more: the child’s home work handed in
though mostly done by mummy;
and more: the wisecracks bandied in,
seemingly by the ventriloquist’s dummy…

This is the poet’s story:
somewhere some unseen Maker
wrings from a wild wand
magnificence, sadness, glory…
while the mere poet capers,
postures, and holds out a hand.

All of which is merely a complicated rumination on not knowing where poetry comes from. It feels like the initial impulse and the key words come from outside, from some muse or god of poetry… and the poet is merely a puppet: observed, apparently autonomous, but not the true artist.

This poem was published in The Road Not Taken: The Journal of Formal Poetry. It may not be as formal as you would expect, but it has a steady structure complete with rhymes. I make no apologies for its inadequacies – the poem itself allows me to blame the unknown puppeteer.

Poem: ‘Dreams’

In the back alleys of our nightly dreams-–
Where cartoon murders repay debts of grudge,
And all’s not graspable nor as it seems,
And logic leers, then sneers and disappears,
And our warped lusts of power, sex and pain
Live stray cat lives, are killed, and live again
To yowl and fight, to scavenge, hunt, give birth-–
We overlay fresh civilized veneers
On age-old dynamos of massive girth.
So the thin skin of life upon the Earth
Cannot restrain the molten mass beneath
(Driving relentless change despite crust’s sheath),
Till, trampled and forgotten in the sludge,
Our empires are mere broken plastic toys.
Dreams run from us like cats from evil boys.

Dreams, the unconscious, one’s Muse… cats, ravens, the Earth… time and timelessness, change and continuty… so many of these ideas return again and again, always the same, always differently organised, a true kaleidoscope. And this isn’t a sonnet–too many lines, no pattern to the rhymes–even if it sort of feels like one; it’s more of a kaleidoscope itself.

This poem was first published in The Lyric. As far as I remember, its editor wanted the removal of the word “on” from the ninth line; they thought this improved the scansion, and the editor is always right so I allowed it. But I’ve put it back now, anyway.

“My cat running away from the camera #cat #iphone #cats” by gargudojr is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Odd poem: Margaret Mead(?), ‘Hogamus Higamus’

Hogamus, higamus,
Man is polygamous;
Higamus, hogamus,
Woman’s monogamous.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is American anthropologist Margaret Mead‘s creation. I have a clear memory of reading the story many years ago, probably in ‘Male and Female’, of her waking up in the middle of the night with an understanding of the secret of the universe. She grabbed the pencil and paper she kept by her bedside and wrote it down, then went back to the sleep. And in the morning she found she had written the above verse.

I was so certain it was Margaret Mead that I began this blog post about her before trying to check which book the verse came from and if I had the wording correct. (I last read Mead decades ago, and I leave beyond the reach of bookstores and real libraries.) To my frustration, all I can find in Google is attribution to William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, Bertrand Russell, Alice Duer Miller… and Mrs. Amos Pinchot, who allegedly denied authorship. According to Quote Investigator, “The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article ‘Thanksgiving Nightmare’ by Claire MacMurray (…) presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot”, and tells the tale as I remember it. Mead’s ‘Male and Female’ came out in 1949, so (if the poem was in that book) it may have been referring to the Pinchot story, or it may have been something that had happened more than ten years previously to Mead, and she had shared the story and it had spread by itself.

The poem itself is brief, witty, amusing. It is rhythmic, repetitive, well rhymed, very catchy. Those are all excellent qualities. As for the content, it seems very 20th century: it gives the impression of having broken out of the conventions of society and church, and to be saying that the two sexes have differing needs for propagating themselves successfully. It is also 20th century in being simplistic. Where does the concept of serial monogamy fall? How does the rhyme relate to the LGBTQ+ members of society? The verse is definitely not comprehensive enough for the 21st century. But Margaret Mead was a controversial opener of cans of worms in the early 20th century, and that is where this little poem came from. Her obsession with gender roles and her self-deprecating humour make her a good candidate for its author.

And where the poem came from, apparently, was a communication from the unconscious, a gift to the dreamer. Always respect and preserve what the Muse offers you – who knows, a couple of lines of verse may be treasured and quoted for a hundred years!

“Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies” by your neighborhood librarian is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Spring Sprang’

Spring sprang full force with sudden storms then stopped.
Of which vertu engendred were the floods. We mopped.
Summer so wet dried into humid dank.
Sweat dripped, dried, dripped, and as we worked we stank.

This little poem was published in The Asses of Parnassus, where poems range from the short to the very short. Epigrams translated from the Greek or Latin alternate with modern insults and with odd little observations such as this post’s verse. It is a site for people who enjoy the occasional small random thought.

Why I wrote the poem, I don’t know. It probably started with the evocative sounds of “spring sprang”. Spring rains always bring Chaucer’s Prologue to my mind, whence the “of which vertu engendred” phrase. The whole thing is inconsequential, except that in one very important sense no creative act, not even the most trivial, is inconsequential: your creativity speaks to you, and your decision of whether or not to act on it determines many aspects of your life: not just your creative output, but your sense of satsfaction, your happiness, your mental balance, even your physical health. When the muse speaks, listen and act – the output doesn’t have to be significant, but keeping the lines of communication open to the inner and unconscious (but in several ways wiser and more knowledgeable) parts of yourself is supremely important. Call it the soul, if you want. Call it God, for all I care. There is something essential there: honour it. Your happiness, maybe even your life, depends on it.

OK, rant over. Back to other inconsequentialities.

Photo: “025457:Floods Central Library New Bridge Street Newcastle upon Tyne Unknown 1966” by Newcastle Libraries is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Sonnet: ‘Irritated Muse’

My muse is angered by my Covid cares –
“You worry if the shops have food and beer,
and what a Zoom attendee rightly wears!
You’re just as mortal as you were last year,
and wrote of life and death, sickness and health.
Well, now’s an actual existential crisis!
Think family and friends, the world, your self…
forget the shopping and the product prices!
You’ll die; the question’s When. The only tool
for immortality is me, that clear?
You should be writing poetry, you fool!
This is your chance. Focus on me.” (Yes, dear.)
“Respect me as your muse: I’m not your shill.
If you can’t write a poem, write your will.”

This sonnet has just been published in Allegro in the UK, edited by Sally Long. The magazine comes out twice a year, one issue themed and the other open. It focuses on formal verse, but on a long continuum between fully formal and free.

Photo: “Thalia, Muse of comedy.” by Egisto Sani is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Four Duties’

First, to your family, the spouse you chose,
children you gained who themselves had no choice;
to give a space wherein to find their voice
with safety, happiness, as each one grows.

To self: to keep yourself happy and whole,
free of both physical and mental pain
through yoga, exercise, good stress, good strain,
a moderate diet, peaceful self-control.

To all humanity: using some gift,
some insight, skill set, asset, useful tool
to better people’s lives through work or school,
some mast and sail or oar for those adrift.

And to the Muse that underlies the world:
express yourself—banners are useless furled.

This sonnet feels a little uncomfortably preachy, pretentious, self-righteous, and generally out of touch with the flippant persona I prefer. But it’s what I actually believe deep down. To me, it’s self-evident in terms not just of personal morality, but also as regards what makes a person feel fulfilled and happy. And the last bit is important: everyone has a creative aspect, and everyone has a Muse. The Muse is just part of how the world works, perhaps how your creative subconscious communicates with your conscious mind, perhaps how God or gods or angels communicate with you… it’s a little mysterious, but it’s part of your reality. And the correct thing to do is to express yourself creatively when you have an idea for it: that turns on the tap for further creativity. Not doing anything with the creative idea you get turns the tap off, and reduces future creativity. You need to honour the Muse when he/she/it appears.

‘The Four Duties’ has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry. A few days late for that year, perhaps, but I just saw a weather forecast for “six more weeks of 2020”. Indeed, a sense of calm and responsibility is what the world needs, now and always.

Photo: “Her duty” by Go-tea 郭天 is licensed under CC BY 2.0