Monday, April 23, 2012

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone, Part 5: Taking Leaps

This is Part 5 of a series of blogs on the ancient concept of the muse, and whether it has any uses for writers today.
For a writer, it’s useful to listen to those voices in your head—call them the muses if you want. Those voices sometimes tell us to do crazy things: “Joan, put on men’s armor and chase the English out of France for the glory of God.” Did Joan of Arc say, “Dude, that is so random! I’m just a teenager in a small city in France. You must be totally tripping.” No. She chased the English out of France. I think listening to those voices can be a much more exciting and daring way to work as a writer than to write from your everyday consciousness.
So when do you not listen to the voices, to the muse? When the voices tell you to do things that will not strengthen you or your writing. How do you know which ideas will weaken you and your writing, and which will not? There you do have to make the call yourself, using good judgment.
I’ve been talking about the power of the muse, but I've hardly even mentioned examples from poetry, the art that has always been the first to call on the muse.
There are the times that a poem just arrives as a gift from out of the blue, almost in a finished form. As I've mentioned, Rainer Maria Rilke is one classic example of this, writing the final sections of The Duino Elegies and his Sonnets to Orpheus in the space of a few weeks in Duino Castle in the winter of 1922. That sort of gift poem is the product of inspiration, one way the muse comes into our writing.
 But there's another way we as writers can really learn from the idea of the muse: in trusting those leaps of language, emotion, and subject that happen when you stretch logic and metaphor and feeling to its breaking point. In those moments you trust that the muse will allow you to stay in the realm of communication even though you may feel you’ve jumped off a diving board in the pitch dark with no sense of how far down the water is. I’m talking about poetic lines like these from Federico García Lorca’s “Gacela of Unforeseen Love,”

A thousand Persian ponies fell asleep
in the moonlit plaza of your forehead
while through four nights I embraced
your waist, enemy of the snow.

[translated by W.S. Merwin]

“A thousand Persian ponies fell asleep/in the moonlit plaza of your forehead”. The guy is nuts, right? And yet, when you fall in love with someone, you glimpse a peace as profound, crazy, and beautiful as a thousand Persian ponies dreaming in a midnight plaza, and Lorca has described that as literally as William Carlos Williams’s cold plums missing from the icebox in his poem “This Is Just to Say.”
And where is the muse in this metaphor of the poet jumping off the high diving board in total darkness? Is the muse splashing around in the pool, waiting to swim with you when you reach the water? Too distant. And anyway, then you might land on her when you hit the pool. Is the muse holding your hand as you dive? No, sorry, no one is holding your hand. As André Breton, the French Surrealist poet said, “Writing is the loneliest road that leads everywhere.” No, in the metaphor of the diving board, the muse is the one who pushes you off before you’re ready to jump, not knowing if what you’re going to say will make sense to a single other human being.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10

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