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For my last post as a Harriet blogger, I wanted to give a shout-out to what makes it work for me. I could say the earth, spirit, guidance, love, chi, or justice— I can see all these as names for what I understand as the goddess, an immanent (not transcendent) spiritual principle, who gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me reading, writing, loving, and thinking about poems. At first I wasn’t sure how, whether, or why to write this post, because it is not a comfortable subject. There are many stigmas attached to any kind of spirituality now, and pagan/earth/goddess-centered perspectives are particularly invisible (years ago at AWP, Renee Olander, Lucinda Roy, Tim Seibles, and I did a riotously-well-attended panel on the poetry of earth-centered spirituality at which everyone lamented that gatherings and collections of contemporary spiritual poetry routinely include only poets of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic line, and Buddhists.) But to me, there is a special connection between poetry and the goddess, and many wonderful thread comments here lately have made me feel comfortable “coming out” in a spiritual sense. So here is my farewell post, my shout-out to the idea or reality of the goddess, whatever your preference, in some of her many forms.
Years ago, I wrote the following story about the Muse:
. . .How did I come to think, as a young child who wanted to be a poet, that I had no Muse? The story rides on the kind of convoluted misunderstandings to which children are prone, yet in another sense its logic is impeccable. As far as I can reconstruct it, my reasoning used to go like this:
1. “A woman who concerns herself with poetry should . . . be a silent Muse and inspire the poets by her womanly presence,” wrote Robert Graves. I read this famous statement often enough, stated directly or indirectly, to absorb the idea that not only must Muses of course be female, but, more importantly for me, females must, presumably, be Muses.
2. Men, at least the men in my childhood Bible, Oscar Williams’ Immortal Poems of the English Language, address poems to women Muses. And they also address poems to women whose sexuality they desire or fear or admire. Therefore, according to my reasoning, male poets must have a heterosexual relationship with their Muses akin to the one they have with those other women who appear in their poems, Stella or Laura or Julia or Chloris or the Coy Mistress.
3. And therefore, the Muse must be a heterosexual, man-identified woman. Why should she be interested in women poets then? As feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar finally put it, years later, “is the pen a metaphorical penis?” No wonder the Muse was always hanging around male poets!
After I grew up and realized the Muse was still with me, I tried to find out more about this part of me that gave me poetry. The obvious turnabout was to look for a male muse. In Jungian therapy I uncovered my animus. Growing and writing and learning, I found the male side of myself, had long conversations with him, grew to love him. But though eventually I found him in many good forms—characters in my dreams, the wise man, Pan, the Green Man—he wasn’t where my poetic inspiration came from, but felt far from the place that is called, in Kundalini, “the empty-womb space where creation occurs.”
Inspired in part by my parents’ shared interest in the Goddess (they both took a class with the wonderful scholar Merlin Stone in the 1980s), by the Goddess movement in San Franciso where I was living, and by my interests in anthropology and feminism, I began to muse about and write poems about various goddesses, including Spider Woman, Aphrodite, Inanna, Coatlique, and others, for my book Eve. I forgot about the Muse for a while. . . until one day when I was reading The Muse Strikes Back, Katherine McAlpine and Gail White’s anthology of the poems women have written in response to male poets over the centuries. There suddenly I found her shimmering among all those challenges to the male appropriation of creative literary power. I found the Muse in the seam that links the voices and the answering voices of Meleager and H.D., Homer and Margaret Atwood, John Donne and Mary Holtby, Jonathan Swift and Louise Bogan. I could hear how fundamentally the halves of those dialogues were linked, and it was at last utterly clear to me that the same force had been inspiring the women and the men through all those centuries. The Muse’s voice is strong in the women’s poems. I recognize her tone.
Harriet commenter Terreson tells me that legend says Sappho was walking on the beach when Orpheus’ severed head washed up near her—still singing, inspiring her to be a poet and found her school. They sang to the same Muse. I’ve been calling her the Goddess. To paraphrase Ntozake Shange, “I found the Muse in myself. And I loved Her fiercely.”
But not only is my Muse my Goddess; my Goddess is my Muse. I began to understand this when I wrote he title essay to The Body of Poetry. Living with, and meditating on, the idea of the Goddess as immanent spriritual force brought together ideas I thought had been separate, from sentimentism to the postmodern poetess to metrical diversity to multiformalism (and just last week, in an interview with Tom Cable for the Robert Fitzgerald Award ceremony at the West Chester Poetry Conference, I understood how the metrical code is part of the same overall approach). Still, though, the spiritual aspect of my Goddess occupied one part of me, while my Muse, even though I thought of her in a similar way, was confined to artistic realms. It is only very recently—perhaps only tonight, as I write this final post for Harriet— that I realize that the truth is more demanding. My Goddess is my Muse, there’s no hiding from her, and she wants me to write poems.
As it turns out, the earliest poems ever known to have been written down were about the goddess Inanna, by her priestess Enheduanna. Diane Wolkstein collected these poems and assembled them into a remarkable epic story, Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth (the basis for Alice Notley’s epic The Descent of Inanna.) Reading this book feels like standing in the Museum of Heraklion in Crete (home of the famed Ring of Minos, as far as I know the only place on earth where one can be surrounded by many rooms of artifacts not created under patriarchy, or matriarchy for that matter, but under the system of female-led equal partnership between the sexes that Riane Eisler in her book The Chalice and the Blade calls gylandry. It is mind-blowingly different, in terms of gender dynamics and entire outlook, than anything created in the West in the last four thousand years. One of my favorite passages from the epic is the wildly erotic love dialogue between Inanna and her husband Dumuzi (scroll down a bit to get to the good parts).
It may seem that there is not much blatantly goddess-oriented poetry in the world, but because the goddess’s nature is not to transcend the world but to inhabit it, actually the goddess has a way of appearing everywhere in poetry. Like the sound of a meter with which one has been unfamiliar until recently, she may be hard to recognize at first, and you may think she’s not there, but once you get to know her and get in the habit of noticing, you’ll find her everywhere and in all kinds of poets. Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars,” Crane’s “Proem,” Spenser, and early Yeats are infused with it, not to mention many ancient poets, and mystical and rhapsodic poets of all traditions from Rumi to Elytis.
And the goddess can be found everywhere nowadays, from the candles section of Wal-Mart to the remarkable hints pages of Women’s World magazine at the supermarket. I have been meeting with a group started by some young mothers in my neighborhood, one of a huge growing worldwide movement based on Sharon McCarlane’s book The Grandmothers Speak. What strikes me about this group is that it is not explicitly pagan or goddess-worshipping or shamanic in the sense of the various groups and people I’ve learned from for decades now. Instead, this new movement is extraordinarily simple, inclusive of any spiritual or healing path, so that one woman shares a peace pipe ceremony in which she was initiated by Native American elders, another talks about herbs, another about new ideas of Jesus, another about Mayan prophecy, another about minerals, and yet all of them are on some level talking about the Goddess in the simplest way: as female energy. The Grandmothers message for July says,
“We, the Great Council of the Grandmothers, are calling you to work with us in order to return your planet to balance. We are calling women to step into the power of the great yin and we are calling men to support them as they do this. All life on earth will benefit from the work we will do together. . .We have told you many times that for the world to return to balance, women must lead. It can be no other way. The earth must once be filled again with the energy of yin that is presently dangerously depleted. And to this end we have come to empower women and confirm men.”
Married to an environmentalist, I think about the current state of the planet often. A fundamental shift is taking place, very quickly, in the way all of us think about our earth and other people and creatures. This can lead to backlash and fear, but the overall movement is unmistakable. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. In spiritual terms, we can see the movement towards self-determination and civil rights, on the part of all creatures and people, as the goddess in action: the honoring of immanent power. How could poetry not reflect all of this? The next time I go to the Grandmothers Speak group, I will talk about the Muse.
PS I am looking forward to a trip into wolf-dens with a biologist in Montana this fall to begin a poetry project about <a href=” wolves“>wolves (an animal long associated with the goddess). Wolves are under attack and you can help them <a href=” wolves“>here. Thank you dear Harrietteers for a wonderful visit here!