Help Me, O Heavenly Muse
Where does a poem come from? The sources of inspiration are many, from reason to a touch of madness.
Robert Graves writes in On English Poetry, “Henceforward, in using the word Poetry I mean both the controlled and uncontrollable parts of the art taken together, because each is helpless without the other.” No one entirely understands the relationship in poetry between trance and craft, between conscious and unconscious elements, and, indeed, poets have been obsessed by the problem of what can and cannot be controlled in the making of art. This is especially instructive to readers who bring their own conscious purposes to poetry, their own unconscious mechanisms of displacement and identification, of sublimation, projection, condensation . . . .
Sometimes the emphasis is put on conscious reason, on the conscious aspects of making. Paul Valéry spoke of “une ligne donné”—“the given line”—and suggested that everything else was labor, a matter of making. Baudelaire talked of “the labor by which a revery becomes a work of art.” In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe emphasized the conscious method of trial and error:
Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders and demon-traps—the cock’s leathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
Here Poe is giving enormous preference—and theatrical privilege—to the nature of reason in the creative process.
But there is something else. It may be true that the poet is given only a single line but that line is nonetheless a gift from the unconscious, a hunch, an intuition, and a perception. The poet is one who often thinks by feeling. Remember the famous Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) and Paul Valéry’s useful variation on Descartes, “Sometimes I think; and sometimes I am” (Analects). Inspiration is in-breathing, indwelling, and poetry can never be entirely willed—as Plato knew. It is often connected to passion, to mania, to childlike play, to the unconscious itself. Poets have always known they are trying to invoke for us something that can’t be entirely controlled. This is the necessary touch of madness that Plato made so much of, the freedom that terrified him. Here is Socrates in the dialogue Phaedrus:
There is a third form of possession or madness, of which the Muses are the source. This seizes a tender, virgin soul and stimulates it to rapt passionate expression, especially in lyric poetry, glorifying the countless mighty deeds of ancient times for the instruction of posterity. But if any man comes to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to nought by the poetry of madness, and behold, their place is nowhere to be found.
In this view poetry is dangerous. It is allied closely to madness and is not entirely at the dispensation of the poet’s conscious will or intellect. “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will,” Shelley writes in his romantic defense of poetry:
A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.
Whoever calls out “Help me, O Heavenly Muse,” advertises a dependence on a force beyond the intellect. In general, the fierce power that sometimes comes through the work of the great poets of reason, from Samuel Johnson to Louise Bogan and J.V. Cunningham, comes from the deep undertow of the demoniacal that is fended off by the conscious activity of making. Visionary poets welcome the wind of madness—I think of Rimbaud and Shelley, of Hart Crane and Federico García Lorca—but part of their power comes from the fact that the sudden illumination is what the mathematician Henri Poincaré calls “a manifest sign of long, unconscious inner work,” and that the wind is shaped to the exigencies of form. I have always liked the dictum of the baroque Jesuit poet Tommaso Ceva that poetry is “a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”
The poet would call the muse “Laura” or “Beatrice,” the poet would name her “Mnemosyne” (personification of memory) or “Clio” (muse of history). The poet would borrow Freud’s notion of the “uncanny,” the unconscious, or Jung’s collective unconscious, or Jacques Maritain’s idea of creative intuition. The older poet advises the younger poet: mystery abides. So W.S. Merwin, for example, remembers his teacher John Berryman giving him advice in the years just after the Second World War:
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
Berryman also said that
the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
A transfiguring passion. A force beyond the confines of the conscious self.
There is no true poetry without conscious craft, absorbed attention, absolute concentration. There is no true poetry without unconscious invention. The reader, too, enters into the relationship between the controlled and the uncontrollable aspects of the art. Shelley says that “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.” The poem is a genie that comes out of the bottle to liberate the reader’s imagination, the divinity within. The writer and the reader make meaning together. The poet who calls on help from the heavenly muse also does so on behalf of the imaginative reader.
Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his...