Article for Students

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.

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Originally Published: January 23rd, 2006

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...

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  1. June 29, 2007
     M. Kei

    Poetry is nothing more or less than
    the manifestation of a spirit in the
    material world. So are all the arts. To
    worship the madness of creativity is to
    divorce ourselves from the spirit,
    building a great wall between
    ourselves and spirituality, a wall which
    can only be pierced by an act of self-
    mutilation, for the wall exists within
    ourselves and nowhere else. How
    much better to never build the wall to
    begin with! Let us tear down the false
    idea that a poet is something outside
    of the ordinary and that poetry is set
    apart from real life, and instead open
    our six senses to fully experience our
    own lives. Then, if we choose, we can
    undertake the apprenticeship of words
    necessary to write it down. --M. Kei,
    author, Heron Sea, Short Poems of
    the Chesapeake Bay

  2. June 18, 2008
     Charlie W

    Perhaps for some "Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man" but for me poetry seems to give vent to the wildness lurking within me. Poetry is risk-taking and my poems sometimes scare the hell out of me.

  3. November 21, 2008
     Jordan Dodderer

    "Help Me, Oh Heavenly Muse: Poetry, behind the scenes." I love this article. It is like a VH1 behind the scenes special: The Making of... "lyric poetry." It really is a genius perception. Beautiful lyric poetry is not innate to anyone. First it takes skill. However, skill alone is not enough to make it. You can not merely be good at your craft and think that something you force out will be genius. To possess the true magic of poetry a poet has to have inspiration: a muse. The muse may come in any form, but it is this chance happening, this inspiration that catches the eye and sparks the mind tht is the true power behind great poetry. Hirsch then goes back and acknowledges that the muse alone is not enough. The poet must hone their craft as well. It is the beautiful balance: the yin and yang. Like any other art form, where inspiration and technique meet, magic is born.

  4. November 21, 2008

    I love this article also. I agree with Jordan that poets must be able to create inspiration, there are poets who are capable of it and some that struggle. The inspiration is what sparks that need to read the poem and feel the strong connection. The poet can't be successful just with their power of creating inspiration they have to be able to enpower the words and link them in order to emphasize the inspiration.

  5. November 21, 2008
     Candace :)

    When a poem is written, it is impossible to know what another person will take from it. Will they understand what you are trying to say or where you are coming from? Will they be able to connect the same way you expect them to? Someone might learn something from your poem that wasn't even intended, and that is the unconsious. Whenever I write a poem I usually base it on my own experiences in life or something that I feel especially strong for, this being my conscious thought. When someone else reads it they may base it to their own lives and own experiences which may affect them in a way I never expected. I'm surely not a poet, but I love to write poetry and from reflecting on the different poem assignments I've had over the years, and therefore I do believe in Hirsch's statement, "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 . . . . "

  6. November 21, 2008

    D.E. Clarke puts forth a very intriguing question: how is a poet made?

    Are poets made, or are poets born? Can a person, previously a truly dreadful writer, take up a pen one day and suddenly become a poet? I think not. Some people have a talent for art, others for music, and still others for athletics. The ability to write is one of these talents, and without that natural ability, a person can never truly become a great poet. Therefore, I disagree with Clarke's statement that "all men are capable of experiencing the divine," which is disproved by the very fact that all men (and women) are not poets. As Shelley says, “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man." This indicates that the "divinity" may only be achieved through poetry. Only a select few are permitted "visitations" of this divinity, this muse. At the risk of sounding fantastical, poets are, in as sense, the bridge between our world and a divine world, which may be, as Hirsch says, the subconscious or the collective unconscious, or it may be something altogether different.

  7. November 24, 2008

    I agree completely. This is an awesome thought. One I have wondered about it ever since I first began taking english classes. I believe that as our teachers point out each symbol, figurative language, or theme, it is not possible that the author or poet intentionally wrote all of those. I think it is about 50/50. 50% of what we later study was intentional, and 50% unintentional. Also, I agree that each percent, the intentional and unintentional are necessary to make a novel or poem what it is.