I used to think of poems as gifts. When I first started writing, I found that it helped to envisage myself as the giver-poet, and the intended recipient as my muse. How do I love thee? Let’s see: I love your eyes, your smile, your greying hair; I love being a hairdresser’s daughter, a sister, a fledgling poet. When I won a competition with one of my poems, written for my sister Anna, I gave an interview in which I explained that I wrote for others. I liked the domestic stuff, the small moments, the truth behind things. I loved to be gentle and delicate and precise with my rhythms. I was interested in sound; I used to take a line for a walk most days, and repeat it in my head until it became a poem. A lot of my early poems reflect this. They have been described as sweet.
Things have changed. I’m still sweet, and I’m still interested in domestic spaces and relationships, but a shift has taken place. I’m no longer writing for other people. I’m writing for myself. I’m no longer in search of a muse – hell, I’ve discovered that my idea of the muse was actually more Romantic than Classical.
You see, the Classical conception of the Muse is far more empowering for women than the passive vessel for inspiration envisaged in Romantic poetry. For the Romantic poets (the likes of Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc) the Muse is a beautiful woman that the poet takes possession of, drawing from her the poetry already present within himself. Elisabeth Bronfen writes about this in her book Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. ‘[R]eanimated,’ Bronfen writes, ‘the beloved muse is under the poet’s control and that with her body obliterated in the course of such a translation into a trope she serves as an emblem for his projections’ (p. 365). According to Bronfen, in the 18th and 19th centuries the act of poetic conception becomes one of possession. Romantic constructions of the muse suggest that the poet not only ‘sucks’ the inspiration out of her, but that both it and she were his to begin with. This violent obliteration of the muse’s body – the means by which she confers divine inspiration and poetry – suggests that the female body itself is a site of poetic struggle. The Romantic male poet dismembers his muse and then ‘reanimate[s]’ her. He’s a bit of a vampire.
But in Ancient Greek poetry, the Muses spoke or sang through the poet. Hesiod, for instance, introduces the Muses in his Theogony as the divine voices of art:
The ready-spoken daughters of great Zeus had this to say,
And gave me a staff that they had plucked, a branch of flowering bay,
A wondrous thing! and breathed a god-inspired voice in me,
That I might celebrate the things that were and that shall be;
And bade me hymn the race of those who always are, the blessed,
But make my song be always of themselves, both first and last. (ll. 29-34)
To my mind, this portrait is far more interesting. According to Hesiod, the Muses are ‘ready-spoken’, with a lot to say. Their relationship with the poet is both divine and intimate; the Muses’ unified ‘voice’ is ‘breathed’ into the poet. Indeed, if you look up the verb ‘inspire’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, it means ‘to breathe’ and ‘to animate’. The Muses’ mouths approach the poet’s in a divine kiss, intended to make him celebrate the past, present, and the gods – but ‘always’ too, ‘themselves’. This suggests that the Muses are powerful speakers and that the poet is a mere vessel for the poetry which both belongs to them and is about them, from beginning to end.
The notion that poetic inspiration is both air and liquid, ‘breathed’ in and absorbed through the mouth, resonates interestingly with the idea that the poet could be a vampire. Hesiod writes that the Muses ‘pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and then the words will stream/ Out of his mouth like honey, and people will look to him’ (ll. 83-84). The substance of poetry then, is sweet and organic. It’s ambrosial, like the custard. And the Muses use it to animate the Poet’s creative power so that he may in turn, reanimate them. The exchange of poetic fluid is mutual, with the power balance weighted towards the Muse.
So, if I was writing for others, how could I be caught up on the Romantic vampire poet? Surely, this idea of the poet is a selfish one?
When I began writing, I think I was probably well aware that I was mining experiences, people and bodies for inspiration. I had my muses, and I was going to drink them for all they were worth. Only, not quite. I have plenty of draft poems that I didn’t quite see through to the end. When you write for others, guilt comes in. You want them to like it. Sometimes you don’t listen to the poem when it’s telling you ‘Come over here! You want to paint him as a prick, not a saint – it will make for better poetry!’ because you’re afraid of what it says about you and your relationship. You blood-sucking, backstabbing poet, you.
Ironically, it becomes increasingly difficult to use the lyric ‘I’. I found that I was using ‘you’ a lot. You are lovely, difficult, charming. You are mad. You are driving me mad. Scrap that last bit. I don’t want to hurt any feelings.
When I found out about the classical idea of the Muse/Poet relationship, it seemed to me to be more appropriate as a way of thinking about inspiration. So the Muse is still there, but she’s singing. You have a dialogue with her. You’re not afraid to write about her, as you know she’ll have the last word anyway. Hell, she’s not really there; you made her up, didn’t you. She is you. Write for yourself.
Old habits die hard, but I think you’ll agree that this one is less of a gift than it seems:
about one of your features, perhaps
Your eyes are blue as a match-day sky.
Or your hands;
My love, I’ll warn you:
poets are sly;
this gift would unwrap you
with a piece missing.
You have a beard,
two tattoos, a cat called Brian.
You like chequered shirts
like picnic blankets.
I’ll open you there, trace
cup your bearded jaw
in my palms while Brian looks on
and your fingers perform
on the arch of his back.
What can I say? I’m lost, I love
your missing piece, the part I love like
the part I love
where your hair recedes
as it shows me more of you,
is showing me more of you,
more than this poem,
more than I know.
Originally published in Cheval 6.