Monday, May 05, 2008

The Muse today?

Song of a Reformed Head Hunter features an interesting article by Clive Wilmer on his blog. The article relates to Thom Gunn and his concept of “Muse”. And indirectly, this question: Is the Muse necessarily female/feminine?

It is unfortunate that the source of inspiration has become such an uninspiring idea in modern poetry. (Look here for an example. Not so much an agent of divine breath as a zombie bringing dead thoughts to life). The Muse has largely passed into the realms of dead metaphor, but why?

Clive Wilmer’s article points out one key relationship for Gunn: son-mother. Gunn went as far as to change his name by deed-poll to acknowledge that bond. This early photo of Gunn also captures that intense bond. Though, in a somewhat staged manner, Ander Gunn looks up in adoration, it is the older Thom who stands affirmatively at his mother’s right hand.


A poem from Passages of Joy (1982), “Expressions”, sees Gunn, the mature poet, reflecting on the “black irony” of his students. (They write with ease about suicide…Gunn would not write about his mother’s until near to his death). It is no accident that Gunn turns away from their “very poetic poetry” to a different inspiration: an Italian painting of Virgin and Child. The implied Muse, for Gunn, is the Mother-Son bond, the eternal Feminine, as Clive Wilmer recalls Gunn saying:

"I used to believe my muse was male: but I've come to realize that [Robert] Graves is right, that the muse has to be female. The Goddess is a mother, not a wife or a lover. The feminine principle is the source and I think it dominates in male artists whether homo- or heterosexual."

The Muse of Robert Graves is, of course, The White Goddess, known as Alphito to the Greeks, Cardea to the Romans and Arianrhod to the Celts. And answering her, as Graves phrases it, demands that the poet finds

“inner communion with The White Goddess, regarded as the source of truth…The White-Goddess is anti-domestic, she is the perpetual “other woman”, and her part is difficult indeed for a woman of sensibility to play for more than a few years, because the temptation to commit suicide in simple domesticity lurks in… every muse’s heart.”
Perhaps, those words informed Gunn’s acceptance of Graves’ poetic dogma: had a biographical ring-of-truth. If so, the Oedipal myth, so often blamed for “gayness”, the over-feminising of a male child by an over-bearing mother, is here recast as a positive psychological source.

Throughout his tour of poetic myth, which includes some fifteen detailed references to the origins of the Muse, Graves finds little to suggest that the Muse might be otherwise than history records. The Muse, for him, is clearly a lunar principle born alongside poetry in the matriarchal past.

But must it be so? After all, he is an archaeologist of myth finding what he desires to find.

Traditionally, the Poet-Muse relationship is a heterosexual conception. In alchemy, it is paralleled by the transference whereby the subconscious elements of one person transfer to another. Invariably, this is seen as a male-female/brother-female relationship in which the male is opened to the dark world of the Anima (the Moon-woman). There are no extensive accounts of “homosexual” alchemy, any awareness that this paradigm might be different. Male-to-male projections do occur, however, frighteningly so, yet the Jungian model does not shift its image base. The argument would seem to be that whether heterosexual or homosexual the male lover must respond to subconscious elements that invert his gender: so, the male lover’s subconscious (his Muse) always takes female form, is the Lunar, Feminine Principle to his Solar, Masculine Principle. Yet, this does not seem to fit with the root of the projection…which is an erotic drive. Yes, with the heterosexual male, Aphrodite is a likely image for the subconscious to assume. But with the gay male?

Writing a poem is a kind of “spiritual pregnancy”, as the Jungian therapist, Nor Hall puts it in The Moon and The Virgin (a truly wonderful book on identity, culture and poetic myth). The poem is born out of the male as much as the female. And the music that accompanies that birth, the musing on words, the museum of images, take a per(verse) form, do not simply replicate heterosexual culture and traditional forms of representation.

Graves felt that the Muse had died in modern poetry because poets wanted “her” to be a real person, a wife and lover to them, a power indistinguishable from the real person they married (or partnered). There is some truth in that statement. Hence, the prevalence of so much sickening love poetry that only achieves greeting card sentiments. It is equally true, however, that the Muse has died because too many poets continue to be unquestioning about their sources of inspiration.

17 comments:

Id it is said...

"the Muse had died in modern poetry"... perhaps because it never existed except as a convenient crutch for an an apathetic writer feigning a refined sensibility?

Ones passion is what comes closest to what is often termed a 'muse'; overwhelming emotion within that spontaneously overflows in words that captivate. That does imply that everyone has a muse, but that in some it lacks either the energy to overflow, and/ or it is self conscious and contains its spontaniety; the likes of these hang out at Poetbay, hehe

Interesting write eshu.

Eshuneutics said...

Ah...I think that the Muse did exist with say, Milton, in the sense of subconscious inspiration for Paradise Lost: "Sing, Heavenly Muse". As for the Muse in the early poetry, she seems to be little more than a conceit. Passion/a nexus of emotion is probably what I would name "Muse", like you...often from an erotic source. Then, there is poetry which originates in the non-human, a landscape. Hopkin's inscape, the presence of the divine within natural form is another variety of Muse.

Id it is said...

'poetry which originates in the non-human, a landscape' ...the non human is perhaps the stimulus (muse) for the low lying passion which if sufficiently revved could convert into poetic outpourings...

Could poetry be written sans the passion?

Eshuneutics said...

"simple, sensuous and passionate"...Milton?...a lot of poetry is written today without passion, I fear. :-)

AlooFar said...

Yes. Lots of poetry today without passion.

Hi.

Unsane said...

The muse in Marechera's Throne of Bayonets appears to be the new Zimbabwe nation.

Eshuneutics said...

aloofar: many have passed on passion-- for some reason, my blog did not indicate a new comment, sorry for not reponding. I see your poem stirred up a legion of locusts!

unase: thanks for the Marechera conference note. Now, would the new Zimbabwe nation be a "Motherland"? The political muse?
I had forgotten this (important) dimension.

Unsane said...

The Zimbabwe nation is a reprobrate female to whom the author cannot communicate his concern:

And few the luminous seasons in her eyes
Which to sheer adoration toss grudgingly
Bits of psychological speculation
Bits of political condemnation


--The author is the subject of those last two lines.

Eshuneutics said...

Thanks! Indeed.

Id it is said...

Haven't posted in a while...

Eshuneutics said...

Trying to get around to it...

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, eshun, for the interesting post. I have not read Graves, and so am happy to learn some shiny things from your post. I think he's right when he conjectures that we kill the Muse when we try to domesticate him/her. The poet has at least two lovers: one on earth, and one in heaven.

How incredibly hard it is to think past, through, the dominant heterosexual representation of poet-Muse. That representation is not a single thing, but a network of mutually reinforcing metaphors. The powerful idea of "spiritual pregnancy," for instance, which of course implies the sterility of male-male eroticism. Even Whitman, the strong bard, imagines spilling his seed into Mother Earth. When he imagines male eroticism, his main trope is comradeship. For the gay male poet, the return to the male body figures death, and not regeneration. I don't mean to say the gay male poet should throw up his hands in despair, but I do think we need to try to grasp the complexity of the problem.

Eshuneutics said...

Hi, Jee Leong. Couldn't agree more. The Muse is a strange deity. I have been puzzling Milton-- the homoeroticism in his early work is married to a convential muse...except in Il Penseroso, a very strange conception indeed if people read carefully. It is interesting how the negation of heterosexual, Cavalier lust becomes a Puritan love starving for a fiery union: a Platonic heavenly love!

Id it is said...

Haven't posted in a while; Euro Cup keeping you busy...?

Christopher Hennessy said...

Hey -- just wanted to pop by and say hello and thanks for the recent comment. It's great to know folks are still hanging on. As for books to read, I feel I am woefully and forever behind in reading. Frankly, I sometimes think I am just downright lazy. Your blog suggests you, my friend, are a reader extraordinaire.

Eshuneutics said...

Iditis...the Euro Cup...a good joke ;-) Now there is no England, people are being encouraged to support other teams-- especially sexy ones. Guess this is what happens when a nation can't bang the patriarchical drum.

CH...always good to hear from you. Give me a book and a cave. I think I could be happy with a hermit's life.

Onyeka Nwelue said...

I'm glad you are back to blogging. How's it going? Being a while. Well, nice post you have here and hope to read more from you.

Cheers,

ON