"Poetic Inspiration: A Failed Attempt at Disrobing the Muse"
By Jane Ellen Glasser
When I was seven my favorite toy was my Magic 8 Ball. All I had to do was pose a question and fate would float up through a black ocean on white slips. Writing poetry is sometimes like that for me. Whereas typically I start with a germinal idea and then invoke discipline to figure out what the poem is trying to say, sometimes lines simply arrive, fully formed and golden. In Classical times inspiration was attributed to the personified nine Muses. With Calliope, Erato or Euterpe’s mouth pressed to their ear, poets became a vessel for delivering another’s creation, surrogate mothers of sorts. Today, centuries later, the mystery remains. A seed planted in the unconscious germinates in the dark until impelled by a Gnostic sun it breaks through into consciousness. But that merely exchanges one metaphor for another.
Writing poetry is my practice. I have been practicing for fifty-some years. If I had recorded
only divine dictation, I would barely have a chapbook. I write when I am inspired and I discipline myself to write when I am not inspired. Sometimes it is through the process of beginning somewhere, anywhere, that lines may start to ignite, taking the poem in a direction I had not anticipated. I have to work not to control the poem’s content and form in a first draft. Many revisions later, if I’m lucky, I have something worth sharing.
On a rare occasion, however, a poem arrives like childbirth without labor, all its parts perfect and in place. In 1979 this gift was titled “June Birds.” I was thirty-five at the time, raising two young daughters by myself, completing a graduate degree, when an incident at my home sparked a poem that seemed to leap out of the future like a promise. I had begun thinking of my subject narrowly as birds, drunk on mulberries and disoriented by seeing the landscape reflected on glass, fisting into my windows. By the time I reached the closing stanzas I discovered I had written a quite different poem.
Daft by the berries’ wine, June days
they said blind. Lured by the bird
that blooms on a pane of glass,
like the body’s echo
soaring back into itself,
they break whole on impact.
Loving you is like that.
“June Birds” was conspicuously better, in development and form, than anything the previous years had written, and it had required little more than transcribing what floated up in my mind, those white slips.
Eleven years later, the poem “The Egret” wrote itself in one brief sitting, capturing a frequent visitor to the cove in my back yard. Arriving like the bird itself, out of a blue nowhere, on a fishing expedition, which most good writing is, the lines spurned tinkering and revision. The poem began with the image of the egret standing in the river above his reflection, the two shapes “like loosely seamed/ halves of a heart.” And then, without my conscious intent, the poem took off; the beak breaking water to skewer a fish became a kiss, “stabbing at love/ to swallow death!” The closing lines were like gifts washed ashore by an unseen tide, showing me that my best work often comes when I seem to be doing nothing.
How we die
to love ourselves
through each other,
a desperate applause
of clapping flesh
that leaves us
like, now, the egret
who rises, who drowns.
Recently another poem arrived as if by divine dictation with the earmarks of effortlessness and wholeness, outshining its contemporaries. “The Death of the Poet Li Po” was inspired by an article I had read on the strange deaths of writers: Aeschylus perished when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head, Sherwood Anderson was undone by a toothpick in a martini, and Tennessee Williams choked on the cap of a bottle of eye drops. But it was Li Po, the great poet of the Tang Dynasty, whose death captured my imagination. This poem was particularly remarkable as without struggling for rhyme and meter it arrived in sonnet form to depict a tipsy Li Po at sea, aching to embrace the reflection of the moon on the river. “Leaning out over the gunwale/ he toasted his image, which lay now beside/ the moon’s face, and drank again.”
He could not deny himself. He reached and reached
Until the river opened its mouth and drank him.
The boat was lost in the blackness. The beach
was miles away. This was Li Po’s last line.
Some say it was the moon. Some say it was the wine.
Ironically, all three poems pair love and death, the love of another or the love of beauty somehow implicating the death of self. And isn’t it often the case that in writing poetry, we must hush the ego and listen for deeper soundings, the murmurings of what, lacking another name, we call the Muse. Perhaps she is the god we aspire to be, napping like a cat much of the time, watching us sweat over sorry drafts, occasionally taking pity on us.
Jane Ellen Glasser's poetry has appeared in such journals as Hudson Review, Southern Review, and Georgia Review. Her first book, Naming the Darkness, was followed by Light Persists, which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry 2005. On the Corner of Yesterday appeared in 2010 from Pudding House Publications, and The Long Life, published in 2011, was the winner of the Poetica Publishing Company Chapbook Award. Her books are available on Amazon or from her directly: email@example.com.