More Damn Muses, But These are the BEST


So all this talk about Xena has made me realize that I know damn little about ancient Greece, and given that one of my friends actually teaches high school Latin and Greek (in 2015. I know.), I figure I should fix this grave lacuna in my knowledge. So I started messing about online, figuring that the interwebs would point me in the right direction. After getting sidetracked by a statue of Aphrodite having a bad hair day, I got down to business and found a translation of the The Theogony of Hesiod (Greek, ~700 BCE) translated by Hugh G. Evelyn White in 1914. And who do you think he starts out talking about?

(ll. 26-28) `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

(ll. 29-35) So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. But why all this about oak or stone? (2)

(ll. 36-52) Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the homes of the immortals. And they uttering their immortal voice, celebrate in song first of all the reverend race of the gods from the beginning, those whom Earth and wide Heaven begot, and the gods sprung of these, givers of good things. Then, next, the goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin and end their strain, how much he is the most excellent among the gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men and strong giants, and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus, — the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.

Now aside from the fact that this is just awful darn pretty, it is still making out poets to be mouthpieces who just channel the Muses while the girls do the work. This old hat formula has, as I have asserted before, had a negative affect on wanna be poets who don’t get that writing is work.

Although, now that I think of it, this is the first hat…

“The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon” by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807).

Muses I Have Known and Written… Part 2


One thing that impresses me about my yoga teacher, Erica, is how, after we move into that final, fetal position, she always talks about how to use our practice in our busy lives. “The goal is to take the way you feel right now out into the world,” she might say, so that when we get overwhelmed we can call that feeling up and get back into a quiet place mentally and emotionally. We bow to each other at the end of practice, and return to the hectic pace of our “normal” lives like infants tugged from the womb into the cold harsh world against which we have no defenses.

Another time she said, “It’s a fact that the bad things that happen to us are like missiles that travel further than the good things. And that’s okay, because that’s the body trying to protect us from danger. But we need to bring our mind to reassure the body that it’s going to be okay. And that takes practice.” I was stunned, since this exactly explained the pain of a friend of mine who pretty much had been mentally abused by some professors when she was studying for her PhD and has had great difficulty with her writing process ever since, because those years taught her self-doubt to a crippling degree. I repeated the words to myself silently so that I could share them with her. At first I was surprised by the deep wisdom of a woman who is only maybe twenty-eight years old. Then I remembered some things I had said at that age, advice I’d given friends, unexpected insights that I blurted out in my grad school classes. Wisdom is often a byproduct of age, but there is nothing to say that it cannot also be a byproduct of the freshness of youth.

After attending Erica’s classes for three months, I tried to write an essay about the experience, but that didn’t work. Then I wrote the following poem, which I didn’t really like and quickly scrapped:

The Yoga Teacher (v 1.0)

I grew up with a father, brother

God, enthroned holding a rod

In one hand, a shepherd’s crook

In the other, like Aten, gilded,

A pharaoh god to rule both lands

By day. I always thought the spirit

Who flew between them should not

Be a dove, to coo helplessly at war

And devastation, but an owl,

Hunter by night, embodied spirit, holy

To Athena. You remind me of her now,

A grey-eyed goddess, a long dark line

Flowing smoothly into the next posture:

A warrior, ready to throw her spear

Straight through the enemy hordes,

Defeating their violence the hard way

With sweat and strength, and a calm

Eye that knows how to aim true, facing

The uproar outside herself and that within,

Knowing the poetry of long, patient practice.

The problem is that the first part starts so far away from the second part, which is the whole point of the poem. Erica’s tan skin and grey eyes and her powerful Warrior Two posture reminded me of Athena, who Homer always called the grey-eyed goddess. And since my second Masters degree is in Christian theology, I thought I had to start from the God I actually believe in before I could start talking about a Goddess I think is really cool and strong. And although the imagery in the second stanza works, it just seems weird to go from Hebrew to Egyptian to Greek religion just to talk about an Italian American teacher of an Indian practice! I was pushing it, trying to force the connection.

Note to self: that almost never works.

Muses and Other Mythic Beasts: A Short Rant

Budding writers and poets sometimes talk about the muse, most often to complain about her absence. Although the urge to write can feel uncontrollable at times, I think the greater urge is not to write but to have written, to have a physical ream of paper with lots and lots of words, that you can wave around (literally or metaphorically) and say, “I did this!” And if more folks actually acted on that desire, then the Library of Congress would have to be a hundred times bigger. But mostly they don’t and in my professional opinion, based on working at the MIT Writing Center for almost twenty years, there is a really good reason why they don’t: writing is hard.

It is hard for students and professionals, for people who don’t think of themselves as “Writers” and for people who do. The difference is that experienced writers don’t sit around waiting for the Muse to show up with a big lantern to light their brains up with shiny ideas and pretty words. Experienced writers bitch and moan like everybody else, but then they sit down and write. Butt to chair is the only way, as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) has clearly shown. (Google it if you don’t know. If I stop to explain it to you, I will get distracted and never finish my idea.)

I once wrote a poem titled “There Is No Muse” for a poetry reading at which I was going to be reading beside three poets whom I knew were going to read poems about the muse. They all did. Possibly not coincidentally, they were all male. Not sure what that’s about.

The Greeks believed in the Muses (three or four or nine, depending on which writer you look at) mainly to explain poetic, artistic and scientific inspiration, because let’s face it, it is pretty awesome when it happens to you. Divine spark? Nice way to wrap our brains around something that is pretty mysterious. Just don’t use it for an excuse not to do the work.

Humans believe in a lot of strange things, when you get down to it. Some of them we have let go of over the centuries. Take the unicorn, drawn to virgins, especially female virgins, the beloved objects of patriarchal desire and control. Teddy bears protect children with the ancient spirit of the bear. Most people in the modern world don’t believe in unicorns anymore. It is much harder to stop believing in teddy bears. Maybe the muse should be left somewhere in between those two.

I will leave you with a video that explains why I still kinda believe in teddy bears: