Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sing in me, Muse

When embarking on a creative project, I often think of the Greeks, who thought it was always a good idea to invoke the muse, or creative spirit.
    Homer's Odyssey is a famous example. At the very beginning, the author invokes the muse of poetry, "daughter of Zeus".  In Robert Fitzgerald's version, he prays, “Through me tell the story." In the more recent Robert Fagles translation, he says,

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy. 

The Odyssey is the tale of a wanderer, a “man of many ways” (polytropos) who was “harried for years on end” after he plundered the sacred places of Troy. His homecoming was delayed, within sight of Ithaca, when his men killed and feasted on the sacred cattle of the sun. We read in this that we must do the work for a higher purpose than filling our bellies. The key thing is to call in the larger power. In the Fitzgerald version:

Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
Tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

Perhaps the Homeric invocation, borrowing the Fitzgerald version, could be simplified as follows:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story.
Tell us in our time, lift the great song again. [Odyssey I, lines 1 & 18]

Note that the Muse here (mousa) is not yet job-specific; the early Greeks did not divide up musing functions between the nine nymphs familiar to the Renaissance. At the oldest level of the Muse cult, there appear to have been three, not nine, Muses.
    Pausanias, greatest of ancient travel guides, preserves a tradition of two generations of Muses; the first were daughters of Uranus and Gaia, the second of Zeus and Mnemosyine. He named the three primal Muses as Melete (Practise), Aiode (Song), and Mneme (Memory). In both versions, as mother goddess (Mnemosyne) or as muse (Mneme), Memory is a primary force in creation.
    This inspires me to remember to call on a greater power - call it muse or creative spirit or daimon - to favor and help in creative work. To do this well, we can't just borrow old words, however grand, from a dead poet, even if he stands above almost all the others in the ranks of the Dead Poets Society. We must come up with fresh words to entertain and engage those greater powers.
    Before writing my most recent book, The Boy Who Died and Came Back, I wrote an invocation, clearly influenced by the way Homer addressed his Muse, but fresh and original and true to the new material. Indeed, this poetic "Offering" became a plan for the whole book:


Sing in me, creative spirit
of the boy who died and came back
and the man who flew through the black sun
and returned to walk the roads of this world
as the envoy of a deeper world;
and of how (being human)
he falls down and gets up, over and over,
forgets and remembers,
remembers and forgets.

Let me explain through his story
how the world is a playground, not a prison
when we awaken to the game behind the games.
Let this story help those who read it
to find their bigger and braver stories
and live them, and tell them well enough
to entertain the spirits,
win the indulgence of the gods
and bring through effortless healing.

   On the way to writing my current book, I wrote a poem as an initial offering to my creative spirit. For now, that is between me and the Muse. If you have a creative venture in mind, you might want to consider finding your own words to invite the participation of your own creative spirits.

 Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's vision of Mnemosyne.

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