The shenanigans of Eros aren’t unrelated to the comings and goings of the Muse. We know in a thousand different ways the upending power of desire, but the link between desire and inspiration is not always self-evident. The poet Robert Graves wrote a long treatise on the Muse, called The White Goddess. It’s among the strangest books ever written. In one of his more straightforward passages, Graves writes that, “poetry is rooted in love, and love in desire, and desire in the hope of continued existence.” This is a kind of poet-friendly, procreative Platonism. Graves equates poetry with our wish not to die, and in the middle of his equation are desire and love, but desire comes first. Plato would probably have agreed with Graves here.
Physical beauty arouses our desire because of the excellence inherent in it. (Sexual orientation in this regard is irrelevant.) Our desire to get close to carnal excellence puts us on a path, so Plato’s theory goes, toward higher forms of excellence—ethical, intellectual, spiritual. When confronted with uncommon beauty, a male asks, how good a man must I be to be worthy of this excellence? What must I do, how hard must I work, what must I believe in, how must I conduct my life? But it all begins in the beer hall of the physical. Plato, the philosopher, moves upward from Eros toward the sublime. Graves, the poet, lingers with Eros back on the footpaths of the earth, among the trees and birds. But Eros, in both cases, is the starting point.
How do we talk about Eros? And how do we talk about the actions of the Muse? The words and phrases that describe the erotic happen to be the same that apply to poetic inspiration: pleasure, a deep satisfaction, mystery, unknowing, a chance encounter, the unpredictable, a letting go, a giving over, a giving into, a reception, a forgetting of the self, and the getting of a gift.
The points of correspondence, I hope, are clear. When the Muse enters your room, you obey. You are filled with an uncanny sense of abundance. You give in and over, abandoning the internal regulators. If things go well, you’re left with the feeling of having been touched inside and inevitably by… an angel or a succubus! For a poet, the result is the same.
The problem, though, is that the Muse is transitory. Poets want her to stay, but she doesn’t. It’s in her nature to come and to go. When she comes, you are grateful, and you work as best you can to satisfy her. When she leaves, you try to call her back. You try through futile stratagems to persuade her to return. But gifts and pleadings mean nothing to the Muse. When she wants to come back, if she does, she will. It’s the poet’s task to be alert, trained, and ready.
To talk about the Muse is to talk about where poems come from, and how. They come to us from people, places, ideas, things, sensations, experiences, memories, the dead, and our own intense emotions. Then we ask how they come. Usually, a part comes first, like an image or a phrase or a rhyme. But then what? We have to work this little gift up into a complete, coherent, pleasing unit—a poem. In doing so, we learn to distinguish between the words we intend to put down on the page and those words and phrases and swerves in logic that come to us in the struggle of composition, from elsewhere. As we labor and sweat in the hothouse of the act, the Muse sometimes comes to help us turn a phrase, find a metaphor, or make a discovery for the poem that we had not foreseen. Is this a magical visitation, or is it merely a loosening-up and freeing-up of the mind under the stress of composition, during which the poet, fatigued and despairing, unintentionally lets down the internal controls and opens up, in exhaustion, to other possibilities as the only way to keep the poem alive? Whatever you call it, the result is the same: ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. The Muse lives elsewhere and comes from thence when she wants to. And Eros? He too arrives from elsewhere and presides in unexpected ways. In these acts of play, be they compositional or erotic, we cede some control, acknowledge the primacy of the senses, and lose ourselves for a while in pleasure.