Calling the Muse

Sing in me muse, and through me tell the story…

So began the first translation, by Robert Fitzgerald, of The Odyssey that I read. Later, I taught another translation, by Robert Fagles, that began:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…

More recently, Emily Wilson offered this:

Tell me about a complicated man,/ Muse…

No matter the translation or framing of the tale and Odysseus, the poet turns to the muse to provide the story and the song. It seems like a quaint notion. These days we mine our lives for the sources of stories.

Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, claimed that all the impossible elements of One Hundred Years of Solitude were true. His memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, reads like a revelation, and it makes all that seemed strange in his novel strangely normal—at least for that time and place. Of course, Marquez famously recounts the genesis of that novel—he was headed away on vacation with his family when he realized that the voice of the book was the voice of his grandmother telling incredible stories in the most matter-of-fact voice. He turned the car around and started the work that would define him as a writer. His grandmother was, in a way, his muse.

Why do writers have muses—things, people, animals—outside of themselves to give their work a nearly mystical, almost divine impetus? The writer faces inward and outward tidal forces. A writer works the tension between the inner voice—the thing that writes—and the outer world—what she or he writes about. Writers attempt to portray the outer world, even if it is a fantastic and impossible world, truthfully, crafting a vivid continuous dream in words, crafting it with the inner voice.

Of course, what a writer makes is not the world: it is an approximation, a copy, a simulacrum, an aspiring reality that with a combination of skill and luck convinces the reader. Or hoodwinks. I can never tell. Perhaps enchants. The writer makes a world, or something like a world, and populates it with minds and bodies, cities and mountains, oceans and sea monsters. Even if all these elements resemble something found in the real world—the world of the reader—each part comes from within the writer.

This act of creation is nearly divine. The writer is the maker of worlds. Even when Dickens charts London’s streets—we can locate Scrooge’s counting house and guess, fairly accurately, where his lonely lodgings were—they are shoved two inches to the left of the world we know. This London is not London. By creating a new world, the writer seeks to emulate the world that is, but also to replace it. For the time the reader enters the dream, it is a world that could be, not a world that is, and the dream reveals something particular, something full of twists and turns and complications.

While the writer uncovers the words that capture this world, she or he enters the world, and if the writer believes the words—and she must! he must!—then the inner world threatens to obliterate the outer one. After all, there is something about that outer world that the writer seeks to correct. The ghosts visit and Scrooge reforms—is literally made into someone new. This is the world that should be—where a miserly and selfish investor can become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

The writer sees what could be, like Cassandra, the unheeded prophet of myth. Some writers simply disgorge the terrible truth of what is, like an oracle who disdains both irony and hope. There is no redemption, just inexorable weight—think of the novels of Stephen Crane, or Gustave Flaubert. Their worlds may be imagined, but the imagined reality is cautionary: there is no escaping this gravity. Let me pause to say that dystopian fiction while cautionary, by making the possible reality so obviously awful, opens a kind of door to redemption: all this could be avoided. The realist, on the other hand, sees no way around the unbearable truth.

Either writer—redemptive or admonishing—seeks some anchor outside the work. By locating the inner voice in some external force, a muse, whether divine or closer at hand, the writer can dissociate from that other world. It isn’t in me! It comes from Erato, or my lover, or my cat, or the messages on the television. The muse is a hedge against being swallowed by that inner world. Madness is a double edged sword, and there is divine madness in writing. “Much madness is divinest Sense,” Emily Dickinson begins her poem. The muse keeps the madness at a distance.

I am not suggesting that writers are mad—that trope has little interest or value to me. Writers bear the weight of vision, and seek ways to allay that weight. Some retreat from the world—the noisiness of life interrupts the vision that animates their existence. Some bound into the world—seeking febrile connections to the world, and allowing all those connections to illuminate their visions. Some stop writing, and I believe that even then they suffer. I know so. Vision is persistent and obstinate.

Sing, sing, or tell. We seek a trick, a magic act, inspiration to crack through the hard shell, and once again, create and fly. A muse, or otherwise, a simple spell of words to open the way.

Back to the Forge: Learning from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I revisit texts—novels, stories, plays, and poems—with joy. They stand as mileposts, as reminders of the paths I have walked. I have not always enjoyed this journey, but it has been my journey. No one else has walked this path. I have never wanted it to end, even when the trails of my imagination have become untended and overrun with weeds, when it seemed too difficult a task to return to those paths, to follow where they led, to cut new ways into the wilderness.

The mileposts that speak loudest to me are those that recall not simply the distance but the method of travel. How many times have I dipped into Whitman to find a way I thought I had lost? Perhaps not enough. Or the more diminutive Dickinson, who reminds me of the power of possibility? I re-encounter Prospero every few years, not yet ready to cast my books of power into watery graves.

The first time I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was 20, a junior in college. I read it in one furious sitting, rushing as was the case in undergraduate school. The book shot through me—the sermons in the third chapter frightened me, and the ending befuddled me.  I had not written since the rhyming verse I attempted in high school. It would be a year before I started to cobble together my own stories.

I encountered it again when I was 28, and in my first year of graduate school. I wrote every day and was just learning to read by making connections—or rather, by freeing my mind to read as expansively as possible. I did not see a mirror in Stephen Dedalus, not yet, but I saw how Joyce was beginning to challenge the reader, and followed his challenge into Ulysses, and peered obliquely at Finnegan’s Wake. Reading Joyce intoxicated me—all the word play, all the allusions, all the swirl of events. This is how my brain worked, and I felt a kindred spirit at play in Joyce. Perhaps this was too great a burden to lift as a young writer—to think like Joyce, to aspire to something like his work, but I saw the path, at least one path. There were others, and I tested many.

The next time I was 41, and in my first high school teaching job. For whatever reason, my writing had slowed. The difficulties I encountered in my work made me doubt every word I wrote—and even every word I read—which made reading more distant and difficult. I could read a novel as a collection of themes and ideas, which made for fine if programmatic teaching, but the hearts of the works did not beat with the same sense of connection. I felt hollow. I read Portrait as a kind of roadmap for one man’s feelings about Ireland, faith, men, and women. I nodded toward his art but felt closed off from that part of Stephen’s story. I knew it was there—I sensed it—which made the experience strangely worse. This is what you should be doing, the book chided.

I spent several years away from my life’s work. I wrote here and there—stories for kids, sermons, and—in fits and starts—this blog. I suffered for it, as, I am sure, did those around me. I am not a man who can be what he is not and put on the trappings of happiness. “Fake it until you make it,” may work for some, but I need connection—not simply interpersonal or romantic connection, but to the universe, to some deep unconscious thrum that turns words into flesh and flesh into a play of bright and dark and dense presence. While I started to craft a life that combined the spiritual threads I would need to reconnect me to that seen and unseen world, it wasn’t until I started writing daily that my words found the old (new) purpose. Over the past year, I have kept a daily writing practice that, with very few exceptions, has brought me back.

Now I am 58. I am not young. I have long past the point where Stephen stepped into his work, but my heart bursts, as if newly forged—reforged by my years long effort. I read the book again, and this time I hear the singing—it is for me, and for my students too. I orchestrate a class that includes Portrait, weaving together strands from universes that while shadowy—more to my students than me—move with playful grace. The book sings to me, calls to me, demands my attention, my thought, and my response. Not simply in class, but in my work.  Not just these words, but other words.

I no longer feel called to write like Joyce, or Dickens, or Marquez, or Woolf, or Calvino (though, wouldn’t that be nice). Or, or, or. All the words—from every page, from the labels of soap, from the scraps of memes, to the shifting exchanges of my students call, all the words—insist “forge.” And so, I will, I must. Old father, old mother, old artificers, all of you, “stand me now and ever in good stead.”

Comedy Tonight

So much of wit is based on shared experiences.  I know I can toss in a “Brian Clements, we love you, get up!” to my friend Brian, and he will smile that wry smile that accompanies a reference to O’Hara. Or proclaim, “Hell, I love everybody!” and he will know what I mean. If I draw my finger across my eye, we have traveled into Bunuel’s fractured mindscape. We share those images and words. I can tell my brother to “Blanket the fucking jib,” and he will know the context. My mother can call me a “Son of a Bitch,” and know the ground upon which she treads. My father would offer a “You have all done very well,” recognizing the provenance of ignorance that surrounded Mr. Grace’s signature line.

My fantasy baseball friends call themselves “lobsters” because 25 years ago, I dubbed us the “League of Blood Sucking Intellectuals,” and one of us couldn’t get “sucking” through the email filter at his job (hard to believe—hehe). So, “Lobsters” we became. One day on the golf course, while following a slow moving group of much older players, I declared that my goal in life was to grow up to become a codger, which elicited chuckles. Maybe because I was already on that road. Or maybe because the bridge to that destination had washed out long ago in my life.

I sit in plays and howl out loud at all the jokes, my laughter more obvious at the jokes no one else gets. I make jokes daily that fall on deaf ears, and that’s because my reference points are in literature and art, and no one knows my plan. If I go for slapstick, there are laughs, or pity (Dr. Brennan, we love you, get up). “Bastard,” or “Rat Bastard” will get broad smiles. Because I am a teacher, I rarely turn my barbs on anyone below me on the food chain—I rather turn myself into shark bait, and perhaps, by example, show the way from chummy ignorance to razor-toothed wisdom. That bridge too stands on uncertain pilings.

I can understand why comics aim for the gut and crotch—there is shared knowledge (fat and thin as it may be) in the bodily functions. And I get it, and laugh at it, up to a point. There is no denying that absurdity of the fleshy slap of desire, or the rumbling gurgle of gluttony. We fuck lustily. We eat heartily. We can dress both up in fantasy, but the actuality is less glorious. And more. The secret is that the middle way is stupid and tiresome. Angels or demons are the way. Humans don’t know enough.

Once upon a time, I read Joyce’s Ulysses, and realized quite quickly, that he was having a ball. My serious classmates scoured the book for meaning, and yet, a big part of the meaning was swaddled in laughter. The great play. Not for them. And so, out went the baby. I do not deny that there is something serious in that book, or that there are books and art and times that are deathly serious—all of them, in fact. But there is play, truly unconscionable and irreverent all the time.

“Dying is easy,” goes the old saw, “Comedy is hard.” Now, we hide the dying, or reverence it out of the sphere of our daily experience. Failure—even for those who practice the dictum, “Fail Harder” (they do so only to achieve a higher form of success)—is fatal, and therefore dirtier than anything else we can imagine—even dirtier than the raunchiest comic’s imagination. And, like death, inevitable. But we do fail, do fall, and do, with mud on our clothes, rise back up, not like zombies—there are plenty of those already manning the parapets—but like humans who have learned that laughter is the key to resilience. It is the joy of the second, third, fourth, and fifth acts.

We may need to banish Jack, but we also need to learn from him. And the Queen will have him back. And even if you don’t know who Jack is, or why he was banished, or which Queen requested the fat man’s return, we know. It may be hard to walk into the room, caked in mud, but given the alternative, here I go, ready to kill it. Again. “Brian Brennan, we love you, get up.”

Reading and Writing

At some point—and it happens fairly quickly—the life of an English teacher becomes more about re-reading than reading. This is a preposterous change from the life of a graduate student, when everything is reading. As a student, there may be a handful of books that one reads a twice, but those are also the books with which one spends an engaged period of time—there is an essay in the offing. If you read them twice, chances are you read them a half dozen or dozen times. By the time you start teaching, the repetition is no longer driven by your desire or directed curiosity, but by a curricular roadmap that more often than not, you have not decided.

Because of my background, my friends will often ask what I am reading, and I know that they mean, “What are you reading for the first time?” It’s a “tell me what is good” question. At this moment in my life, most of what I read, I am reading for the 7th or 8th time. Or I am reading student work. I can admit that neither fills my sails the same way that exploratory reading does. Part of the joy of exploring is not reading important books—or rather, it is discovering that the books I read were important (to me, to the world) as I read them.

There is something thrilling—yes, thrilling—in finding myself in an entirely new stream of thought, full of images and ideas that had not occurred in my mind in that specific way. I love the feeling of being in an entirely foreign mind. I brought home new avenues and new approaches to my own work from nearly every book I read as a student. And, yes, I am still a student, and I still find new ways. Early on, the novelty that most easily enchanted me was setting and plot. Novels set in strange places (Vietnam, Middle Earth, Geatland, London) and with characters who did strange things (solve crimes, fly dragons, uncover moles, turn into monsters) drew my attention and appreciation. I still appreciate a mystery, horror, or fantasy novel; Michael Chabon tethers genre to literary merit with alacrity.

But most works of literary merit tend to eschew genre elements. The strangeness is found more in how the characters think and feel, and how those thoughts and feeling serve to reveal the deeper ideas that the novel walks out into the world. The thrill comes from reading along as characters struggle with complex thoughts and feelings, and the novelist struggles to portray a world that is, more often than not, contradictory. Contradiction is the single provenance of literary fiction. Woe to the mind and heart that seeks a generously reductive answer to life’s troubles in literature. Unless one learns to love ambiguity, irony, and contradiction.

I think that the rush of all the new work I read while I was still a full time student, blunted the more mournful aspects of contradiction. As I read through libraries, it seemed as if there were a million ways to get things done. I continue to champion diversity in large part because I found comfort in the breadth of possibility. However, the habits of re-reading drive me to emphasize less possibility. This occurs because if contradiction is the provenance of literature, then what happens in the land of contradiction is too often sad. Characters are too often caught, like Odysseus, between Scylla and Charybdis—the chance of losing everything and the certainty of losing much. Where is the gain—other than hard-earned self-knowledge? Where is the dinner and conversation and new-forged friendship with people who had been, only moments ago, strangers?

I feel the loss keenly. I am dissatisfied with the too morbid outcomes that serious writers propose, and with the deathly insistence on disconnection and disappointment. And I am dissatisfied with trudging over this same ground over and over again. There must be the possibility of joy, and please, for gods’ sakes, there must be discovery. Which means new works. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger allows Seymour to give his brother, Bruno, the single best piece of writing advice—and by extension, life advice—I have ever read. It is hopeful. “Imagine the book you most want to read… Now write it.”

It is time. Finally.


In between units of my AP English class, I spent a few days with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake doesn’t fit nicely into any tradition of British Literature, but his work touches on some of the realities of life in London that other writers ignore. So before we charge into Jane Eyre, Blake.

Blake is a Christian mystic (well, maybe). He believes in a relationship with the divine that is not mediated by the official church. In fact, he sees the church as complicit in forging the manacles of repression that plague humankind. When talking about him, it’s helpful to have an idea of faith that is not infringed upon by doctrine, and so I mentioned the “prelapsarian state of humankind.” My students, high school seniors, did not know what “prelapsarian” meant. Perhaps that is not a surprise—I’ve been told that it is not surprising. No one has taught them about these ideas. Before.

I wonder about what we teach and what we do not teach. There are big sweeps in history and the more minute formulae of mathematics. Grammar in foreign languages. We get big personalities on the world stage—the great man curriculum now incorporates women too. We try to do a decent enough job with race—at least we focus energy there, even if we don’t solve the problem. The history of family life gets left out. The small scale, which is to say daily, costs of industrialism gets left out. We may talk about love, but not about sexual relations. A sense of the on the ground effects of historical movements in faith gets left out. We do the big and the particular, but not so much what gets eaten at dinner (unless you learn that in a foreign language class) or what gets talked about in the bedroom.

There is a history of the personal. It is all around us. I loved to show the first episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball, because it showed how sport was connected to leisure time, which was connected to work, which was connected to changes in industrial patterns and urban growth and a half dozen (more) other things. Teaching Blake, there are the chimney sweeps (nothing like Bert in Mary Poppins) and syphilis, and the Tyburn Tree. There is a hidden, or at least forgotten, history here. And Blake’s glowing mysticism.

My students are shy about the hidden—which is why it is hidden and remains hidden. They sit at the edge of the pond and hedge their bets. They are cautious up to a point. They will wander off topic bravely, and even venture half-baked opinions bravely, but they have a hard time connecting to what they have read. And so often, the hidden remains off limits.

Being a reader means charging in fearlessly, and letting the text in, being attentive in the most focused and furious way. One must be—at once—open to difference and self aware. In Blake’s words, to “[t]urn away no more,” to want to return, to renew. What Blake seeks is that untainted energy and inspiration, unbridled from easy suppositions or over-chartered paths—the crooked way that is at once as old as the ancient trees, and as new as this morning’s dew. Prelapsarian. If not free of sin, at least free of shame—either of one’s deepest feelings or one’s ignorance. Let me learn, the reader cries. Teach me something new.

Oh, to be giddily enthusiastic. To be unashamed of charging in, both sides of the brain blazing. I know there are more quotidian concerns–colleges, jobs–but to seek the full flight of inspiration and imagination, that should count for something. Yes? At a personal level, we give some of that away, and teach our students to stay reasonably in their lanes.

Or not. There must be time to blaze, to dare. Again. As if for the first time.