9:12 AM – We returned a few days ago from a week vacationing in Galveston, Texas. (For the record, my definition of vacation is doing what I would normally do at home – read books, drink coffee, search for good cheese, porch sit, complain about neighbors and natives – but do them in a different location. Some would say this is successful vacationing, others that it is a waste. I also do not vacation to impress, so who cares what they think?) Galveston is an interesting town. Hurricane Ike appears to have left the town both shell-shocked and humbled. Houses remained boarded up, unpainted, sunlight blocked as if the entire town were a giant coven. Still, the people are kinder in Galveston than anywhere I’ve visited in Texas. A shared tragedy gels a community, and the people speak, even cling to one another, as if each person were a living buoy sent to withstand the weathers of another day. I liked this about Galveston, even if the beach looked like beef broth breaking over stale cornbread.
Mark Edmundson’s recent article about “The decline of American Verse” in the newest Harper’s Magazine is the best thing I’ve read this year. I can also see that the article would be polarizing. I’m not even sure how much I agree with Edmundson’s arguments, but I know that, as a reader and would-be writer, his essay has given me pause to consider how and to what degree and for what purposes do I magnify my own voice. Any chance we have to reevaluate our own voice – particularly what we’re shouting in which directions – is a good thing. I don’t need to agree totally with an argument in order for that argument to have already succeeded greatly. And I cannot recommend Edmundson’s piece highly enough. I imagine most of my posts this week will be devoted to Edmundson’s article and my subsequent morning meditations on it.
In essence, Edmundson – a professor of English at the University of Virginia who has written most intently on Freud, Emerson, the purposes of reading and teaching, and, most recently, football – argues two points in the Harper’s piece, “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse”.
For one, and this is the argument I’d like to focus on here today, Edmundson argues that great poets should possess and exhibit three key characteristics:
- “First, the writers must have something of a gift . . .”
- “. . . . a second requirement. She must also have something to say.”
- “Given these powers – the power of expression and the power to find a theme – the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all readers.”
Edmundson goes on to say:
“There are plenty of poets writing now who have a strong lyric gift, who have searched for and found a theme. There are even some few who can be said to possess both theme and creative prowess. But the muse they invoke is not a fiery one.”
What strikes me here is that the “lyric gift” and “themes” can be exercised and perhaps even exhumed (or honed) within a would-be writer by a mentor, but where does “muse” come from? How does one tap into the correct “muse”? Is that “muse” something innate that some are either born with or others are not? Am I screwed if, at this point, I feel I have not written anything of great effect or importance? Could the “muse” still seize me like the Spirit at Pentacost? I feel this idea of “muse” is something we toss around, but rarely consider in truth.
Obviously, the correct Christian answer to any of these questions concerning the “muse” is simply that God is our muse. God, or the Holy Spirit, is the source of the Christian writer or blogger’s enlightenment and literary gift. But I’ve read plenty of Christian authors and bloggers who write as if from the authority of Christ who say absolutely nothing and who say it poorly enough that I feel embarrassed for them. My wife and I both love Jesus Christ and hope for His salvation to indwell within our bones and home on a daily basis – however, when my wife prepares a meal as unto the Lord people flock to her table, whereas my meals are fit only for tin foil and kindly spoken intentions concerning leftovers. The Judeo-Christian muse has not seized us both in the kitchen, just as it has not impaled all Christian writers and bloggers with the Holy Quill.
I’ve joked over the past year that Rashida Jones is my “muse”, but this is only because I had a dream once that would not leave me for days about grocery shopping with Rashida Jones at an outdoor market on a beach. Jones was surprisingly bossy. I was glad to awaken away from her. In all actuality (and I’m glad she will not read this), a former co-worker from my tenure at Starbucks, a bottle-red sprite with an eye for photographed horizons and orchids, has provided the shape and voice for the main character in two pieces I’ve previously written and she’s now the lead in my current work. But I can hardly label this old friend a “muse”. Rather, she is something of a sketch-inspiration: the White girl I return to when I need a White-girl in a story.
This question of “muse” is something I hope to revisit. Unfortunately, Edmundson offers little definition or explanation to what he means by “muse”. He tosses the word into his piece willy-nilly, like most of us toss words about words like “freedom” and “peace” and “hope”, banking on others to have defined for themselves a notion we espouse as supremely central to both our arguments and even our lives.