Saturday, April 19, 2008

Muses and the Sense of Intolerable Loneliness

In a journal entry for the Poetry Foundation blog ( a year ago or so, Patricia Smith asked readers to characterize their muses, describing her own as “the love child of Mona Lisa and James Brown” and whom she has variously named “La Music, Jimmie Savannah, Her Bitchness, Ruby Begonia, Sista Sometimes, Mavis, Butterfly McQueen, M’Dear, Hot Damn, The Esteemed Imperial Inimitable Goddess Ms. Gwen, My Boo, Cleopatra Jones, Tamika, Miz Thang, and Mamie Eisenhower.” One poet described her muse as an exquisitely sensitive young girl adults don’t tend to hear; another as “Bo Willie or Gut-Bucket” because his poetry emerged from gut-wrenching experiences; still another as a “bad boyfriend.” Evie Shockley described her own as a Debbie Allen figure peering over while Evie reads the morning paper and pointing out what’s missing from its pages. In an essay published in ZYZZYVA titled “The Visitor” (and later in the anthology Lucky Break, edited by Howard Junker), I described my own muse as an old slave woman whose picture I’d seen as a child. She was posed with her bare, whip-marked back facing the viewer, and I went on to imagine her visiting me some nights, looking in me for her stolen children. I suggested that the conversations between us eventuated in my poems.

I’ve been preparing a paper on writing and the problem of intolerable loneliness, how such experiences can lead writers to turn away from their unfinished works, even from working. It occurs to me that, while many writers characterize this state as a sense of their muses abandoning them, we might also think about those writers abandoning to some extent their own muses. And I wonder if the further unconscious aspect of this mutual rejection doesn’t involve struggle with some measure of destructiveness ever present when writers are emerged in the process of creating. Melanie Klein’s 1963 paper on loneliness (from Envy and Gratitude) has been especially helpful in this regard. Klein delineates several internal and external sources of the sense of loneliness—which she distinguishes from a sense of solitude or feeling lonesome—but she suggests that the infant’s earliest psychic challenges include the developmental quest to achieve some essential integration of creative and destructive representations of oneself and of others. In relation to one’s internal objects, Klein writes, “ (t)here is always a close connection between being able to accept and to give, and both are part of the relation to the good object and therefore counteract loneliness. Furthermore, the feeling of generosity underlies creativeness, and this applies to the infant's most primitive constructive activities as well as to the creativeness of the adult.” I think the concept of a muse is one way writers can represent their relation to that “good object”.

1 comment:

John K said...

This is a fascinating question. I'm particularly fascinated in the invocation of a single muse in relation to psychoanalysis and psychology, both of which would seem to beggar other understandings of inspiration, creativity, and so on. But again, the single muse...very interesting.