What is the muse?
Since I am a poet, I will address this question from the poet’s perspective. I do not know how or if this perspective translates to other creative mediums, or even, more specifically, other language-based mediums.
The “job” of the poet is to create expressions of ideas through the use of words and groups of words. At their most basic, words have three distinct elements which the poet may utilize: the sound of the word, the meaning of the word, and the place of the word within the poem.
In composing a poem, the poet creates relationship paths between these three elements. Some of these relationship paths are so common that we give them names. Rhyme, consonance, assonance, and alliteration are words we use to describe specific sound-based relationship paths between words. Metaphor, simile and imagery are examples of meaning-based relationship paths between words and word groups. Meter and stanza denote place-based relationship paths in a poem. If a relationship path exists internally to a word between its sound and meaning, we call that onomatopoeia.
The number of relationship paths that exist between two single words is 3^2 or 9. For a single line of iambic pentameter, the greatest number of relationship paths that could be defined is 3^10 or 59,049, and that assumes that we are using the same 10 single-syllable words. I am not trying to reduce poetry to a mathematical formula; I am trying to demonstrate the physical complexity of poetry. Although I’m sure that the total number of relationship paths for all the words and combination of words and word groups could be derived, it would be an astronomically large number. I’m also certain that the total number of relationship paths in the current body of extant poetry is miniscule compared to the universe of potential paths.
The obvious reason as to why the total amount of extant poetry is small compared to the universe of potential paths is that not all potential paths produce poetry. The question then becomes: Which relationship paths produce poetry? Or, in short: What is a poem?
A poet (Carolyn Forche) was once asked the question, “How do you know when you’ve written a poem?” The answer was: “When an editor buys it, then I’ve written a poem.” Teachers and students struggle with defining poetry every day. Most poetic attempts in the classroom result in mimicry that only satisfies the mechanical definition of what a poem is. As I’ve struggled to answer the question of what a poem is, I have settled on an analogy to an idea gleaned from my study of philosophy. In the field of ethics, actions may be either right or wrong. I believe that, analogously, in the field of poetics, a poem may be either poetic-right or poetic-wrong.
So what makes a poem poetic-right or poetic-wrong? If the relationship paths in a poem are all poetic-right, the poem is poetic right. If any of the relationship paths in a poem are poetic-wrong, then the poem is poetic-wrong, or at least not poetic right, and therefore not a poem.
This is why every word matters in a poem. The sound of each word in a poem matters. The meaning of each word in a poem matters. The placement of each word in a poem matters. Arbitrariness has no place in poetry. (Unless arbitrariness itself is specifically being employed as a poetic device.)
At this point I have deconstructed the concept of poetic-right down to the basic level of poetic relationship paths. But, we still do not have any idea of what makes a poem poetic-right or poetic-wrong. This is where the muse comes in.
Although I do not fully understand the workings of the muse, it helps me to relate it back to my ethics analogy. In ethics we speak of a “moral imperative,” a principle which compels the individual to act rightly or wrongly.
Here is the definition of the moral imperative from Wikipedia:
A moral imperative is a principle originating inside a person’s mind that compels them to act. … Later thinkers took the imperative to originate in conscience, as the divine voice speaking through the human spirit. The dictates of conscience are simply right and often resist further justification. Looked at another way, the experience of conscience is the basic experience of encountering the right.
Translated analogously into what I would call the poetic imperative, it would read as follows:
The poetic imperative is a principle originating inside a poet that compels them to compose poetry. The poetic imperative may originate in the poetic conscience, as the divine voice speaking through the human spirit. The dictates of the poetic conscience are simply poetic-right and often resist further justification. Looked at another way, the experience of poetic conscience is the basic experience of encountering the poetic-right.
Remember, I am not asserting that a poem is right or wrong from a moral point of view (I actually believe that poetry is amoral), but, analogously a poem may be poetic-right or poetic wrong depending on the poet’s application or dis-application of the poetic imperative, i.e., the muse.
The poetic imperative is the muse.
Philosophers debate whether the moral imperative originates within the individual or outside the individual. Humanists and atheists would argue the latter, theists and spiritualists the former. I believe the same arguments can be engaged in by those ready to debate the origins of the muse, the poetic imperative. I am not presently as concerned with the origins of the muse as I am with my interactions with it. To quote William Blake: “I will not reason and compare, my business is to create.” Whether the muse comes from within or without, if I do not follow it my poetry is poetic-wrong.
How is that possible? How can a poem be poetic-right or poetic-wrong?
If the poet composes the poem as directed by the muse, the poetic imperative, it is poetic right. The audience, in order to experience the poetic-rightness of the poem, must either trust the poet or seek their own confirmation of the poetic-rightness of the poem directly from the muse.
If the poet composes the poem in any way other than that directed by the muse, it is poetic-wrong.
So how does the poet know if he or she is following the poetic imperative, or listening to the muse? Back to the analogy—How does an individual know when he or she is making a decision that is morally correct? I remember one of my favorite lines from the movie K-Pax: “Every being in the universe knows right from wrong.” Every poet knows poetic-right from poetic wrong. If a decision, morally or poetically, needs clarification, justification, or equivocation, it is probably wrong.