When I Met My Muse
I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.
When a friend posted this short piece by William Stafford online, it came into my consciousness as a fully formed image of great power. Glasses that were still singing. A voice belling forth. Bent sunlight. A ceiling that arches and makes more space. Every glance a salvation. It’s all there, a tableau so clear and so powerful that I read it through ten more times.
I adore Stafford as a poet as well as an exemplar of living (I’ve listed my previous blog posts about him and his work at the bottom of this page.) Unpretentious with a quiet demeanor, he didn’t publish his poetry until he was in his late 40’s. His creative gait through life is epitomized by these words from an interview: “I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.” That description juxtaposed with his Muse encounter speaks to both the surrender and the salvation of his life’s poetic practice.
Two other writers offer an expansion to this Staffordian backdrop. One is David Esterly, author of a thoughtful book called The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. A former academic who quotes Yeats and Plotinus with ease, Esterly became a world class wood carver who was asked to repair the carvings destroyed by fire in Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court. (Because he is an American, this was a bit of a surprise request.) His prowess with language is evident in this book:
A carver begins as a god and ends as a slave. I concocted this aphorism long ago and couldn’t stop using it. It was born of experience. This trajectory repeated itself with each successive project. In all of them the balance of power progressively shifted from the maker to the made. The wood began as a submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life, like Pygmalion’s statue. The carver’s ideas steadily lost their power, while the object grew imperious…You start as a godlike creator, imposing ideas on a passive medium, and you end up grounded in the life of this world, taking instructions from the thing in front of you.
The transmogrification that takes place in the act of making is a key theme in Esterly’s account. It correlates with a passage in the ever insightful Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield:
Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.
I’m not sure how to describe these experiences in terms that are linear, measured and easily understood. I sometimes get tired trying and give up, dropping into those easy catch alls of the mystical and/or the magical. But you just can’t throw concepts like those around willy nilly without getting yourself into some trouble, especially at cocktail parties and academic conferences.
Is there a middle ground, a way to express my own way of looking at things? I found some help by reworking a quote* from Frederick Buechner:
The act of making points to that area of human experience where in one way or another we come upon mystery as a summons to take a journey; where we sense meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where we glimpse a destination that we can never know fully until we reach it. We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe.
That captures some of it.
*The original quote from Frederick Buechner: “Religion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it. We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe.”
Previous Slow Muse posts on William Stafford:
Note: Thanks to Desiree Fitzgibbon for introducing me to The Lost Carving—as well as many other great books—and to Jill Fineberg for the Buechner quote. Jill randomly includes quotes at the bottom of her emails, and the timing on this one was perfect.