How One Thing Leads to Another: A Pathway

One way to navigate A Poet’s Glossary is by following pathways from one entry to another. The terms listed under each entry are meant to suggest various related and fork-like tracks. Here, for example, is one way to travel through ten terms.

muse, Muses     A source of poetic inspiration. Each of the nine Greek goddesses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (or Memory), traditionally presided over an activity or art: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (love poetry), Euterpe (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (songs of praise to the gods), Terpsichore (dancing), Thalia (comedy), Urania (astronomy, i.e., cosmological poetry). As Homer calls out in the Iliad (ca. eighth century B.C.E.):


Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus!
You are goddesses, you are everywhere, you know all things —
all we hear is the distant ring of glory, we know nothing —


Homer also alludes to the myth of Thamyris, the Thracian singer, who boasted he could outsing even the Muses. He competed with them, lost, and was punished with the loss of his ability to sing (2, 594–600). Other sources specify that he was also blinded. The Muse gives poetic inspiration and can also take it away.


Hesiod’s Theogony (ca. 700 B.C.E.) opens with a hymn to the Muses who, while he was keeping his sheep on Helicon, gave him a staff of bay, inspired him to sing (“and they breathed divine song into me”), and then commanded him to sing “of the race of immortals, blessed Gods.” The invocation to the Muse (“Sing, goddess . . .”) acknowledges the need for an inspiring spirit. “Prophesy (manteueo), Muse,” Pindar sings, “and I will be your interpreter (prophateuso)” (fragment 150, early fifth century B.C.E.). Poetry is never entirely at the dispensation of the poet’s conscious will or intellect, and whoever calls out “Help me, O Heavenly Muse” advertises a dependence on a force beyond the intellective powers. Hence this invocation of the chorus at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1600):


O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention . . .


The sacred muse (the phrase is Spenser’s) is the spirit of creativity, and thus inspires reverence or awe. Such a beloved has uncanny powers. Wallace Stevens invokes her in an essay as “Inexplicable sister of the Minotaur, enigma and mask” (“The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet,” 1944), Robert Graves exalted her as the resplendent White Goddess. Louis MacNeice remembers that “the Muse will never / Conform to type” (“Autumn Sequel,” 1954). In “Envoi” (1983), Eavan Boland calls on the muse to do something different than the mythical muse invented by male poets. She seeks a muse who will “bless the ordinary” and “sanctify the common.”


SEE ALSO inspiration, invocation.


invocation     An apostrophe asking a god or goddess, asking the muse, for inspiration, especially at the beginning of an epic, as when John Milton calls out at the beginning of Paradise Lost (1667), “Sing, Heavenly Muse.” The invocation—a prayer to initiate a story—recognizes that a poet has a complex indebtedness to tradition. The invocation also acknowledges the uncontrollable aspect of art. Poetry is helpless without an element of mania, an element of the demonic or the irrational or the unconscious. Thus the invocation becomes a plea for an uncontrollable power, a prayer for creativity.


SEE ALSO apostrophe, epic, inspiration, muse, tradition.


inspiration      Inspiration means in-breathing, indwelling. It may be a form of spiritual alertness. It is connected to “enthusiasm,” which derives from the Greek word enthousiasmos, or “inspiration,” which in turn derives from enthousiazein, which means “to be inspired by a god.” Such passion is ardent, consuming, fanatic. Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” (1819) makes clear that he considered poetic composition both an uncontrollable force beyond the dispensation of the poet’s conscious intellect (“Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry’ ”) and an internal phenomenon of the deeper mind:


for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.


There is a long lineage for the idea that, as Cicero put it, “I have heard that — as they say Democritus and Plato have left on record — no man can be a good poet who is not on fire with passion and inspired by something like frenzy” (On the Orator, 55 B.C.E.). There is always a point in creation where voluntary effort merges with something else, something involuntary, and some unknown force takes over. “Henceforward, in using the word Poetry,” Robert Graves writes in On English Poetry (1922), “I mean both the controlled and the uncontrollable parts of the art taken together, because each is helpless without the other.”


There are two views of inspiration — that it comes as a force from beyond the poet; that it comes as a power from within the poet — but these views keep intertwining. In The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), E. R. Dodds suggests that Democritus was the first writer — at least the first we know about from ancient Greece — who held that the finest poems were composed “with inspiration and a holy breath.” Dodds points to the ancient Greek belief that minstrels derive their creative power from a supreme source: “I am self-taught,” says the bard Phemius. “It was a god who implanted all sorts of lays in my mind” (the Odyssey, ca. eighth century B.C.E.). So, too, Pindar begged the Muse to grant him “an abundant flow of song welling from my own thought” (“Nemean III,” 475 B.C.E.). These poets characterize inspiration as a power from without that is also a deep source within. Poets have always known they are trying to invoke something that can’t be entirely controlled. This is the necessary touch of madness that Plato made so much of, the freedom that terrified him. Here is Socrates (470?–399 B.C.E.) in the dialogue Phaedrus (ca. 370 B.C.E.):


There is a third form of possession or madness, of which the Muses are the source. This seizes a tender, virgin soul and stimulates it to rapt passionate expression, especially in lyric poetry, glorifying the countless mighty deeds of ancient times for the instruction of posterity. But if any man comes to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to nought by the poetry of madness, and behold, their place is nowhere to be found.


Dodds notes that for Plato, “the Muse is actually inside the poet.” The Neo-Platonic Shelley spoke of “the visitations of the divinity in man.” The philosopher Benedetto Croce echoes Shelley when he states, “The person of the poet is an Aeolian harp which the wind of the universe causes to vibrate.”


Creativity is the celebration of the unexpected, and no one entirely understands the relationship between trance and craft, between conscious and unconscious elements, in the making of poetry. On one side, we have the idea of poetry as something entirely inspired by an outside force. Hesiod claimed that he heard the Muses singing on Mount Helicon, and they gave him a poet’s staff and told him what to sing. English poetry begins with just such a vision, since it commences with the holy trance of a seventh-century figure called Caedmon, an illiterate herdsman, who now stands at the top of the English literary tradition as the initial Anglo-Saxon or Old English poet of record, the first to compose Christian poetry in his own language. The story goes that when it was his turn to sing during a merry social feast, Caedmon invariably fled, ashamed he never had any songs to contribute. But one night a voice came to Caedmon in a dream and commanded him to sing about the beginning of created things. “Thereupon,” as Bede tells it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), “Caedmon began to sing verses which he had never heard before in praise of God the Creator.” That is the legendary origin of the inspired poem known as “Caedmon’s Hymn.” So, too, in tribal societies, the poet is considered the instrument of a power, an external source, which speaks through him.


Edgar Allan Poe took a contrary view by arguing that poetry is created not by inspiration, but out of a conscious method of trial and error. He makes his point in “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846):


Most writers — poets in especial — prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition — and would positively shuder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought — at the true purposes seized only at the last moment — at the innumerable glimpses of an idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view — at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable — at the cautious selections and rejections — at the painful erasures and interpolations — in a word, at the wheels and pinions — the tackle for scene-shifting — the step-ladders and demon-traps — the cock’s leathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.


Here Poe privileges the nature of calculated reason in the creative process. He provides a counterargument for the work of deliberation. Paul Valéry spoke of “une ligne donné” — the given line — and suggested that everything else was labor, a matter of making. Yet he also declared: “the fact is that every act of the mind itself is always somehow accompanied by a certain more or less perceptible atmosphere of indetermination.” As the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska declares in “The Poet and the World” (1996), “Whatever inspiration is, it is born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’ ”


Longinus added a crucial dimension to the idea of inspiration by considering the way the sublime affects not the speaker but the listener. Poetry also instills a sense of inspiration in the listener or reader. Valéry goes so far as to claim that this is the function or purpose of a poet’s work. Thus he writes in “Poetry and Abstract Thought” (1954):


A poet’s function — do not be startled by this remark — is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others. The poet is recognized — or at least everyone recognizes his own poet — by the simple fact that he causes his reader to become “inspired.”


SEE ALSO afflatus, the sublime.


afflatus     A Latin term for poetic inspiration. The noun afflatus derives from the Latin word meaning “to blow upon.” Cicero wrote in On Divination (44 B.C.E.) that “no man was ever great without a touch of divine afflatus.” The word presupposes a creative power — a divine breath — entering the writer. It names the nonrational aspect of poetic inspiration, which means “in- breathing,” a mysterious force beyond the poet’s conscious control.


SEE ALSO inspiration, muse, spontaneity.


spontaneity      Spontaneity was originally a negative term, which was used against art that wasn’t created by conscious design, but it was redeployed in the nineteenth century by the romantic poets. For them, spontaneity was a positive attribute, which suggested the self-generating quality of the poetic imagination, something impulsive, involuntary, unconstrained, inspired. Wordsworth defined poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; Keats maintained that “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all”; Shelley rejected the idea that “the finest passages of poetry are produced by labor and study” and sought inspiration from the skylark’s “unpremeditated art.” Spontaneity, which has now become a somewhat old-fashioned term, was actually a rhetorical strategy of romantic poetry, a series of stylistic devices and conventions, to give the sensation of immediacy, the feeling of directness, the illusion of “spontaneous overflow.” Nonetheless, it points to the uncontrollable aspect of writing poetry, the part connected to trances and charms, unconscious invention and free association, nonconsecutive reasoning, chance, imaginative power. It suggests that poetry is never entirely willed. The role of spontaneous creation tends to be discredited by those who concentrate entirely on the conscious, craftsman-like aspects of writing poetry, extreme formalists, neoclassicists of all kinds, and endorsed as a doctrine by romantic and postromantic, modern (the Russian futurists, the French Surrealists), and postmodern poets (the New York school of poets) who invoke the magical potency of poetry, the wayward mystery of creativity.


SEE ALSO afflatus, automatic writing, awen, Beats, charm, Dadaism, futurism, imagination, inspiration, inventionmuse, neoclassicism, New York school of poets, primitivism, romanticism, simultaneism, Surrealism, zaum.


awen     A Welsh word meaning poetic gift, or inspiration, the muse. The etymological sense of awen is “breathing-in,” which makes it akin to the Latin afflatus. The very concept of awen embodies and recognizes the irrational power and magical potency of poetry. The Celtic bards inherited their authority from the Druids, and awen was the unconscious or supernatural energy that animated their words. It is what Dylan Thomas describes in his first book (1934) as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” In The White Goddess (1948), Robert Graves translates awen as “the divine spirit.”


SEE ALSO afflatus, bard, muse.


bard     The word bard originally referred to the ancient Celtic order of minstrel-poets who composed verses celebrating the laws and heroic achievement of the people, of chiefs and warriors. The bards carried necessary cultural information and underwent rigorous technical training in order to tell the tale of the tribe. Ted Hughes noted that “tradition dwells on the paranormal, clairvoyant, somewhat magical powers of the Bards.” The professional literary caste of the bardic order in Ireland lasted from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. It was serious business to become a poet and serve the prince, and the training period could extend for as long as twelve years. In The Book of Irish Verse (1998), John Montague says that one way of describing the training is as “seven winters in a dark room,” and quotes an early eighteenth-century memoir:


Concerning the poetical Seminary or School . . . it was open only to such as were descended of Poets and reputed within their Tribes . . . The Structure was a snug, low Hut, and beds in it at convenient Dis tances, each within a small Apartment . . . No windows to let in the Day, nor any Light at all us’d but that of Candles, and these brought in at a proper Season only . . . The reason of laying the Study aforesaid in the dark was doubtless to avoid the Distraction which Light and the variety of Objects represented thereby commonly occasions.


The poets who came through this strict regimen created poems that sometimes let deep emotion break through their virtuoso technique. Some of their most poignant poems mourn the passing of their order. Some songs in the Irish language are a legacy of the bardic tradition, especially the repertoire of sean nós (old style). Emerson writes in his essay “The Poet” (1844): “The ancient British bards had for the title of their order, ‘Those who are free throughout the world.’ They are free, and they make free.” In “Merlin I” (1846), he says: “Great is the art, / Great be the manners, of the bard.”


The bardic poet in ancient Greece was called an aoidos: And the famous bard (aoidos) sang to them, and they sat quietly listening,” Homer states in the Odyssey (ca. eighth century B.C.E.). Medieval bards in Wales were frequently composers and not performers. They employed a harpist and a datgeiniad, who declaimed the bard’s words. Since the eighteenth century, the term bard has often been used as a synonym for poet. One legacy of the Celtic bardic order is to preserve language, another to embody imaginative freedom. The creative use of technical poetic skill and wide literary and cultural knowledge makes for our greater freedom. Hence Emerson’s dual claim that the poets are “liberating gods” and “America is a poem in our eyes.” The poet offers us thought schooled by intuition, emotion deeper than thought, and soulfulness deeper than emotion. Such archaic ways of knowing go all the way down to the roots of being. “But trust my instinct,” Robert Frost says jauntily in his poem “To a Thinker” (1936), arguing reasonably against excessive reason, “I’m a bard.”


SEE ALSO aoidos, fili.


aoidos, aoidoi (pl)     Greek: “singer.” The Greek aoidos was a singing poet, a professional bard who performed at court or traveled from town to town. Homer gives us the name of Phemius (“man of fame”), the aoidos at Odysseus’s palace in Ithaca, who sang the return of the Acheans: “And the famous bard (aoidos) sang to them, and they sat quietly listening.” Homer also tells of Demodocus (“received by the people”), blind aoidos at the palace of Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, who sang about the quarrel of Achilles and Odysseus. Homer says that they are “like gods in their audê.” He would most likely have considered himself an aoidos.


Aoidean poetry is sometimes used as a technical term for early Greek oral epic poetry. The Homeric corpus essentially refers to epic poems as aoidê or “singing,” which is, as Andrew Ford points out, “an action noun, a word that names poetry not as text or aesthetic object but as activity and performance.” Homer deemed poetry thespis aoidê, “divine song.” It is a sublime voicing.


SEE ALSO bard, epic, oral-formulaic method.


oral-formulaic method     Milman Parry (1902–1935) and his student Albert Lord (1912–1991) discovered and studied what they called the oral-formulaic method of oral epic singers in the Balkans. Their method has been variously referred to as “oral-traditional theory,” “the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition,” and the “Parry-Lord theory.” Parry used his study of Balkan singers to address what was then called the “Homeric Question,”which circulated around the questions of “Who was Homer?” and “What are the Homeric poems?” Parry’s most critical insight was his recognition of the “formula,” which he initially defined as “a group of worlds which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given idea.” The formula revised the standard ideas of “stock epithets,” “epic clichés,” and “stereotyped phrases.” Such often repeated Homeric phrases as “eos rhododaktylos” (“rosy-fingered dawn”) and “oinops pontos” (“wine-dark sea”) were mnemonic devices that fitted a certain metrical pattern and aided the epic singer, or aiodos, in his extemporaneous composition. Such phrases could be substituted and adapted, serving as place-holders, as a response to the needs of both grammar and narrative. These formulas, which could also be extended, were not particular to individual artists, but a shared traditional inheritance of many singers. Parry’s work revolutionized the study of the Homeric poems by treating them as essentially oral texts. For example, Parry and Lord observed the same use of formulas in Serbian oral poetry that they found in the Homeric poems.


Parry and Lord discovered that the epic form was well-suited to the singer’s need for fluency and flexibility, for composition as well as memorization. The singers composed poems orally by calling upon a rich store-house of ready-made building blocks (traditional patterns), which moved well beyond phrasing. Singers could call upon this stock of lines and formulas for describing places, expressing different characters, and narrating action — and thus perform epics of ten thousand lines or more with uninterrupted fluency. Parry and Lord provided us with a generative model of epic performance. F. P. Magoun explains that oral poetry is composed “rapidly in the presence of a live audience by means of ready-made phrases filling just measures of isochronous verse capable of expressing every idea that the singer may wish to express in various metrical situations.” The oral-formulaic method has subsequently been applied to a wide variety of texts and genres, such as Babylonian, Hittite, and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, medieval romances, Russian byliny, the corpus of pre-Islamic poetry, Toda ritual songs, Coorg dance songs, English and Spanish ballads, and even African American revivalist sermons. Oral formulas also clearly influenced written poetry. It is now possible, for example, to view Old English poems as transitional texts, written poems that embody oral formulas.


SEE ALSO aoidos, bylina, epic, oral poetry


bylina, byliny (pl)     From the Russian byl, which means “that which happened.” The Russian peasants used the term starina (“what is old”) for this form of epic folk song and poetry, which suggests “tales-of-things-that-have-been.” Vladimir Nabokov described byliny as “anonymous medieval narrative poetry . . . botched by centuries of oral transmission,” but if the byliny are “botched” by the process of oral transmission, then so are the Homeric epics. The poems were first collected in the late eighteenth century and the term bylina was then employed by collectors in the 1830s and 1840s. Byliny are oral heroic poems, epic entertainments performed by skaziteli (“narrators”), who chant or sing them, usually without musical accompaniment. The meter is a sort of accentual blank verse. The byliny mostly focus on legendary historical events that date from the eleventh to the sixteenth century. The heroes were bogatyrs. The byliny divide into two cycles: the Kievan cycle, which rotates around the eleventh-century court of Vladimir of Kiev (“the bright sun”), and the Novgordian cycle, which developed between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its main hero was the merchant-bogatyr, Sadko. The greatest literary work of Kievan Russia, The Song of Igor’s Campaign (Slovo o polku Igoreve), which Nabokov subtitles “An Epic of the Twelfth Century,” describes a failed raid in 1185 by Russian princes against the nomadic Turkic tribe of Kumans. Mikhail Lermontov captures the spirit of the anonymous byliny in his 1837 poem “A Song About Tsar Ivan Vasilevitch, the Young Bodyguard, and the Valorous Merchant Kalashnikov.” Marc Slonim claims, “The musical rhythm of the byliny, the richness of their rhymes and alliterations, the freshness of their metaphors, the majestic pace of their descriptions, and the breadth of their style rank them with the world’s greatest epic poetry.”


SEE ALSO ballad, epic, oral poetry.