In another day and age, poets used to invoke the Muse for inspiration. This might seem an obsolete figure of speech, yet perhaps what Homer’s Muse did for Homer, your muses might do for you.
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sun god blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story. Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.
[translation: Robert Fagles]
So what exactly is it that Homer’s Muse is doing for him?
- First of all, she helps him set the stage. By addressing the Muse, the poet steps, as it were, next to members of the audience; like they, he awaits the advent of her inspired words—meanwhile prompting her which tales she is to pour into his receptive ear.
- The Muse helps dramatize the situation of a bard who must capture his audience’s attention. Suspense is added when Homer invites the Muse to start from where she wills.
- The Muse helps later readers to enter both this situation and the epic tale itself.
Muses in the literal sense have become obsolete, and yet, modern narrators may bring off the same trick without alluding to her. Consider the opening paragraph in Moon Palace by Paul Auster:
It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future. I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go, and then see what happened to me when I got there. As it turned out, I nearly did not make it. Little by little, I saw my money dwindle into zero; I lost my apartment; I wound up living in the streets. If not for a girl named Kitty Wu, I probably would have starved to death. I met her by chance as a form of readiness, a way of saving myself through the minds of others. That was the first part. From then on, strange things happened to me. I took the job with the old man in the wheelchair. I found out who my father was. I walked across the desert from Utah to California. That was a long time ago, of course, but I remember those days well, I remember them as the beginning of my life.
Perhaps the Muse is masquerading as “a girl named Kitty Wu”.