We live in a post-modernist world and its values are everywhere around us; and everywhere these values are almost largely unexamined, and because we have little to contrast our present state with we fail to see how lamentable and poor we are. There is a deep materialism running through society which deprives people of the hope, the creativity and the deep mystery of life. Indeed, on this latter point, we see this being hammered home all the time on the news; for when it is not going on about the latest wars, plagues and famines, is always emphasising how the frontiers of science are expanding, and how soon – someday, one day – all our problems, especially diseases and even mortality, will be solved as the next medical advance is posited as something we all might confidently place our faith in. If ‘making progress’ actually made progress, then there might be some grounds for optimism; but as, after nearly two centuries of science and technology, we seem to be on the verge of world destruction, this seems fanciful at best.

Of course, this phenomenon of materialism/progress is ubiquitous, but also encompasses that tiny domain which we call poetry. I say ‘tiny’ because that is what materialism, and associated atheism, has reduced the mighty empire of the poets to. Compared with, say, science or technology, or even medicine, poetry has become largely irrelevant to most people’s lives. The best it can possible muster is either verse on a Valentine’s card or insincere worship at the shrine of William Shakespeare, one indisputably great poet. Naturally, we have to worship Shakespeare in England because he generates so much revenue for the UK economy – but, hush, no, don’t say it like that!

There is an important sense, then, that we have to return to basics and once more see the object for what it truly is. “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation”, said Goethe, which is a serious matter; and we need to address it because as he also said, “Reality is that which is effective”. Whatever else, we need to be effective, which is to be real.

What, then, is the starting point? The starting point is the Muse, the source of all sublime inspiration, and a living reality, as well as a potent metaphor and symbol of divinity. We need to understand from the myths of the past where the Muse comes from and how she operates. The Greek myths give various accounts of this, so I am not wedded to one literal interpretation of this phenomenon, but here is my best shot so far at it.

In the beginning the sky god Zeus, the thunderbolt, the male principle of living and active energy, the yang, and the one who shapes the future, for by the will of Zeus all things are allowed – or not – and who defeated the Titans and the forces of chaos, this great god in some present moment coupled with Mnemosyne, the undefeated Titaness, the female principle, the yin, and goddess memory, who in her vast and capacious mind conserves all things, for in her womb nothing is lost, for the past is remembered, which is re-membered. This coupling (effectively of the male principle of strength and the female principle of beauty) gives birth to the nine Muses, who are the key to the good life: prosperity, friendship and beauty. Notice of course that they are female, and thus incarnations of beauty and so desirability, and this seduces us or we surrender to them. And we see, regarding the good life, this even etymologically in our language when we refer to various aspects of the ‘good life’: we love muse-ums, which are shrines to the Muse; we love friends who a-muse us, because laughter makes us glad; and we love mus-ic, because it speaks to our souls.

Each of the nine Muses has a special function, but the queen of them is Kalliope, she of the epic poem and ‘lovely voice’; she it is who inspires such undertakings. And there is my favourite, Erato, meaning ‘loveliness, who inspires lyric poetry; and let’s not forget Polyhymnia – she of many songs, especially of a spiritual nature. The other six are well worth exploring too.

But it should be clear from this that the Muse operates in some special place positioned exactly midway between the future that is to be and the past that was; we call this place the present. And it is why true creativity, true poetry, is always written in a semi-tranced out state, for one is abnormally in the present moment. What this means is that – as with deep meditators and hypnogogic states – time either stops or is slowed down and we enter another reality. Hence, too, why prophets and poets are often seen as synonymous: because time has slowed to a crawl it is possible to anticipate the future and redefine the past. It is not that poets are seeking to be prophets or historians (incidentally, Kleio is the Muse of history or ‘Renown”) but that it is entirely possible and even probable for the future or the past to leak into their work.

This state we enter is so powerful, so desirable, so creative that we all long to be able to switch it on at will, but in this world that is not possible. Because it is not possible, we have a history of poets (and other artists) who try to short-circuit the process and get there illegitimately through substance abuse. The most famous collective example in English literature were probably a handful of the Romantics; but this view that, basically debauching the mind, is necessary for creativity is unfortunately still with us in the lives of so many Twentieth century poets: for example, Dylan Thomas, who the New York coroner recorded as dying of ‘a severe insult to the brain’ (alcohol). The point is that it is not by and through the will that creativity – poetry – comes to be written, which is as much as to say that it is not through the ego. Socrates put it this way: “I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say”. And his last point here, too, is important: creativity involves not knowing necessarily what one is going to say. We have intentions to write – and that is good – and we have skills, knowledge and experience – and that is good too, but how will the Muse, if we allow her, inform the work? Poets often record their astonishment at what the final draft of the poem turned out to be; there is in true creativity a certain unpredictability (if ‘certain unpredictability’ isn’t an oxymoron!). As Natalie Rogers says, “Creativity is not a tool. It is a mystery that you enter; an unfolding; an opening process”.

But the myth does not end here. Yes, the Muses are the embodiments and sponsors of metrical speech and verse; and also Kalliope, their queen, is the mother of Orpheus, the greatest poet. And the father? Various legends here, but my preferred one is that the god Apollo fathered Orpheus. Indeed, it needs to be said that Apollo, the son of Zeus, increasingly became the surrogate god who often replaced him. So that many claim that it was he who fathered the Muses, and so would be father and grandfather both to Orpheus; but this is a small technicality and even if true does not affect the power of the lineage, since gods do not experience the genetic weakness of humans. What’s important to understand is that Apollo was the god of the sun, of light, of prophecy –and so of truth (as in his Oracle at Pythia or Delphi) – and of beauty. All the statues of Apollo show him young and perfectly proportioned. He also fathered Aesculapius whose powers of healing were so effective that even the dead could be resurrected by him; and so, after Hades complained, was struck dead by a thunderbolt from Zeus to prevent the undoing of the triple structure of the cosmos (the bargain the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades had struck when they defeated their father, Kronos).

But here’s the thing: Orpheus the poet demonstrated what poetry can do. His poetry, his music, made even the rocks – who obviously have stony hearts! – weep. Two incidents especially spring to mind. First, his visit to hell and Hades in order to reclaim his love, Eurydice. This ended in failure in that he did not manage to obtain her; but poetry and music charmed all of hell, and even the damned were relieved from their suffering as he sang his poem. It is said that Hades himself shed, for the first and only time, tears as he listened to Orpheus sing: tears that seemed like liquid tar. And then, of course, he was one of the Argonauts who sailed with Jason. There, where even the strength of the greatest hero of Greek mythology, Herakles, could not prevail – against the Sirens’ song, which no force in the universe could break – there he sang in direct combat against them and drowned out their false addictive charm. What we have here is the beauty of poetry that can heal and save, even from the worst and most intense addictions; for that is what the Sirens’ song represents – that dreadful, yet beguiling sound, that so draws us on to our own destruction, though we know it is false, yet still we crave it. This, then, is the healing power of beauty, of poetry, when poetry is beautiful, as once it was, and as it will be, for it cannot long be other than it is.

Thus we come to the present moment and its learning for us.


James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition.

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25 Responses

  1. James Sale

    I should add that this is a 4-part article and each part will be released on a monthly basis, so there is more to come. I hope members enjoy it.

  2. G. M. H. Thompson

    This is smashing good! I eagerly await the next installments, and furthermore suggest that a book quite well could be made on the basis of this, which I would of course be quite pleased to acquire. Myth is very much a central & indispensable element of poetry, all the great poets knew that, even poets such as Eliot, Ginsberg, and Plath (I wouldn’t exactly say that Ginsberg was great, though). This is something the M.F.A. mills have forgotten, and as a consequence, their shallow, slice-of-life free-verse reads like naval-gazing newspaper drivel. Just too good, Mr. Sale,– you have surpassed your usual excellence here.

    • James Sale

      Thanks GMH – your praise is always hard won, so I feel chuffed to get it; I hope the whole sequence grabs you, and you find some good things in it to inspire you further with your quest for poetry and to write poetry.

  3. Carole Mertz

    Mr. Sales, I so much appreciate your explication (of the muses, et al) which brings us to the point of beauty, that necessary power that can heal and save and give life meaning.

    (You also helped me organize again, the hierarchy of those various gods and goddesses.)

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    A very fine commentary on the Muses, their origin, and their powers. I look forward to the future installments.

    Concerning Apollo, let me add one thing. You rightly describe him as the god of sun, of light, and of prophecy. You might also add the fine arts, literature, music itself, crafts, and civilization. But to my mind his most important aspect is that of the Destroyer of Bestiality. His title of “The Far Shooter” alludes to his killing (by archery) of the vile python-like dragon that guarded the Omphalos, thereby freeing the world and mankind from a great evil. Apollo destroys that which is ugly, subhuman, corrupt, rancid, and rotten. As the bright sunlight disinfects and cleanses, so does Apollo rid the world of that which is putrid, stinking, septic, and filthy.

    As I tell my class, “Think of the Pythian Apollo as a spray-can of RAID insecticide. You use it to kill disgusting, crawling things.” This aspect of the god is called “Pythian” because of the horrible dragon-python that he slew, and because Apollo told this dead serpent to “rot,” for which Greek uses the verb “pytho.”

    St. Michael the Archangel, warrior against the evil forces of the devil, is the Christian reflex of this aspect of Apollo.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Joseph – this is a great piece of extra information on Apollo and his powers, and I especially like the idea that sunlight ‘disinfects’. It is exactly what we need now – a disinfecting of the septic tank of post-modernism.

  5. Lorna Davis

    Wonderful essay, James, on a wonderful subject! I am looking forward to the rest of them.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Lorna – so glad you like it. To non-poets (that is, not you – you are a poet!), this kind of stuff must sometimes seem unreal – they are so locked into the visible realm that they almost cannot comprehend what one is talking about and its power. As it says in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, “All the world which lies below has been set in order and filled in contents by the things which are placed above; for the things below have not the power to set in order the world above”. But – poets get it!

  6. Sally Cook

    Dear James Sale —

    Kudos!. I am new to your writing, and very impressed.

    I have not seen this approach to the act of creating anywhere, but you are exactly right in your description of it, and what you depict also describes the function of any art.

    Further, I think you must raise the bar for “motivational speaker” to a level which makes very good sense. I’m inspired to learn how much you know of and understand the classic symbolic figures, and look forward to more of what you write on any subject.

    • James Sale

      Thank you so much Sally Cook for your kind words of encouragement. I have of course already enjoyed some of your work through the SCP, particularly the interview with Evan, and especially the wonderful Whitworth/Whitman poem, which I commented on at the time and mentally noted that you wisely did not comment on despite the furious critical battles that emerged surrounding it! If you are at all interested in the topic of motivation then my book, Mapping Motivation, is published by Gower/Routledge and available via Amazon; whereas, as much as I like it myself, I personally prefer my other book, my collection of poems, The Lyre Speaks True – the first poem in this collection first appeared on the SCP website: Apollo Builds Troy with His Lyre. There is one line in the poem linking it to the USA. Faced with all the scholars, I reckon I know very little about the classic symbolic figures, but I am not daunted thereby because, as you know, it is not knowing about them that is important for the poet: it is internalising them – when even a small range of mythical and symbolical ideas or persons become part of your internal landscape, then, truly, the Muse has everything to work on, and one’s full expressive capability is harnessed. I hope you are going to enjoy the next three parts of this article as I spread the net wider. Thanks again – look forward to reading more of your work.

  7. Esiad L. Werecub

    Mr. Sale, thank you for your thoughts. Here are just a few responses.

    1. Though many may be living in a Postmodern World still, I personally am living in a New Millennial World. Though I cut Postmodernism off in 2000, many won’t let it go.

    2. The unexamined life, as Plato pointed out, is not worth living.

    3. G. K. Chesterton, in his argument against the scientifically organized state, stated that the modern materialists are not permitted to doubt and they are forbidden to believe.

    4. Emily Dickinson once wrote:
    “Faith” is a fine invention
    For Gentlemen who see!
    But Microscopes are prudent
    In an Emergency!

    5. It is true science, technology, and medicine need clear heads; but so too do poetry, philosophy, history, and religion.

    6. I agree with Goethe—The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation. That is why the study of Greek literature from the time of Homer to Plutarch is fascinating to the nth degree. I include, in my definition of literature, all writing. The Greeks were a brilliant florescent beginning; but a beginning nonetheless.

    7. I despair at the ancient Greek understanding of meter; it is unrivaled in its excellence.

    8. The muses are significant; but so too is realism. Strength and beauty are important; but so too are goodness, truth, love, and wisdom. Hesiod felt that poets receive their power from their possession of Mnemosyne and their special relation with the Muses. I, too, feel memory and music are vital to the poet.

    9. Goethe also remarked “Das Klassische nenne ich das Gesunde und das Romantische das Kranke…” that is, what is classical is healthy and what is romantic is sick. I prefer pure inspiration to a semi-tranced out state.

    10. “There is a deep materialism running through society that deprives people of the hope, creativity and the deep mystery of life,” for some reason, reminds me of the following Dickinson lyric.
    “Hope” is the thing with feathers—
    That perches in the soul—
    And sings the tune without the words—
    And never stops—at all—

    And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
    And sore must be the storm—
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm—

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
    And on the strangest Sea—
    Yet—never—in Extremity,
    It asked a crumb—of me.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Werecub for your response -you make some great points, and also paraphrase my favourite author of the C20th – GKC – a genius, and one who very few, if any, of the great atheistic minds of the time could get the better of in debate, either written or verbal. He is still a deep mine or profound well of wisdom from which we can obtain strength and virtue to fight the good fight against post-modernism and the contemporary zeitgeist.

  8. David Watt

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your erudite description of the muses and their lineage. It serves to reinforce that truly beautiful and meaningful poetry derives from inspiration, compassion, and higher thought. I look forward to the next installments.

    • James Sale

      Thanks David – my hope is not to disappoint and to keep the interest in the Muses and poetry well and truly where it should be. For as it says in the book of Sirach: Who could ever tire of seeing his glory?

  9. Satyananda Sarangi

    It is quite an engrossing essay, I must confess. The idea of ‘Muse’ (taken from mythology) serves the reader’s appetite so well.

    Ever since I began penning down poems, the muse to me has varied in forms of friendship, toil, death, nature, the power of divine, justice to say the least. Here’s this question: Can the ‘muse’ (we are talking of) inspire an entirely contradicting idea in a poet? Suppose the muse on a particular evening is some kind of a joy; can it not lead the poet into writing a poem themed on sorrow? I doubt it does for I have experienced this very event at times.

    From a contemporary point of view, I suspect if the Muse really does take the centre stage in the flurry of bad poetry that comes our way today. This is because wherever the muse plays its part, the end results are beauty and music. Muse is associated with creativity of the highest stature and it comes from recesses deep within us that we ourselves cannot fathom. Hence, muse is linked to harmony and inner peace.

    Another aspect of the phenomenon I doubt is that the ‘Muse’ (believed to be a divine creation) can travel through time and may have a role to play in a poet’s creation, a creation that may be deemed to have been touched by the elegance of ancient bards. Putting more clarity into it, does the muse have any veiled role if a poet from 21st century keeps coming up with verses that resemble those written back in the 18th and 19th centuries? Of late, many post modernist poets have told me that I must be a reborn ancient poet as I have detested most free verse poems and have always stuck to rhyme. No doubt, such cases could be simply due to the fact that such poets( who pen rhyming and rhythmic stuff) have been reading antique pieces and must have acquired the style in the process. But, I still believe that ‘Muse’ is a very strong force and it must have some unexplained concept in enticing a happy poet to write a sad poem- this may have something to do with the poet’s previous lives.

    Eagerly looking forward to the next parts of the series.

    • James Sale

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Satyananda. I am glad you are exercised by the Muse too! it is entirely possible, as you suspect, for the Muse to take you emotionally into a direction different from the one you thought you had embraced. More will be revealed in the upcoming 3 further parts of this article, but in essence poetry is not only a statement of what we know but a revealing of what we consciously have not been aware of; it is a discovery or a revelation, which as you point out is connected with the ‘recesses deep within us’.

  10. Damian Robin

    Hi James Sale,
    I had so many things to do—
    none, at first, to do with you—
    all were to divert, amuse
    a mind addicted, not to booze
    or social drugs, but to distraction,
    to dissipate from pressured action.
    Then I thought “I’ll elevate—
    James Sale’s essays I really rate.
    I’ll have a look, it’s not too late.”

    Mnemosyne is memory.
    re-membering what used to be
    with all residing in her womb.
    (This meaning means we can’t assume
    what is remembered is correct
    for we’re outside and can’t connect,
    and every birth comes different,
    and every child grows different.
    Unless stillborn, it will invent,
    be guided by its own intent,
    enmeshed in higher gods’ consent,
    so memory’s a live event.)

    I got diverted by your words
    because I had to look some up.
    ‘Amuse’ comes from a shallow cup,
    from middle French, not ancient Greece,
    (as intimated in your piece);
    and does not have its roots in ‘muse,
    the lighter of a poem’s fuse’:
    It comes from meditating on,
    thinking, ruminating, on.

    And where old Zeus mates with M,
    you state that she’s “effectively
    … the female principle of beauty”.
    This concept—memory as beauty—
    I find challenging but neat.
    If it is true, it’s a treat,
    but as a generality,
    sadly, I don’t think it’s true,
    though maybe more than one or two
    instances, may be that way.
    It may not be a central stem
    but just one flowerhead in many
    flourishing in your bouquet.

    I’m grateful for your musings, you
    give much that is new to me.
    That maybe ‘cause I didn’t ‘do’
    much ancient mythic history.
    Or maybe my bad memory.

    But here’s the bottom line for me:
    your words are fresh, of good intent,
    informative and pertinent.
    Thank you, Mr Sale.

    • James Sale

      Hi Damian – thanks for this wonderful riposte. I really like it and my wife is so taken by it, I think she intends taking extracts to Tweet!!! So this will do the rounds! Much appreciated. Hope you enjoy the subsequent Parts – 2 is now out and 3 and 4 will be in July and August. You can take a holiday now, and see Part 2 and guess the most magical word in the English language – who knows, we may agree?

      • Damian Robin

        THANKS, JAMES – from your track record, your kindness is expected but still appreciated. I’m not on Twitter so notes there will go unheard over my head, but hopefully, your wife will tag the SCP in some way. Yes (like many have intimated here) I am looking forward to reading the next episode, already online.

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