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The poem “Muse” is written by Meena Alexander. The poem was first published in her poetry collection “Illiterate Heart” in the year 2002. The poem talks about the muse, or a source of inspiration for the poet. The reader goes in with the expectation of reading about the Muses talked about in Greek mythology. But the poet subverts this idea of finding a muse in a god or divinity and instead talks about how her inspiration was found in a schoolgirl. The schoolgirl becomes the muse and source of inspiration for all her creative works instead of a god or divine power.
About the poet
Meena Alexander was born in 1951 in Prayagraj. She lived in New York, USA. She was an Indian American writer, poet and a scholar. She was also an English professor at Hunter College. She received numerous awards and recognition for her work. She received the PEN Open Book Award in 2002 and the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts. Some of her famous works include “Fault ALines: A Memoir” and “Illiterate Heart”.
The poem is written in free-verse. It contains 6 stanzas. Each stanza is a sestain, i.e. 6 lines in a stanza.
I was young when you came to me. Each thing rings its turn, you sang in my ear, a slip of a thing dressed like a convent girl— white socks, shoes, dark blue pinafore, white blouse.
In the opening stanza the speaker reflects on a youthful encounter with inspiration. The muse, depicted as a delicate presence, arrived in the speaker’s life during her younger years. Each element around the speaker resonated with a distinct sound, creating a harmonious symphony. The muse is personified as a slender figure, reminiscent of a convent girl, adorned in a uniform of white socks, shoes, a dark blue pinafore, and a white blouse. The imagery evokes a sense of purity and innocence associated with the muse, suggesting a formative and transformative influence on the speaker’s creative journey.
In these lines, the poet recalls a vivid and youthful encounter with inspiration personified as a muse. The muse is described with details reminiscent of a convent girl, wearing white socks, shoes, a dark blue pinafore, and a white blouse. The poet emphasizes the sensory experience by mentioning that the muse “sang in my ear,” suggesting a direct and intimate connection with inspiration. The use of specific details, such as the attire of the muse, adds a visual and tactile dimension to the encounter. Themes of creativity, inspiration, and the transformative power of the muse are explored, highlighting the impact of artistic influence on the poet’s life. The poetic devices include vivid imagery and personification, creating a tangible presence for the muse in the reader’s mind.
A pencil box in hand: girl, book, tree— those were the words you gave me. Girl was penne, hair drawn back, gleaming on the scalp, the self in a mirror in a rosewood room the sky at monsoon time, pearl slits
In these lines the speaker describes the words given by the muse, particularly focusing on the word “girl.” The portrayal includes a girl with her hair pulled back, gleaming on the scalp, and a reflection in a mirror in a rosewood room. The mention of the sky during the monsoon with “pearl slits” adds a touch of nature and poetic imagery. The words go beyond simple definitions, creating a rich and layered experience for the reader. The speaker uses language to evoke emotions and vivid scenes, showcasing the power of words to convey complex meanings and feelings.
In this stanza the poet recalls receiving three words – girl, book, tree – from the muse. The word “girl” is associated with a pencil box in hand, describing the image of a girl with her hair drawn back, possibly reflecting simplicity and clarity. The poet connects this image to the self in a mirror in a rosewood room, evoking a sense of introspection and identity. The mention of the sky at monsoon time with pearl slits adds a poetic and atmospheric quality to the description, creating a vivid and nuanced image. The words given by the muse become windows into rich and layered associations, linking personal and natural elements.
In cloud cover, a jagged music pours: gash of sense, raw covenant clasped still in a gold bound book, pusthakam pages parted, ink rubbed with mist, a bird might have dreamt its shadow there
In these lines the speaker describes a unique and vivid experience. The imagery involves cloud cover and a distinctive music, symbolized as a “gash of sense.” The poet refers to a sacred or significant text, a “gold bound book,” with pages from a “pusthakam” (book) parted. The ink is described as being rubbed with mist, creating an ethereal quality. The poet suggests that a bird might have dreamt its shadow within this mystical scene. The music from the clouds is raw and intense, representing a profound connection to a sacred or significant text. The misty, dreamlike quality adds to the mystical atmosphere of this creative experience, emphasizing the power of imagination and inspiration in the act of writing or creating.
In these lines the poet captures a moment of inspiration and creativity. The cloud cover serves as a backdrop for a unique and jagged music, symbolizing the raw and intense nature of artistic inspiration. The mention of a “gold bound book” and “pusthakam pages” suggests a sacred or significant text, possibly representing the poet’s own source of inspiration. The blending of ink with mist creates an ethereal atmosphere, highlighting the mysterious and transformative nature of the creative process. The image of a bird dreaming its shadow adds a touch of surrealism, suggesting the dreamlike quality of artistic inspiration. Overall, these lines convey the depth and richness of the creative experience, where the mundane world intersects with the transcendent realm of imagination.
spreading fire in a tree maram. You murmured the word, sliding it on your tongue, trying to get how a girl could turn into a molten thing and not burn. Centuries later worn out from travel I rest under a tree.
In these lines the speaker recalls a moment of guidance and inspiration. The speaker remembers the muse introducing the word “maram,” meaning tree, and evoking imagery of spreading fire in a tree. The muse murmurs the word, exploring the idea of transformation as a girl becomes a molten thing without burning. The poet reflects on this image, contemplating the possibility of change and metamorphosis. Centuries later, fatigued from travel, the speaker finds rest under a tree, suggesting a connection between the timeless symbol of the tree and the enduring nature of inspiration and creativity.
In these lines the poet explores the transformative power of language and the vivid imagery it can evoke. The muse introduces the word “maram,” symbolizing a tree, and the poet vividly describes the concept of a girl turning into a molten substance without burning. This metaphor suggests a profound and possibly spiritual transformation. The act of sliding the word on the tongue conveys a sensual and intimate engagement with language. The mention of centuries later and finding rest under a tree adds a layer of timelessness, hinting at the enduring impact of the muse’s teachings. The overall theme revolves around the potency of language, the potential for transformation, and the enduring influence of creative inspiration.
You come to me a bird shedding gold feathers, each one a quill scraping my tympanum. You set a book to my ribs. Night after night I unclasp it at the mirror's edge
In these lines the speaker talks about the muse’s arrival as a transformative and artistic experience. The muse is portrayed as a bird shedding gold feathers, each functioning like a quill that delicately scratches the poet’s eardrum. The act of setting a book to the poet’s ribs suggests a profound internal impact. The poet, night after night, opens this metaphorical book at the mirror’s edge, implying a reflective and introspective engagement with the muse’s influence. Overall, the lines convey the muse’s creative inspiration and its effect on the poet’s perception and artistic expression.
In these lines the poet vividly portrays the muse’s arrival as a mystical and transformative event. The description of the muse as a bird shedding gold feathers suggests a radiant and ethereal presence, symbolizing artistic inspiration. The quills scraping the poet’s tympanum (eardrum) convey the sensory and auditory impact of the muse’s influence. The placement of a book to the poet’s ribs signifies a deep, internal connection, suggesting that the muse’s influence resonates within the poet’s core. The nightly act of unclasping the book at the mirror’s edge adds a reflective dimension, hinting at self-discovery and contemplation in response to the muse’s inspiration. Overall, the lines depict a rich and multi-sensory engagement with the muse, emphasizing its profound effect on the poet’s creative process and self-awareness.
alphabets flicker and soar. Write in the light of all the languages you know the earth contains, you murmur in my ear. This is pure transport.
In these lines the speaker describes the dynamic and uplifting nature of creativity inspired by the muse. The alphabets flickering and soaring convey the transformative power of language and the written word. The command to “write in the light of all the languages” suggests a universal and inclusive approach to expression, embracing the diverse linguistic richness of the world. The intimate murmur in the ear implies a personal and close connection between the poet and the muse. The phrase “pure transport” captures the transcendent and transporting experience of being carried away by creative inspiration. Overall, the lines celebrate the expansive and liberating influence of the muse on the poet’s imaginative process.
In these lines the poet delves into the transformative power of creative inspiration. The flickering and soaring of alphabets evoke the dynamic and fluid nature of language, suggesting that creativity can take flight and transcend conventional boundaries. The directive to “write in the light of all the languages” underscores a call for a diverse and inclusive exploration of linguistic possibilities. The intimate act of murmuring in the ear emphasizes the personal and close connection between the poet and the muse, suggesting a source of inspiration that is both intimate and powerful. The phrase “pure transport” encapsulates the idea that creative expression, guided by the muse, is a transcendent experience that transports the poet beyond ordinary realms of thought. Overall, these lines convey a celebration of the boundless and liberating influence of the muse on the poet’s creative process.