From terrestrial to celestial – where do we find inspiration?

Hello friends,

Sometimes it feels like time is urgently pressing forward, opening the door, packing the car, starting the engine. It’s off on its adventures whether you’re ready or not. It’s these times, I’m told, one should slow down even more. Take longer to meditate in the morning, do the daily chores calmly and contemplatively, walk softly and quietly across the world. And yet. I find there is a certain rush about July that I can’t escape. While some people find the abundance of sunshine relaxing and easy, for me it’s a subtle but constant nagging. Pleeeease wake up it seems to whinge at 4am. Hurry, you should be snoozing at the beach already!, it taunts. Why aren’t you relaxing..! 

Swedes take an entire month off work in July as standard protocol. It’s unthinkable in other parts of the world, but here, local GP practices all but close down, cafés shut up completely, and city offices are haunted by a ghostly skeleton of staff. The whole of Sweden desperately wants to make the most of the short few months available to swim in the lakes and pick berries in the forest. Perhaps it’s just me, but it’s all a bit stressful. A little part of me is longing for overcast days with no guilt attached to staying indoors. 

The press of time, that can feel so acute in certain seasons or periods of life, can jumpstart our instinct to leave a trace, to create some kind of testimony of who we are at this moment, to record our existence and identify as this, here, now. But that same rush and press of urgency can scare away our slow-moving, gentle-spirited muses. 

This month we’re peering behind the curtain and looking at the muse in her many guises, on Earth as she is in heaven, on a timeline of her own making.

Sometimes the muse is a napkin

Inspiration can come from anywhere, any time. Artists are known to have funny rituals, poems, ways to incant the muse and bring about an easy working day. Artists latch on to people (like Warhol did with Edie Sedgwick) or places (Van Gogh and Arles) that stoke the fire of inspiration in them and conjure their work. From the outside, it seems like magic. I often think about a story from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, about the writer Ruth Stone:

“She told me that when she was a child growing up on a farm in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields when she would sometimes hear a poem coming toward her — hear it rushing across the landscape at her, like a galloping horse. Whenever this happened, she knew exactly what she had to do next: She would “run like hell” toward the house, trying to stay ahead of the poem, hoping to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough to catch it. That way, when the poem reached her and passed through her, she would be able to grab it and take dictation, letting the words pour forth onto the page. Sometimes, however, she was too slow, and she couldn’t get to the paper and pencil in time. At those instances, she could feel the poem rushing right through her body and out the other side. It would be in her for a moment, seeking a response, and then it would be gone before she could grasp it — galloping away across the earth, as she said, “searching for another poet.” But sometimes (and this is the wildest part) she would nearly miss the poem, but not quite. She would just barely catch it, she explained, “by the tail.” Like grabbing a tiger. Then she would almost physically pull the poem back into her with one hand, even as she was taking dictation with the other. In these instances, the poem would appear on the page from the last word to the first — backward, but otherwise intact.” 

It’s enchanting and mysterious to think of creativity like this, a celestial tiger, thrumming through the skies in search of a vessel to channel it. 

Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, by Édouard Manet (1882)

The muse is so precious because it is the energy by which artists convert their lived experience into their creative work. Without that, artists are de-clawed, powerless, infertile. They have no tool to make their mark, no colour to decorate our world. In a certain way, artists perform the work of the general population in creating stories and moments that reflect all our experiences and inspire us – they’re all our voices, all our muses.

I hate to bang on about him every month, but it’s Nick Cave again. On receiving a nomination for Best Male Artist at the 1996 MTV awards, Cave politely declined, and the reason he gives is beautiful.  

21 Oct 96

To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you all for the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist. The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P. J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated. So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself, do not. I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.

Yours sincerely

Nick Cave

In 2007, Esquire magazine sent out 250 napkins to writers, and received in return nearly 100 filled with stories and poetry. They called it The Napkin Project. Last month, they did it again, but with ten select writers. The two Napkin Projects are an homage to the perennial writer’s muse – the bar. In terms of muses, there is perhaps none so universal as the bar. There’s a cliché about the backs of napkins –  the unassuming white space inviting innovation, the way a binking cursor on a blank document can’t. Napkins are made to be thrown away. Napkins won’t allow space for a full day’s work, either – just large enough for a very short story, or the barest outline of a novel, or perhaps a scene setting. Writers can’t be relied upon for the healthiest lifestyles or work habits, but there is a romantic notion to the bar-writer. Bars and cafés are a portal to real life and real stories – just as any muse can be. Bars offer just the right amount of anonymity, distraction and focus; and napkins are a willing notepad as the drinks flow and inspiration strikes. Informal spaces and tools can be so much more abundantly creative than specially-designed, perfectly quiet, top-of-the-range workspaces. Not just the smells and noises and colours – but also the low expectations. Much like Cave suggests – that the muse might bolt if it’s put in a judging environment – the pressure of defined spaces and fancy equipment can be destructive, while unassuming places or tools allow the work to flow unburdened.

Poetic moon-shots

In outer space, the precision of science and the ambiguity of poetry come together. Sensible theories meet outlandish realities. “Everything on Earth,” the NASA website explains, “everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe.” More is unknown than known. Terminology around deep space is elegant and mellifluous: event horizons, bright nebulas, interstellar scintillation. Stephen Hawkins’ final paper, submitted two weeks before his death, is entitled: Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair. Is there any sentence more vast and still more tender? The paper is about if matter really disappears into black holes, or if all the information is stored in the border of the hole (in the so-called ‘hairs’). Perhaps nothing is really lost, it just disappears out of sight. 

Clipper is the name of a new satellite mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, due to launch next year. Scientists believe that the moon’s chemical compounds, water and heat are conducive to life, and mimic those found on Earth. For the launch, the American Poet Laureate Ada Limon has written a poem. The piece will be engraved on a plaque aboard the craft to sail into space.

The graceful addition of poetry to this mission speaks to that elegant crossover of known and unknown in deep space. It points to our human tendency to press into the gaps and crevices of experience with stories and words – to attempt to express ourselves. We explore newness with names and stories on our lips. We want to find life, deep down, not just to exploit or study it – but simply to have someone or something new to tell our stories too.

In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa
by Ada Limon

Arching under the night sky inky
with black expansiveness, we point
to the planets we know, we

pin quick wishes on stars. From earth,
we read the sky as if it is an unerring book
of the universe, expert and evident.

Still, there are mysteries below our sky:
the whale song, the songbird singing
its call in the bough of a wind-shaken tree.

We are creatures of constant awe,
curious at beauty, at leaf and blossom,
at grief and pleasure, sun and shadow.

And it is not darkness that unites us,
not the cold distance of space, but
the offering of water, each drop of rain,

each rivulet, each pulse, each vein.
O second moon, we, too, are made
of water, of vast and beckoning seas.

We, too, are made of wonders, of great
and ordinary loves, of small invisible worlds,
of a need to call out through the dark

Ophelia brought back to life

25th July was Elizabeth Siddal’s birthday. If you don’t recognise her name, you’ll almost certainly recognise her face. Lizzie Siddal was Dante Rossetti’s flame-haired wife and muse, and an icon of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

One of her most famous appearances is in John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, but it’s less widely known that Siddal was an artist and poet in her own right. In her career spanning just nine years, she produced over 100 works. The critic William Gaunt wrote: “her verses were as simple and moving as ancient ballads; her drawings were as genuine in their medieval spirit as much more highly finished and competent works of Pre-Raphaelite art.”

In a sad parallel to Ophelia, Siddal too was troubled with ill-health and depression in her adult life, and became addicted to laudanum. Eventually, she overdosed and died aged 32.

In a narrative that has long made Siddal the mute object of Pre-Raphaelite art, historians and curators are beginning to course-correct and include her name as not “just” a model, but an artist in her own right.

“A lot of the stories that are told about Elizabeth are not really stories about Elizabeth — they are stories about Dante Gabriel: his love affair and the inspiration of his art, and the Elizabeth that he creates in his poems and his pictures. And so she gets eclipsed in lots of different ways,” Tate curator Carol Jacobi says. “I think it’s still really hard to get at that real person.”

Siddal’s work is finally championed alongside the largest exhibition of Dante Rossetti’s work – currently on show as part of a show focused on the Rossetti family at Tate Britain until the end of September, and then moving on to the Delaware Art Museum.

Excerpt from A Year and a Day
Elizabeth Siddal

Slow days have passed that make a year,
Slow hours that make a day,
Since I could take my first dear love
And kiss him the old way;
Yet the green leaves touch me on the cheek,
Dear Christ, this month of May.

Elizabeth Siddal in ‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais (1852)

Until next month…

May you be well, happy, whole, and free.

T & B


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