Sitting in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton,* a poet from Houston told me her Muse was a pair of shoes. “Huh?” “Shoes, I put them on and feel inspired.” I shook my head. “Would you mind if I wrote a poem about that, you and your shoes?” “They’re silver, high-heeled Ferragamos, around $3,000.”

The Muses are from Greek mythology. There are nine: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. There father was Zeus; mother, Mnemosyne. They were on the payroll to inspire artists, musicians, writers and poets. It’s been about 2,500 years. Artists have credited them to varying degrees. Unfortunately, there have been cutbacks. None of the original nine remain employed.

What’s a poet to do?

I stand by everything I previously said about inspiration. Nutshell, inspiration is for amateurs.

There is a difference between inspiration and The Muse, or A Muse. A Muse is what you are moved to write about. What moves you to write would be called inspiration. I could hear you slapping your hand on your desk, “subject is not a Muse.” Yes, it is. I’m glad we cleared that up.**

The last two years have found me writing many surrealistic love poems. Rereading the bunch, most are a about a specific woman long gone from my life. Strange, I didn’t write about her while we were together. Pain is an effective Muse. Yes, the person returning your love can be a Muse, but he or she often becomes The Muse of sentimental poetry. Yehuda Amichai said when he was in love he wrote war poems, when in war, wrote love poems. War is a Muse.

The woman in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton also told me that she wrote four poems about her shoes. One of the poems was about her wearing only the shoes and writing a poem. Is that art imitating life? Two years previous to this conversation I wrote a poem† about a woman taking a shower while wearing a pair of red shoes. The Muse for this poem is a woman I dated. Malicious women make more effective Muses. I know what you’re thinking, “get over it, Rick.”

I own ninety-two fountain pens. Whenever I begin to scribble with one I want to write a poem. Muse. Whenever I look at a photograph by Michael Kenna I want to write a poem. Muse. Later tonight I plan to sit in my favorite chair, smoke a cigar and scribble line-after-line of what I hope will be a poem. No Muse.

* I was there for the 2009 AWP.
** Since we’re putting our cards on the table, do you really believe Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania ever existed? I do.
Originally appeared in the New Orleans Review, Loyola University, Vol. 33, Number 2, 2008
The Virtu
This wasn’t the first time I watched a woman
wear high heels in the shower.
Closed-toe this time, her toes weren’t painted
and she didn’t want anyone to see.
After she told me this her head tilted back.
Water masked her face in a way
not possible if she was still turned
to me as I stood at the sink shaving
-- or I might have been brushing my teeth,
either way, an inconsequential detail.
Water darkened the red shoes.
Though the damaged world spun beneath,
her balance, of course, was perfect.