The Muse is Not a Trophy Wife

Let me begin by saying that I crashed a party. I wasn’t supposed to be there. It didn’t go as far as donning Groucho glasses, mind you. I do have standards. But nonetheless, I did – crash.

I saw the announcement in the bulletin that the Young Adult Club in my parish was hosting a lecture on poetry for young adults. But I, ancient adult that I be – well, I wanted in. Lucky for me the Pastor was a literary type and had sympathy for the gray-haired poets of wiser years among his congregation. I didn’t exactly beg to crash the young adult party, mind you, but perhaps just dropped a few well-chosen and cleverly casual hints that I desired to hear this lecture.

Okay. I DID beg. Outright. Like a man starved.

His answer came a few days later, whispered while passing me after Mass – like the shadowy voice at the speak easy door on hearing the secret password – “You can come” he quipped, with the clearly unspoken caveat, “but you didn’t hear it from me”. God bless him! I was IN.

On the night in question, I walked up the steps to the fellowship hall, slipped noiselessly through the door and sat inconspicuously near the wall. All about me was the gaggle. The young adults. Drinking lovely craft beers and happily indulging in what I have come to call the flirting ritual of hope. Lots of high pitched, feminine giggling at jokes that really didn’t merit much of a giggle at all. Lots of manly, roosterish strutting and sparring going on that made me smile to myself: oh, remember this? This timeless, awkwardly charming, hopeful ritual dance of the young seekers of love.

I am a sucker for love. Maybe it was to be found that very night between two starry eyed dreamers at the young adult poetry lecture. Love goes where it will, after all. How absolutely and poetically just that would be, I chortled slightly to myself. It threw a bit of fairy dust on the scenario.

A furtive knock at the door and a puzzled face interrupted my little reverie. “Was this the lecture hall?” it asked. I assured the speaker it was as I opened the door to a simply dressed, unassuming middle aged man with a ready smile of thanks who sought a place further down the wall from me. Hmmm, a fellow crasher, I surmised. As I took in his slightly wrinkled sweater, I suddenly wondered: Why is he here? And for that matter, why am I here, I wondered still more.

This was a lecture to be given by the chair of the literature department at a prominent University in my city. But I knew I was not here because of his academic pedigree. I am too old now to be impressed by degrees or pedigrees. I came longing for a spark. I came looking for a love and excitement for poetry in someone else’s eyes looking back at me. I sought genuine enthusiasm. Not affectation. I wanted to revel with someone in words. To feel my soul expand, if even just a little, with the extraordinary otherness of beauty. That might be much to ask of a Young Adult Poetry night in a small neighborhood parish. But my optimism seemed inexplicably un-dashable that evening. 

I suppose I felt as hopeful as the dreaming young adults in the room that love was still possible for those who sought it, no matter where. I sought Poetry that night. I longed for the muse to shine in this plain little fellowship hall as it did in the halls of Parnassus. I wanted to see her beauty in the worst way even if only a glimpse. I was hungry for it. But would she come? It all turned, I suddenly realized, on the nature of the messenger. The herald of her coming, as it were. The man on whose arm she would enter my soul.

Poets. Professors. Philosophers. They have courted and danced with the Muse. They know her delights. She has given them tokens of her favor. Magical words. Thoughts. Syllogisms. They have fallen in love with her intoxicating ways. They have made it their life’s work to introduce her to us. But the way they love her is paramount. It is a humbling task to have the Muse on your merely mortal arm. You must let her beauty shine without getting in the way. You must be that man who adores her and counts himself utterly and mystifyingly lucky that a putsy guy like himself ended up with a girl like her. A man who always thanks his lucky stars. What would such a man be like?

I decided long ago that I like my poets, professors and philosophers scruffy, as it were. I came to this decision after listening to and watching a PhD candidate in Philosophy strut his hour upon the stage. He looked like he had practiced his pose in the mirror complete with finger to lip as though having watched one too many videos of William Buckley’s carefully affected “quid, pro, quo”. I almost giggled out loud. Shame on me. I know. I shouldn’t have, because he was just an impressionable twenty something who thought this is what the “persona” called for. He was young. He still had so much life ahead that would not always be answered with a neat and tidy Thomistic syllogism. Eventually the finger would come down from his lips in shocked surprise at his colossal ignorance. That is always a rude awakening. But that would be the day he became a true philosopher.

But for now he found his identity in dropping obscure, mostly forgotten Medieval philosophers’ names to impress upon us all that he knew much, and that we perhaps did not. He sauntered with the Lady Muse on his arm as a charming appendage to his impressive self. She was not his beloved on whom he looked with rapturous eyes and urged us to do so as well. She was, alas, a trophy wife to an intellectual ‘swell’. And she looked quite unhappy there, as any trophy wife would. She was not meant to reflect him like the moon. She was the sun and she had been eclipsed by a strutting mortal. It must not be this way with poets, professors and philosophers.

Poets, professors, and philosophers should be part mad scientist, experimenting with the physical world, and part child gazing long at the unexplainable beauty around them, overjoyed that they have been invited to come out and play in it. They would never think to strike any sort of pose, as they are far too absorbed in the world around them to even care HOW they come across.

I would allow them a tweed jacket as long as it was ill fitting and a bit too big or far too small. Their hair should be just this side of uncombed. Their socks should be a bit ratty and perhaps mismatched or wild with color. No conjuring of ponderous, thoughtful images in our minds, but an image of someone who lives with interest and has opinions (hence the colored socks). In short, I prefer my poets and philosophers slightly askew.

I do have an archetype in mind. It became my ‘construct’ the day I was to explain the proposal for my college senior thesis to my faculty advisor. It is a lovely memory for me and I am glad I have it. In hindsight, this man was both true philosopher and poet, but at the time I just found him so delightfully and insanely spontaneous in the best of ways.

He met me on the sidewalk outside his office door and said, “Do you mind if we take a walk? I need to get outside!” “Oh sure” I said, wondering how I was to juggle all my notes and walk at the same time in this spontaneous change of venue. We strolled leisurely down to some ponds at the bottom of the property. My advisor bent down like a fascinated boy and peered closely at a blob of sticks that had gotten in the way of the water flowing from one pond to the other. He hmm’d and hmm’d audibly all the while listening to me blabber on about the concept of self love in the Scriptures. Once in awhile he would pick up a rock and say, “What if I did this? Where would the water flow then? Water. Wonderful, wonderful stuff”. Then he would ask a very pertinent question about my blabbering that clearly told me he had been listening the whole time while building his little dam and gushing over the properties of water.

The cuffs of his pants were soaked with said water by this time. We walked on and he picked up a stick and waved it happily like a wand as he gazed up at the canopy of trees above us. I watched him in bemused fascination, as I droned helplessly on about all my quid. pro. quos. My thesis suddenly seemed rather dull compared to the world he was revealing to me in that moment. I felt slightly and unaccountably giddy. Quid, pro, quos seldom if ever make one THIS giddy. He was this lovely, eccentric little man adoring the Muse and asking me thereby: “Isn’t she just beautiful?” I had to smile at his face. I have never quite forgotten that look. It has become the archetype.

Suddenly out of the blue he stopped me and asked, “Oh say, can you babysit for me tonight? I want to take my wife out on the town for dinner and dancing”. I stopped mid gab and stammered out, “Uh, sure”. Then he told me to look up at the trees and how they moved in the wind at different speeds depending on the shape of the leaves. I looked up and said aloud in total spontaneity, “Huh? Wow! Really, wow! I never noticed that before”. He just smiled and started whistling. Thus we walked and hammered out the outline of my thesis proposal. He left me at his office door with a respectful little bow and, “It’s been a great pleasure.” He meant every word. But the pleasure was all mine.

That is a philosopher. That is a poet. That is a professor. One who seeks. One who needs to experiment with his thoughts and say words out loud just to hear how they sound. One who delights in what he is thinking about. One who is so taken with water that he doesn’t mind his cuffs being baptized in the wonder of it. One who thinks about the happiness of his wife and the prospect of dancing with her in his arms, while in the midst of teaching the supposedly higher things. One who is constantly thanking his lucky stars that the Muse smiles upon his small, eccentric, little, unimportant self and he is filled with a giddy adoration that wants to constantly tell others to love her too. To treat her as the gorgeous sun that she is. Give me THAT man, ever and always. This is the sort of man who should have the Lady Muse upon his arm. He adores her. No trophy wife, she, to a man so lucky in love.

This delightful professor came to mind as I waited for the knowledgeable department head to appear in the Parish hall where I sat crashing the party. How would he measure up to my archetype, I wondered?

He was duly announced. I looked about waiting for the pomp and strut of the PhD. Yet what to my wondering eyes should appear but my fellow wall flower suddenly stirring and walking to the podium. THIS was the lecturer? He just smiled shyly as he passed me. I was suddenly enchanted by his ordinariness and his slightly wrinkled sweater.

He said many lovely things that night. He had a four year old at home who fascinated and inspired him with his fresh takes on the world. He had a quite vulnerable, regretful, almost resigned twinge in his voice when he mentioned that so many people were afraid of poetry and thus would never read it. Clearly this made him wistful as any lover whose beloved has been overlooked or ignored, for he wanted Lady Muse to be loved by all as he loved her. His wistfulness softened my heart to him. I understood it.

He soon shook off this wistfulness, however, and brought her to the fore for our adoration. He was going to show us her beauty. He was going to usher her into our souls with the resolve of a lover. He started speaking eagerly, almost breathlessly, of poets, as though not wanting us to lose attention at the magic he was weaving. He quoted and quoted poets becoming a bit lost in the beauty of the words and images. And there it was! My spark! He then said this:

“There are always poets underfoot. God just keeps making them”. He smiled in absolute satisfaction that this was so. He made one young lady in the audience spontaneously stand up and announce she never knew how wonderful words could be. And she declared she was going to read more poetry! She had suddenly seen the Muse on this professor’s arm and marveled as much as he did.

I felt unexplainably giddy. He mentioned to us that poets are always pointing at reality and saying, “Hey, did you see that? And that? Did you look? Did you see it?” Unto botheration!! Like children see the world. Fresh. Real. Ugly when ugly. Gorgeous when gorgeous. Genuine. Always pointing, like my delightful professor of long ago days. My treasured archetype.

It made me realize that is all I want. To be bothered by poets. Incessantly. So that I won’t stop marveling at the world the way God wants me to see it. To be ever dazzled by the Muse on their merely mortal arm. To have her ushered into my waiting soul.

I am not sure if any of the young adults found their true love that night at the poetry lecture. I wish them my heartfelt blessing if they did. But I am sure I saw the Muse in a new light that evening – all lovely and shining on the arm of one who adored her.

And I say, let that man be praised at the city gate! For, to him, the Muse shall never be a trophy wife.

Denise Trull, is a mother and grandmother with a heart for encouraging others. Her writing is regularly featured in Dappled Things, Theology of Home and her personal blog, The Inscapist.  She loves to read, write, and ruminate on the beauty of life and is a lover of the word in all its forms!