A few days ago just outside Vesuvius, a rusted old clunker of a pick-up, seemingly out of
nowhere, swerved in front of me with either malice aforethought or intention to send me a message. My pulse
raced, my attention intensified and for a moment I imagined it important to catch the number on his mangled
license tag. What I saw in bright letters was: Far Muse, and I felt something like an electrical jolt. Of
course, it took only moments to realize the tag said Farm Use, but the impression had been made.
For the early Greeks, the muses were all "far" creatures, distant goddesses sired by Zeus
on Mnemosyne (Memory), who had to be lured from Helicon into the artist's spirit and entreated to help him (or,
eventually, her) sing of "the man of twists and turns driven off course after he had plundered . . ." and other
urgent subjects. It's still a matter of convention (and perhaps superstition) to think of inspiration as
embodied in external beings who must be summoned or wooed in prayerful fashion, but many of us also suspect
that the muses have set up an outpost or relay station inside the mind of every artist, and what we're praying
for is: focus, access to our own resources, courage and energy, all intended to supplement the craft which we
acquire in less mysterious fashion (reading, observing, speculating; practice, practice, practice). This
amounts to the "far muse" less than the resident one, which perhaps needs to be awakened more than enticed.
Despite Twain's advice, I'm not ready to store all my eggs in one basket: I won't give up
on myth nor entirely dismiss modern psychology and physiology. This choice not to choose leaves me the following
position: The muse comes into being (I won't say "materializes") only on an unstable threshold where the
internal and external forces meet and interact without reservation or inhibition. Call it a waking dream, a
dance, a duet, a negotiation. Something of the mystical, something of the practical. When an artist at work
progresses from bemused to spellbound, despite attendant challenges and threats, the muse has been roused, and
it's an invigorating, refreshing, almost redemptive state, whether or not it results in satisfying expression.
Sometimes, sadly, it doesn't; but the experience of the muse is more about process than outcome.
I expect a multitude of writers and artists would line up quickly to say, "No, I don't think
that's what the muse is at all," but when I read a shining piece of prose, a compelling poem or resonant essay,
when I see a dazzling painting or enchanting dance, I feel this liminal element driving my response beyond the
safe and normal and into both a dark dialogue and a radiant one with the work of art. Conversely, most of the
art that doesn't appeal to me seems to depend too much on the demands of the far muse (and registers as
reportorial) or the one that dwells in the self (the ungoverned confessional and, sometimes, "professional")
and is less eager to enter the mysterious dynamic between the two.
To my mind, the work in this anniversary issue of The Cortland Review exemplifies this
working premisewonderful art comes from the encounter between our private mysteries and powers and the
world'sfar muse and nearand this issue's offering that embodies my premise most demonstrably (or at
least most visibly) is William Dunlap's painting "Fall Line: Valley Watch." Whether you want to think of the
painting as addressing the cusp between two seasons, the membrane between the earthly and the heavenly or the
ledge between human and natural, it clearly offers a dramatic and inspiring interface: something somber and
foreboding, yet something splendid and full of promise. Perhaps his title also suggests "The Fall," man's
sentence to the sweat and callous of agriculture, which may require hard labor but also offers fulfilling work.
And if the "watch" is obviously an alert (as in "flood watch"), it's also a timepiece, reminding us of "carpe
diem" and "nothing gold can stay." The human realm and Dunlap's eye supply the composition and the color, but
it's all set against a potentially overwhelming backdrop, the cost of summoning the muse, who can be coaxed and
guided but never quite controlled.
One thing I yearn for as both editor and audience is artwritten or otherwisewhich
stimulates me to such speculations and new ways of configuring my understanding. I want surprise and drama,
subtlety, density of implication and a fresh weave of recognition-amid-strangeness. I want dangerous imagination
and the sense that the inner and outer worlds, even the inner and outer gods, are being invoked and orchestrated,
that the near muse artists carry within them is primed for those moments when the FAR MUSE whips out in front of
us, sharpens our senses, alters our path and insists that Self and Other cooperate. I hope readers, auditors
and viewers of this issue of The Cortland Review, which I am mightily thankful for having been entrusted with,
will agree thatwherever it comes fromit offers what Coleridge called (and Robert Penn Warren echoed)
R. T. Smith
"The Fox" used by permission of Scruffy Murphy to introduce each poem.
Copyright © 2006 by Scruffy Murphy
Smith has edited Cold Mountain Review, Southern Humanities Review, Caesura, and Open House.
Since 1995 he has served as editor to Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review. Smith's books
of fiction are Faith
(Black Belt, 1995) and Uke
Rivers Delivers (LSU, 2006). His dozen poetry collections include
Hollow Log Lounge (Illinois, 2003), and
Style (Arkansas, 2007). Smith has received fellowships from the NEA, Arts International, and the
arts commissions of North Carolina, Alabama, and Virginia. He has also received three Pushcart Prizes. His most
recent projects are a forthcoming book of stories, Tastes Like Chicken, a book-length poem about Belle
Boyd, and a novel. Smith lives in Rockbridge County, Virginia, and will be poet-in-residence at Converse College
in the winter of 2008. He has an abiding interest in hounds. Visit his website at: http://rtsmith.org/