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Mother of Muses: A Prayer from Bob Dylan at 80

by David Shaddock

This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.

"I'M FALLING IN LOVE with Calliope," sings Bob Dylan on his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Calliope, the muse of harmony and epic poetry, is Dylan's latest, and perhaps ultimate love. For those who want to follow, here is the link to the lyrics on Dylan's website: May 24, 2021 was his eightieth birthday, so I thought I'd devote this column to "Mother of Muses," the song where that line appears. The song is, among other things, a cry of despair—"I've grown so tired of chasing lies…" he writes a few lines after declaring his love for the muse. "I've already outlived my life by far." I associate those lines to a phrase from the poet Frank O'Hara, where he talks of slaying "the scene of my selves"…"the occasion of these ruses." Nearing eighty, Dylan has grown weary of performing himself. He is praying to the mother of muses—technically Mnemosyne, the mother of the other eight muses—to help him "Forge my identity from the inside out."

Generativity versus Stagnation is the penultimate dialectic that frames Erik Erikson's description of the stages of human development, followed by Integrity versus Despair. I hear this song as a prayer for both generativity and integrity. "How does it feel?" Dylan once snarled, "to be on your own." Here, with an understated drone replacing Mike Bloomfield's guitar work, Dylan sings, "Mother of Muses sing for my heart."

I want to build this column on the last phrase, "sing for my heart." Not sing of, or sing from, but sing for. The very notion of a muse who inspires or even dictates poetry expresses a truth that poets and seekers of all kinds know: the mind is vaster and wiser than the self. The identity that Dylan wants to forge "from the inside out," is the identity of a poet whose muse speaks for his heart, thereby transforming it.

Calliope plays a dual role in Greek mythology, she is the muse of harmony, of the grace in form that lyric poets strive for, and she is the muse of epic poetry, the poetry that places our lives in a grander narrative. So Dylan's prayer is for both words to sing and stories to tell. For those of us who came of age in the sixties, Dylan's stories shaped our lives—from the harrowing stories of Hollis Brown, Hattie Carrol, and Rueben Carter to the drugged-out hipsters of the Village to the wry reunion of ex-lovers in a strip joint—we found ourselves in them. The trap for Dylan was finding his self in us, for coming to be defined by our outsized projections. But underneath the posings and the putdowns there was a great generosity of spirit—if you listen, he would say, I will tell you the stories the muse tells me. They might help you find your own story. Or stories, as Dylan has always been a shape-shifter. (Quoting Whitman on another song from Rough and Rowdy Ways, he sings, "I contain multitudes.") Following the arc of Dylan's career from Jesus through Frank Sinatra, we might be inspired to hold our sense of self a little more lightly and allow the muse to lead us where she may.

To my ear, "Mother of Muses" is a prayer for healing, both collective and personal. One of the hallmarks of depression is a feeling of being cut off from the world, so Dylan asks his muse to help restore a sense of vastness. "Mother of muses, sing for me / Sing of the mountains and the deep dark sea / Sing of the lakes and the nymphs in the forest." My association here is to the Hudson School of nineteenth century American landscape painters. Perhaps Dylan would have encountered them during his stay in Woodstock. Their landscapes have a mythological feel, which would fit with Dylan's invocation of a Greek chorus: "Sing your hearts out - all you women of the chorus / Sing of honor and fame and glory be…Sing for a love too soon to depart." The lyric poet heals the self through connection to feeling and to the world.

Now Calliope is called to fulfill her second function, as muse to the epic stories that place our individual selves in history:

Sing of the heroes who stood alone

Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone

Who struggled with pain so the world could go free

The Iliad begins by invoking the "incalculable pain" of the Greek heroes. The narrative arc that Dylan describes in this verse is of his heroes, from Sherman to Montgomery to Patton "Who cleared the path for Presley to sing / Who carved out the path for Martin Luther King." The linking of Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King is either revelatory or the worst example of Dylan's following the exigency of his rhymes. The Dylan who penned "Masters of War" is here praising warriors (though that song condemned warmongers and profiteers). The patriotism reminds us that epic poets often tell a familiar story anew. Dylan invokes it at a moment when that narrative is encountering criticism for the racism it elides. We need these heroes, he is saying, don't be so quick to discard them. "Man, I could tell their stories all day." But not just now, (a bit of a relief?) as the song makes a sharp turn to the above-mentioned fourth verse about falling in love with Calliope, whom he sees as "speaking with her eyes."

"Mother of Muses unleash your wrath," Dylan sings, "Things I can't see - they're blocking my path." The Tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction," wrote William Blake, and it is true that for many of us only a focused anger can remove our life's obstacles. Almost immediately, though, the muse becomes a soothsayer and a moral force: "Show me your wisdom - tell me my fate / Put me upright - make me walk straight." Dylan, who has flirted with evangelical Christianity and orthodox Judaism, is here praying to the Mother. Because this mother is also the muse, his prayer is its own answer: his own words guide him out of the darkness. These words are not spoken, they are received; the poet's task is to listen.

Here's the last verse:

Take me to the river and release your charms

Let me lay down in your sweet lovin' arms

Wake me - shake me - free me from sin

Make me invisible like the wind

Got a mind to ramble - got a mind to roam

I'm travelin' light and I'm slow coming home

The muse here is a potpourri jukebox, playing snippets from Al Green to Albert Collins to the Blues Project to Leonard Cohen's last album. There's a churchy feel here, as we remember how much the blues and gospel are intertwined. The killer line for me is "Make me invisible like the wind." The prayer is for the muse to turn the poet into herself, pure spirit. "The last scud of day…coaxes me to the vapor and dusk," writes Whitman at the end of "Song of Myself." "I depart as air." Moved perhaps by the death of his friend Leonard Cohen, whose song the last line invokes, Dylan is preparing us for his own parting. "I'm slow coming home," he sings, invoking countless spirituals. But the poet reminds us that he is also near, near as the wind. The wind where, almost sixty years ago, Dylan told us the answer is blowin'.

David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His most recent poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. He is also the author of Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, from Routledge, and two books on relationships and couples therapy. He lectures widely on those topics, and maintains a private practice in Berkeley.

— posted JULY 2021

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