Meena Alexander is an Indian poet who has spent much of her career working as a professor in New York City. This poem was published in 2022 in Alexander’s collection Illiterate Heart. The novel won the PEN Open Book Award that same year. It explores how the speaker, commonly interpreted as the poet herself, took inspiration from a young girl she knew in grade school.
‘Muse’ by Meena Alexander is a poem about inspiration and creativity.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how, during her youth, she met a young girl who gave her a notebook and provided for her a well of inspiration. As the poem progresses, the poet uses an extended metaphor, coming creativity and her muse to a bird. She stands in front of the mirror (an allusion to self-analysis) and writes in multiple languages, always listening to the girl whispering in her ear.
You can read the full poem here.
The meaning of this poem is that anything, even a mundane-seeming relationship with a friend at school, can be a source of inspiration. The girl gave her three things—the words girl, book, tree in Tamil. These are included in the text and allude to the poet’s inspiration to write in multiple languages in her poetry.
Structure and Form
‘Muse’ by Meena Alexander is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets are written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, there are examples of rhyme and repetition throughout. For instance, the half rhyme of “turn” and “girl” in lines two and four of the first stanza and the sibilance found in the words “socks, shoes” and “blouse” in the last two lines of the stanza.
- Anaphora: the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “the” which begins lines five and six of the second stanza, and “you” which begins lines four and five of the sixth stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the fourth stanza and lines one and two of the fifth stanza.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, the poet writes “dressed like a convent girl” in line four of the first stanza.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “rosewood room” in line five of the second stanza and “bound book” in line three of the third stanza.
I was young when you came to me.
Each thing rings its turn,
you sang in my ear, a slip of a thing
dressed like a convent girl–
white socks, shoes,
dark blue pinafore, white blouse.
In the first stanza of ‘Muse,’ the speaker begins by looking back on a time when “you” came to her. This “you” is later defined as a “convent girl” whose dressed in a school-like uniform (a pinafore is a garment that looks like an apron). She came to the speaker and sang in her ear. She was only a small child, but her impact was quite large. The speaker’s creative life has been defined by what plays out in this poem.
When she notes that “each thing rings its turn” that she remembers, she indicates that each part of her memory is clear and vivid. She hasn’t forgotten anything.
A pencil box in hand: girl, book, tree—
the sky at monsoon time, pearl slits
In the second stanza, the speaker describes how the young girl gave her three words “girl, book, tree.” These three words turn out to be quite important to the speaker. But, before revealing more about the girl’s influence, she describes her as “penne” a Tamil word meaning “girl.” This gives the reader an important piece of information, that the girl, like the poet, is Tamil.
Her hair is flattened on her scalp, and through metaphors, the poet describes the girl as a mirror “in a rosewood room” that the poet sees herself in. She was also like a dark, cloudy sky with slits of light coming through.
In cloud cover, a jagged music pours:
a bird might have dreamt its shadow there
In the third stanza, the speaker continues the line she enjambed at the end of stanza two. The girl was like pearls of rain or light coming through the cloud cover, a kind of “jagged music” that inspired and drew out emotion in the speaker.
The girl gave her a notebook, a “pusthakam” that furthered their friendship and the girl’s connection as the speaker’s muse. It was an old book, bound in gold. She describes it as a bird’s shadow, something that the small creature might have “dreamt.” It is an item of great importance that means more than its appearance might suggest.
spreading fire in a tree maram.
I rest under a tree.
In the next few lines, the speaker describes how the girl introduced her to a new world. These lines, like the last, are filled with imaginative examples of imagery. The word “madam,” meaning tree in Tamil is part of this imaginative series of images.
The girl turning into the “molten thing and not burn” is representative of the way that the speaker/poet’s creativity was sparked by the girl and the notebook she gave her. She’s been on a long journey throughout her life, something she describes with an example of hyperbole, seen in the phrase: “Centuries later.”
You come to me
at the mirror’s edge
The fifth stanza addresses the girl and tells readers have she comes to the speaker as a bird “shedding gold feathers,” each of which becomes a quiz. These feathers scrape the speaker’s tympanum or a part of her eardrums. The bird/girl inspires her to write and “set a book to” her ribs. She’s attached to the book and turns to it and the well of inspiration that her muse provides to write.
alphabets flicker and soar.
This is pure transport.
The final stanza is the first to directly mention writing and creativity. The speaker describes how at the “mirror’s edge” (while analyzing her life, muse, and creativity), the speaker feels the alphabet soaring. She writes in languages as her muse murmurs in her ear.
Her muse told her to write “in the light of all the languages,” a reference to the poet’s use of Tamil and English in her world. Her muse also inspired her to think differently and be as creative as possible.
The tone is nostalgic and appreciative. The speaker looks back on the friendship she had in her youth and recalls the way she inspired her to write, particularly to write in multiple languages.
The poem is about what the poet draws on as her source of inspiration. She describes knowing a young girl during her youth who inspired her and continues to do so to this day.
The poem ‘Muse’ by Meena Alexander is a free verse poem. The poem is divided into six stanzas, though, each of which contains six lines. This structure, as well as a few examples of half-rhyme, is the only structure that the poet imbued her poem with.
The speaker is the poet herself. She’s looking back on her youth and recalling the way that a friend, a schoolgirl, inspired her to write. Her friendship with this girl is still meaningful to this day.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Meena Alexander poems. For example:
- ‘Diagnosis’ – suggests that dying is ineffable, the feeling of knowing the end is coming being too great to express.
Some other related poems include:
- ‘Portrait d’une Femme’ by Ezra Pound – is a poem about poetry. In it, Pound takes on one of the most important themes throughout the history of poetry, the female muse.
- ‘Sonnet 100‘ by William Shakespeare – marks a turn in Shakespeare’s Fair Youth series in which he implores his muse to inspire him