The end of Seamus Heaney's "A Personal Helicon" in many way sums up the way that I feel about the idea of inspiration:
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
The image of the poet staring down into the darkness of a dank well certainly makes sense to me as poet. I think that most of us who continue to write do so to try to figure out the world, but we do that figuring out in our context. We--or, should I say I--become the Narcissus of Heaney's verse.
But the crux seems to be the action of going to the well.
When I think back to when I was doing my graduate coursework (between 2005and 2007), there were days when I wrote sometimes two or three poems. I could just sit down, & the words came from somewhere. Post coursework (and post graduate school), I've found that I rarely have that kind of productivity. That fact has depressed me in the past.
However, now, I think I understand. When you're in the pressure cooker that is graduate school, you're thinking about poetry all the time. I went classes in which we read contemporary poetry & talked about contemporary poetics. I read my peers' poems; they read mine. In short, my life revolved around poetry.
Outside of the writing community I had in graduate school, I've discovered that if I'm not reading well, then there's no way that I can write well. If I'm not nourishing my poetic voice, then there's no way that I can produce good poems. Scratch that. If I'm not reading, then I can't write. Period. That includes prose, for me, as well.
Every so often, a student will stop by my office at school. Usually, some other faculty member has sent him or her to me. They shadow my door, clutching a stack of hand-written poems. I invite them in. They want me to read their work. I do.
"Who are some of your favorite poets?" I often ask, expecting the Beats, or Poe, or maybe Jim Caroll.
I'm always stunned into silence when the poet tells me, "I don't read poetry."
If you don't read poetry, then you don't have a lot of business writing it, much less publishing it. Imagine trying to write a song when you've never heard any music. I know; I know: some hold this theory that an "authentic voice" (whatever that is) might be subdued by reading others' work. That's silly & demonstrably untrue. Great art emerges from great art.
Which is not to say that reading good work makes one a good poet. Writing good poetry & finding your voice comes from practice, revision, & yes, failure. So, for me, the Muse or Inspiration isn't what's found at the bottom of Heaney's well in "A Personal Helicon." Instead, inspiration is the will to talk to the well.
O for a muse of fire,