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Timothy Green, "The Mind-Tool: Poetry as Magic"


In editing dozens of literary interviews for Rattle, several things have become clear, but one of them is this:  Most poets, even the most talented, those more brilliant than I can ever aspire to be, have little idea what they’re actually doing, or how they do it. Poets talk about poetry like the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant: “It’s long and slender like a snake!” “No, it’s thick and sturdy like the base of a tree!” Even though they’re all talking about the same thing.
And it drives me nuts. Because, though I may just be naive and sophomoric, the answer is excruciatingly obvious to me.  It’s self-evident and indisputable:Poetry is magic.

I don’t mean magic as some grand self-important metaphor, or that poetry will make the table float up off the floor and wow the crowds. I mean poetry is real, honest to god, actual-because-it-works magic.

Recently I started playing a real video game for the first time in about a decade.  I wanted something to become engrossed in, something to play when I’m tired and want to escape from the world. So I looked for a game that had the biggest world to lose yourself in, and Google told me that game was Morrowind.  It’s basically Dungeons & Dragons on the computer, with swords and shields and health points and all that– including magic.  If you’re not a wizard and adept at magic, you cast your spells by reading a scroll.  Each scroll has a silly little phrase, like “Woe be upon you,” and presumably your character says the phrase aloud to produce the desired effect.
That’s what a spell is: a string of words you recite to produce some desired effect. And that’s what poetry is: a string of words you recite to produce some desired effect.

Unlike in Morrowind, there are no poems for walking on water or shooting lightning out of our fingertips—but you could easily say that there are poems for healing.  There are poems for laughter, poems for joy, poems for sadness, poems for epiphany, poems for transformation.
Another word for a spell is a mantra, which comes from the Sanskrit “man” (to think) and “-tra” (tool)—literally translated, then, a mantra is a tool for transforming the mind. Mantras have been a key component to meditation in the Vedic tradition for thousands of years, and are taken as seriously as any religion, distilled in the now infamous Om. Buddhism has the Great Compassion Mantra, and the Heart Sutra. Hinduism has mantras for Vishnu and Shanti. Mantra japa are recited in cycles of 108, counted on beaded necklaces called malas, which do more than just remind one of Catholic prayer beads—they’re one in the same.

No matter what tradition they’re working form, people use the sounds and rhythms of language as a nexus of meditation, in an effort to alter their own mental states. That’s all poetry is—a spell, a prayer, a mantra, transcribed by one and recited by another.

Once you see poetry in this way, other aspects of the artform start to make a lot of sense:
  1. Every sound is important.  If Bugs Bunny says Abracablahblah instead of Abracadabra, the Count doesn’t turn from a vampire into a cute little bat.  The spell just fails. That’s why a certain word in a poem can feel “off.”  And the rhythm matters, too—that’s why a poet can spend the entire day deciding to delete a comma only to add it back again. If you’re conjuring up the Devil, you don’t want to mispronounce his name.
  2. Every time you cast a spell, it loses some of its effect. Cliches are old spells. They’re little poems that used to work, but we’ve used them so often the papyrus is crumbling and the magic’s worn off.
  3. Conversely, fresh language is a new spell, and new spells are the most powerful.
  4. Performance poets are master magicians, who can use weaker spells to great effect.
  5. Page poets craft brilliant spells that only work when you cast them yourself.
  6. Attention matters.  One of the main tenants of any school of magic is the idea that the focused will is central to execution. If your mind starts to wander, or you lose your suspension of disbelief, the spell fails. You have to have faith in the magic for the magic to work.
Most importantly, the poem-as-spell definition explains the fundamental connection between meditation and composition. It explains my favorite quote, by Elizabeth Bishop: “What we receive from great art is the same thing that’s necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” It explains why so many poets like to write in the woods, why they all have little tricks to get in the right mindset, why it helps to read other poems first to prime the pump of language in their heads.

If what a poet is doing is crafting a mantra—a tool for altering one’s mental state—it’s necessary to be experiencing that desired state at the moment of creation.  A poet’s job is to conjure a magical space, and then record it as a string of language, so that others may follow them there.
It’s as simple as that, and we should be able to say it as sincerely as a Vedic priest: All poetry is magic.
        Nighthawks, 1942
She says that everything is after Hopper.
That posh hotel—you looked about to slap her,
but never did. Sometimes she’d wait at night
in her blue robe, face folded like the note
you didn’t leave crumpled in a coat pocket.
Sometimes she’d stand in broad daylight, naked
before an open window, flesh so pale
and round and full it seemed about to pull
a tide of ruttish men up from the street.
But mostly it’s the red dress. The cut straight,
sleeveless, loose. And her mouth is only lipstick.
She says you never even see her talk,
but just about to talk, about to smile.
She says that every moment is a jail;
this diner is her prison of endless light,
the ceaseless hour always getting late—
yet no one moves. Her cigarette remains
unlit. The busboy doesn’t lift his hands.
You could write a thousand lines, she says,
on all the things she never does or has.
How she seems so sad she might have cried.
How you only see her almost satisfied.
first published in The Pedestal Magazine
We are like two chasms,
a well staring up at the sky
          –Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
two mirrors face each other            my hands over my face            the
porcelain soap dish            an angel’s wings & a mile of its offerings           
pink on pink on black tile            I’m in the bathroom            close the door
shut the light            down the hall the tv too loud            bob barker & the
price is right            shut that out too            I’m on the other edge of
something            of adulthood            of a gulf            a canyon            looking
down down            no vultures circling picking bones though            no
heaped bodies to climb over            no fall to cushion            or to be
cushioned            not the body that matures this time            just this
hollow wooden door            the lock my parents could pick with a belt-   
hook at any moment            the hot glare of the vanity lights making
my pimples glow        I said shut the light            shut the light            the tv
too loud mother won’t get up            get up!            the friend visiting
from florida            her baby james sucking grapes            he wouldn’t eat
anything else            just the grapes            the seedless orbs like eyeballs           
sucking them            each green globe with a little pop            a little giggle           
wouldn’t take the formula            wouldn’t take the mashed carrots &
peas            brown mush from a jar            the rubber spoon an airplane           
but still nothing            a silent protest maybe            maybe reading into
things too far            we fed him grapes for three weeks            he kept               
giggling            sleeping in my bedroom            a crib of blankets in the
cedar hope chest at the foot of my bed            grapes & grapes & the
husband flying up finally to take him home            to take her home           
a quiet man            a mustache            all five-foot-five of him fumbling           
down the hall the showcase showdown            the systolic bleep of the
wheel slowing to rest            a dinette set            a new car            flashing
lights            cheers & screams from the audience            mother’s best
friend in the intersection held her baby            cat-walked the dotted
yellow line & then sat down            the baby crying            the headlights           
horns            she sat down            then the police call at midnight            do you           
know the father?            then driving home holding the baby while my
father shifted & swore            the soft skull            the soft neck            way
past bedtime            past due            stay up!            stay up!            his head so
heavy            mother on the couch again won’t get up            won’t blink           
a crack in the ceiling holding her there            mesmerized            like the
root of that word something animal            doctoral            doctor mesmer
on his glass armonica            the women in tubs of glass powder           
iron fillings            the magic of the wand            relax relax            my sweet
baby james            singing from behind the curtain            go to sleep            go
to sleep            they had words for it back then            hysteria                                           
distemper            the doctors in the waiting room more mysterious           
more clinical            we had clinics now            post-partum depression           
they said            bipolar disorder            they said in their white robes           
behind their stethoscopes & clipboards            their shoes so soft they
moved soundlessly down the long hall the price is right on a
television hanging from the ceiling            I sit down in the bathtub           
how can you blame them for sitting down            things getting so
heavy?        for what do we hold onto eventually?            eventually
what don’t we hold onto?            mother in the living room            on the
couch            shake her shake her            wake her up            & father            at the       
bar he says            late at work he says            & the bathroom with its
cheap lock            that convenient clasp            & the light on            & the
light off            & the mirror into mirror into mirror            that silver-
backed glass            looking like her            looking like him            the images
playing off    themselves in the glass            divide            divide            & how
could they know            each one            each image into infinity            how
could they know?        each image one moment behind the last           
catching up & catching up            until the last            & finally letting go
the last            like a leap into no faith            letting go    that smallest star           
that grain of sand            that simplest & finest point of light                                       
Author’s bio:
Timothy Green lives in the mountains above Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, and works as editor of the poetry journal Rattle. His book of poetry, American Fractal, is available from Red Hen Press. www.timothy-green.org 


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