What Is Poetry: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

Don’t ask me why it’s taken a poetry editor five years to realize how much fun it can be to listen to podcasted poetry — those are deeper mysteries — but I’ve spent a lot of time this week listening to past episodes of the nicely produced Pacifica Radio program Poet’s Cafe.  M.C. Bruce and Lois P. Jones have interviewed scores of interesting poets on the show, from all levels of fame, and a variety of backgrounds.  The most common question is this: “What is your definition of poetry?”

I’ve listened to about a dozen episodes so far, and when this question is asked, the poets invariably stammer and ponder, backtrack, and then hedge whatever answer they finally come up with against the inevitable subjectivity of artistic experience.  Listen for yourself.  This fact has only reinforced what I’ve already come to believe, having edited dozens of literary interviews: 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 young and 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.

Last month 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 you say 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.


  1. I agree, however, this is another peculiar thing about defining poetry: just when you think you’ve got the rabbit in the hat, you reach in and he’s disappeared.

  2. Got a link to this post today at my blog. Fine reading.

  3. What I love most about poetry is its lack of restraint. That kind of freedom is rare and delicious.

  4. For this non-poet, poetry is mysterious as the moon….

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  6. Thanks Angie!

    Kathryn–you might be a case study for what Rattle’s mission is all about…trying to get people who had the poetry beaten out of them in high school back on the bus. Maybe today’s post, coupled with this one, will have it making more sense?

  7. Thanks, Timothy, for your kind and positive comments about Poets Cafe. Let me know if you’d like a CD copy of a show.

    Marlena Bond
    Poets Cafe
    KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles

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