Magic in Poetry (The Great American Poem?)
by Mary Stebbins Taitt
Dawn McDuffie, former classmate and current poetry teacher at the Scarab Club in Detroit, Michigan, assigned us to write "that poem we've always wanted to write" (The great American poem, perhaps?), "a magical poem that does all those things we've been learning to do," show senses and emotion, have metaphor and avoids cliche, thesis statements, weak verbs, state-of-being verbs, too many adjective and adverbs, verbosity, etc. The poem that does something new and exciting.
Of course I wrote not the magical great American poem, but the next poem I needed to write. It didn't flow out of the head of the muse like spontaneous music or leap full blown from the head of Zeus; it was a struggle, even more so than normal. It started out more as prose than poetry, which while becoming more common lately, has not always been my modis operendi. I went through and did all those things I always do, revising and editing, deleting unnecessary words, ferreting out cliches (or attempting to), looking for stronger verbs and nouns, and slowly, painfully, it moved from prose toward poetry. I looked at the line breaks and the lines and the sentences. I looked for alliteration, wanting some but not too much. I looked for inadvertent rhyme, to do away with it or make it intentional. I kept thinking of all those things I'd been taught: no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader. The turn is the center of the poem. No turn, no poem. And I wondered, can this poem ever become magical, or should I start over from scratch?
How could I know if I needed to start over without knowing what I was looking for? It's all very well to say that I know a magical poems when I see one. But if I don't know what defines it, how can I create it? I guess, theoretically, one could create without being able to articulate. Zen and the art of poetry writing, perhaps. Get into "the zone" and go. Then, being the sort of curious and ambivalent person I am, I wondered if attempting to define, articulate and understand is antithetical to the poetic process. Perhaps it is, but since we are of two minds, I suggest we can do both, though not necessarily at once, and that examining and defining can help in the creative process, because that material, knowledge and comprehension becomes available to those separate minds within us that create.
I thought about a paper I wrote for Natasha Saje in my second semester at Vermont college. I'd been talking about joy in poetry and Natasha suggested that I try to articulate what I meant. I did. She was disappointed. "You just say why you like the poems," she complained. She was right, an a way. My problem was a lack of time in the context of working and attending college full time. I had a list of books I was required to read and write about and insufficient time to explore other work, so I wrote about what was joyful in the poems I was reading. I found no shortage of joy in the assigned work.
Now, I'd like to do it again, with magic, but my available time to cogitate is still very limited and the subject is just as slippery. However, I have no deadline, so I could theoretically work on it a little at a time until I complete it. But I have ADHD and sticking single-mindedly to a project over a long period of time in the midst of multiple ongoing projects and life is very hard for me. I might fail to do so.
But I will surely fail if I do not begin.
What is a magical poem? Is it the same as a joyful poem? A delightful poem? Are there black and white magicks? Can a dark poem be "magical?" What did Dawn mean, what was she suggesting, when she told us to write a magical poem? How did she hope we would understand that?
Dictionary definitions don't do justice to the sense of magic I believe Dawn intended. So I will create my own list of synonyms for this specific use: enchanting, extraordinary, miraculous, spellbinding, marvelous or monstrous, numinous, luminous, wondrous, superhuman, transcending, magnetic, entrancing, astonishing, remarkable, awe-inspiring. I propose that a magical poem is a poem that works, that succeeds at the highest level. All the poetic devices work with the imagination of first the poet and then the reader to evoke a sense of wonder, strong emotion (e.g.: joy & delight or horror) and surprise. The magical poem contains an "aha" and a sense of uncanny rightness. The cliched poem is exactly what the reader expects. The magical poem is unexpected but just as right and far more satisfying. The magical poem simultaneously sings to the senses and whispers to the dream self. It engages the whole reader, body mind and soul.
If a magical poem is simply a highly successful poem, is there anything else to say about it? Thousands of successful poems exist in every language. Much has already been written about them. Have I anything to add? To tell you the truth, I am not certain, but I intend to consider it. But not at this moment, so I will continue later. More to follow.