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Harold Rhenisch. POETRY and MAGIC : An Essay

POETRY and MAGIC : An Essay


I used to believe that poetry's old roots in magic have now only a secular life. To be honest, I did come to poetry through Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Andrew Wyatt, Robert Graves, Wallace Stevens, Al Purdy, Robin Skelton, Ezra Pound, and a thousand others, but I also came to poetry by pruning fruit trees when I was a boy and becoming the trees and air: in short, I came to poetry from the things of this earth--mountain, tree, leaf, and river--and from an almost hallucinogenic sense of their presence. In the last two years these old sources of poetry have become increasinly important to me and the literary context of poetry has receded into the shadows, like the background noise of the stars. These remarks are probably very cryptic, so I will try to explain.

The whole process of walking into poetry has been like staring at space through a telescope: just as there is a singularity behind all time, where matter, space, and time are one magical substance, deep within words there is poetry, containing all forms of speech--vision, trance, song, history, psychological treatise, political exhoration, metaphysical tract, doctoral dissertation, fiction, journalism, and so on. I have lived among and worked intimately with some very old words--stone, fire, rain, bird, for example--and know them now as magical incantations to bring to life--to control--the powers of the earth, and know the poetic trance--a suspension of disbelief, form and dissimilarity sensed and shared, all of language contained within each word in potential--as the form of the world.

These are beliefs that come out of my experiences of the farm and life on the farm, lived intensively close to things, from long attention to myth, the image, the long poem, and the process of creation, and from ten years of literary isolation in the mountains. For twenty years I have worked with images. In my long poems I have taken a crowbar to their dense singularities and have watched the particles inside, like a physicist observing the trails of quarks in a cloud chamber. There are some consequences to this type of poetry and it might help to list them. As you will see, they all have a literary component, which they all transform by registering it in the world. First, metaphor is real. Correspondingly, simile, image, tone, and verbal colouring, and the correspondences they draw, are equally real. Second, the world and language are the same thing, perceived differently--the pattern of trees across a slope, or of stones in a field of bunchgrass, are at the same time both the pattern of the mind, and nouns and verbs in a sentence, sung. Third, just as the patterns of ants in an anthill when put together form, not within the individual ants but as an entire colony, the pattern of thinking, conscious mind, so do the patterns of birds, or clouds, in the sky, form a pattern of thought, modified only by the incursions of civilization, or language. Fourth, poetry is magic. What it speaks of is true, and it gives us visions of time present, past, and eternal, and poems are doorways into those times. In other words, in my poems as in my life consciousness lives within images, which are points of transferal between the power of the earth and human speech, and within things. I am the field of their correspondence. This is not an allegory. It is an attempt to say, as honestly as possible, that as soon as I accepted my poems, the visions within them, the earth they painted, and the often overwhelming, confusing and at times mystical circumstances of their generation, in short accepted those parts of my consciousness subdued and dismissed for so long--imagination, intuition, empathy, power, myth--as exactly those parts that are who I am and which give me strength, there has been no going back to the level of language where words and images are not shamanic and incantory.

I think in the end the relationship between magic and poetry hangs upon an issue of perspective. Whereas in the past, except for rare, brief moments of creation, I looked at poetry from outside, I now look at it from within. It has re-wired my entire mind. I can't step outside any more. The poetic trance and what it can shape has become such a common experience with me that now I look at the world and the non-poetic prose traditions that sustain our culture in its present form through poetry and in terms of poetry.

Just as monestaries were once the repositories of culture in Europe, literature has sustained poetry for generations now. What literature does with poetry, however, and the poetry it is possible to write within the critical/fictional universe of literature, is not the sole definition of poetry. Literature is only one context for poetry, one that has proven extremely popular in a culture quite alienated from both the earth and poetry, the language of our lives on the earth. I do not propose that my vision of magic, of an earth woven of speech, and consciousness woven of earth, recreating and reforming the moment of primal time, is the entire poetic universe, nor that it is the only viable metaphysic. I do pray, however, that more and more of us will step away from our subjegation and celebrate our craft on its own terms, and for each other.

People will hear.

Harold Rhenisch's works copyright © to the author.


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