POETRY IN MOTION Part 1: Magic as Poetry

Before I talk to you about magic, I challenge you to write something in iambic pentameter. Better yet, write a sonnet. Learning the pattern of stressed, unstressed syllables makes you pay attention to the rhythm and emphasis in your voice and sentences, and the stitching and unstitching of lines to fit the syllable count makes you think of the most efficient, concise way to convey your point—what words are the best ones to express the sound of the sea? The challenge of creating rhymes also makes you stretch yourself and plan ahead—what word do you want to end the poem with?

Writing a poem forces you to think in a certain mode, one that pays attention to the micro scale of things: syllables, rhymes, words, sentences. But when the poem is finally written according to the form, you have to step back and see if all the technical tweaks and revisions add up to something that evokes a certain effect. This is the deus ex machina of poetry. All the syllables, words, lines, and rhymes add up to more than the sum of their parts: they tell a story, evoke a feeling, or paint a vivid picture in people’s minds just by being read. A great example is Dylan Thomas’ famous poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This is a villanelle, a poetic form that forces writers to repeat two lines in a refrain. In this case, the two lines are “Do not go gentle into that good night” and  “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. The villanelle is associated with obsession because of the repetition inherent in it, as if the author is repeating those two lines to themselves, over and over in different configurations, with all the rhymes based around those refrains.

I think that’s fascinating—that a specific pattern of lines, syllables, and rhymes can be especially suited to evoke obsession. It makes me think of the yoik tradition of the Sami, the native people of northern Sweden and Norway. A yoik is a song, sometimes spontaneous, that uses a combination of words and notes to evoke a person, place, or thing. It’s not about something or someone, it’s their essence summoned to a given time or place for the duration of the yoik.

What if magic could be poetry? Not just in the spoken sense, but in the mathematical, metaphysical sense? What if its structure evoked its subject, like the villanelle or a yoik? What if art imitated life? What if there was no difference between art, magic, and living?


Building off my last post about the conversion of magical ‘true names’ to binary, magical ASCII format, and eventually spoken/written syllables, there’s another dimension of magical notation to explore: how magicians write their spells.

Magic, to me, would look like computer code when written out in symbols: each spell would have parameters, a specific range of targets, and “commands,” with universe acting as the computer. The actual language of this code would take…years to develop, like a new programming language. But I’ve come up with some groundwork for it, and that’s the important element.

For my magic system, I imagine having 40 discrete magical syllables that make up all words, including true names and the accompanying magical programming terms that would form the scaffolding for spells. Magicians would have to learn this language and how to write in it, similar to computer coding, but there are added dimensions to it, ones that turn magic from UNIX into a kind of metaphysical poetry.

Supposedly, when a sculptor begins chiseling a work out a marble block, the sculpture is already inside the block—they just need to ‘free’ it. When you write a poem, you can think of the same metaphor: you have a set number of syllables, lines, and rhymes, and your poem exists somewhere within those constraints—you just need to find the right words to free it. A contrast would be computer coding, where you start with a blank slate and have to build your own sets of rules in order to realize your goal. If the constraints of a poetic form creates one perfect path to the goal, computer coding is free-verse, with a thousand possible solutions, all with varying degrees of efficiency.

If magic was essentially computer code, you would start from scratch and run dozens of trial-and-error tests until you struck upon something that worked. You would have no clue as to what the final spell would look like, how it would be structured, or how it would work. Instead, I envision magic with tens of thousands of built-in patterns, which can be learned like the rules of a poem and solved like Sudoku puzzles, with perfect solutions that can be derived in a similar way someone goes about writing a sonnet. Instead of magicians trying to impose order on a blank slate of a world, they need to learn the patterns that are woven into every aspect of it.

To be continued in Part 2.

POETRY IN MOTION Part 1: Magic as Poetry