Poetry, Like Witchcraft and Magick, is an Act of Transformation
"When I say my poems worked as spells, I mean it
in a very literal sense."
When I write poems, I am a saint. I am unattached from the body of the world and living only in its breath—and every passing moment in between each breath is an immortal joy. I don’t write to capture this beatification; I write to find my way into it. What’s left on the page afterwards is perhaps not even a trail, or the spell itself, but the ashes left from the burning. The incense of my annihilation.
When I seek new poems by others or return to my favorite works, I am looking for this same experience. In this way the act of poetry is at root, a form of radical worship. Through its creation the creator is also changed—elements of the spontaneous, which are a hallmark of effective poems—contribute to a transformative rawness, or honesty. This in turn cultivates a sense of possibility.
The redemption of the self is a valid way of approaching the redemption of all. One should never utter the poem without concentration, but instead sanctify it, know it, and reflect.
When I say my poems worked as spells, I mean it in a very literal sense. For the past ten years I have been writing poems exclusively from a trance state, in a strictly controlled and highly ritualized setting. The poems that emerged from this process feel not only like visions to me, but actual conjurings. The earliest poems of heartbreak that manifested from this process appeared in my last book and presaged the sudden, unexpected collapse of my first marriage. Conversely the later poems in that book, on ecstatic ego-death and its rapturous cracking open, laid the groundwork for a new, great love. Whether the state I wrote from allowed me to auger the future, or whether the lines I wrote manifested my reality, the poems felt intrinsically tied to the progression of my life in a concretely magical way.
Today, the conversation around witches, witchcraft, and spells has permeated every niche of our media. October of last year even saw the publication of an anthology titled Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, featuring a number of notable contemporary voices. As the political discourse in the United States and abroad becomes increasingly divisive and cruel towards the most vulnerable members of our human society, the attraction held by the Occult—as a revolutionary kind of spirituality in opposition to the status quo, as well as a way to seize ontological power over our personal condition—in turn becomes increasingly strong. Grief, too, is a necessary step towards transcendence.
Among magickal practitioners (who use “magick” with a -k to distinguish it from stage magic), whose identity is perhaps most closely intertwined with the current wave of witchcraft, there is the distinction between “high magick” and “low magick.” High magick is theurgical, meaning its ultimate intent is unity with the Godhead (however you define it)—while low magick is thaumaturgical, meaning its purpose is to change things in the physical world. The labels “high” and “low” have a fair amount of intersectional baggage—lines of class, race, and gender—though in contemporary usage they have shed much of these associations (and, as Damien Echols points out in his new book, High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row, using magick to feed oneself or clothe oneself can be as necessary as using it to transcend into higher states of consciousness), they still sound pejorative. So, while more esoteric sounding I still prefer to use the classifications they represent: theurgy and thaumaturgy.
Between theurgy and thaumaturgy, these two phyla of occult practices cover myriad traditions around the world going back hundreds or thousands of years—from Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism to Yoruban Orisha, from various European forms of paganism to Korean Muism, and all modern forms of folk magic and “mystery schools” that have sprung forth from these traditions. So when we talk about “poems as spells,” or “the magical power of poetry” in the modern discourse it might also be helpful to understand what kind of magic we mean: whether poetry is transforming us, or whether the poem is transforming the world around us.
Of course the answer is both.It then lies with us, the readers, to cast these spell of each poem with our own intention, again and again, as we conjure and unify with the world we seek.
In the biological classification of human spirituality, poetry is not a class but a kingdom unto itself. Within contemporary poetry alone there are the thaumaturgical poems of Kaveh Akbar, Ada Límon, Claudia Rankine, and Anne Waldman—as well as the theurgical works of Nathaniel Mackey, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Wayne Koestenbaum, and S.A. Stepanek. And then of course there are the famous practitioners of Occult poetics: W.B. Yeats, James Merrill, and Sylvia Plath to name a few. The grandfather of “modern magick” and 20th-century Western esotericism, Aleister Crowley, was himself a poet before his spiritual vision in 1904 led him down the path to found his new system of occult practices. Likewise, there are contemporary poets who openly engage with occult influences in their work or creative process, such as: CAConrad, Dorothea Lasky, Ariana Reines, Anne Waldman, Timothy Liu, Annie Finch, and Gala Mukomolova.
As the famous philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem wrote in his book, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, “Symbols, by their very nature, are a means of expressing an experience that is in itself expressionless.” In their lyric attempt at communicating the ineffable, poems use symbols to execute this magic. And just as in spellwork, with poems at root what matters is intent. Spells are charged by the energy of the spellcaster, the force of will behind their work. The change that poems affect upon us and in the world around us is not inherent in the words themselves but in the power of the ones that write them. It then lies with us, the readers, to cast these spell of each poem with our own intention, again and again, as we conjure and unify with the world we seek.
As I prepare to head out this year on a 40+ date tour behind my new book—which was written over 20 days, coming in and out of trance states while secluded in the tower of a 100-year-old church—I’m thinking a lot about intention, and how I might channel the energy of each performance into conjuring altered states of consciousness not just for myself but for my audiences, and through those states enact a communal unification. The most potent magic is performance, after all. As author and esoteric scholar Peter Bebergal writes in his latest book, Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural, “Whether initiated by the shaman, witch, or magician in a chalk-drawn circle, it is in the performative moment that our consciousness is altered.” For the poet too, there is this opportunity for the performative moment—the incantation of the work enacted through the lyric ritual in which, if even just for a moment, we become our most intimate selves. We become free.