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Technicians of the Sacred: The Poem as a Magical Event

‘Magic is the very essence of it all. It’s spirit, the life force, that creative, inexplicable power which we all possess and seek to express in the world. How well we manage to do that is a totally individual matter.’

– Lucius Mattheisen


In the contemplation of magical space, what emerges is just how open it is to interpretation. Historically, magic and daily life have been intertwined. History, however, has also shown our human quest for ‘progress’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘advancement’ to be very much at odds with this magical space.

Looking back, in every epoch there has been conflict between the space of magic and the space of ‘progress’. The 17th century was a defining time in that matter due to the spread of Puritanism and anti-magic. Healers, creatures of instinct and ritual – ‘witches’ – had to be eradicated. Any idea opposed to the established order of things, that is God and His churches, constituted a threat.

Thanks to this tumultuous history, the word ‘magic’ becomes loaded. In talking about this course, I felt it important to address that head on, as this is the crux of the topic. What are we saying when we call poetry a magical act?

What I envision for us is to come up with our own definitions of magic, informed by ideas from a broad spectrum of schools, and then create our poems out of that. Perhaps we might discover that there is no distinction between the magical space and the space of daily life. What would that mean for our poems? 

Technicians of the Sacred, edited by Jerome Rothenberg in 1968, remains a pivotal text for anyone interested in the relationship between poetry writing and ancient rituals. I have been a student of the mystical and magical for as long as I can remember, and I was overjoyed when I first discovered this text. Contained in here are Navajo chants, Incantations of Isis, a Mantra For Binding A Witch and so much more. All of them talk of how poetry has always been a tool of power, of effecting change – whether it is poetry as a ritual text, chant (harnessing the power of vibration through sound), incantation, invocation or prayer, there is an inherent belief in the power of the words in that particular configuration, with that syntax, in that moment. There is no prerequisite for the workshop, but, as a poet, I would advise you to get your hands on this book for your personal library!

What else? As any disciplined student of poetry does, we will look at forms: in our case they will be forms traditionally associated with formal magic such as incantation. According to the Poet’s Glossary from the Academy of American Poets, incantations, ‘whether spoken or chanted, are characteristic of archaic poetries everywhere, which have always employed the rudimentary power of repetition to create enchantment’. That is what I want the workshop to be: equal parts gravitas and levitas.

You may be surprised to learn that the great Crowley was quite a humourist, even though, ultimately, he has been taking himself way too seriously and has presented a perfect example of the patriarchal magical norm. He is known to have said: ‘The common defect of all mystical systems previous to that of the Aeon, whose Law is Thelema [of course he refers to the ‘religion’ that he created], is that there has been no place for Laughter.’

Now, he is both correct and incorrect here. What he is right about is that Thelema and Crowley were born out of a deep dissatisfaction with institutional religions that (even now) definitely have little sense of humour. ‘One would go mad if one took the Bible seriously; but to take it seriously one must be already mad’ (Crowley). He certainly doesn’t lack humour.

He is wrong, however, in that he denies that at the heart of all ancient, esoteric teachings, particularly Eastern philosophies and pagan wisdom is the idea of a deep, unabated joy. Pam Grossman, an American contemporary magical practitioner, who is proudly reclaiming the title of a witch, says: ‘I love anything to do with the sacred and the profane. I’m a believer in magic, and yet I still like to laugh and be silly and not take any of this shit too seriously – we’re writing this story as we go, it might as well be fun’.

Taking all esoteric principles and distilling the essence, if you have clarity, vision, focus, purpose, an understanding of intention – anything that involves bringing diverse components into one – creation will be a magical act! Therefore, is a poem a magical act? The answer is yes. Yes. Yes. Conversely, the magical act could be a poem!

All Muslims know the Qur’an as a great work of poetry, in fact, it is said that the reason why Allah chose for the Qur’an to be written in Arabic was the complexity of meanings in that language. When the first recorded poet, Enedhuanna, wanted to invoke the goddess Inanna, she wrote an entire text full of textured consciousness. Often even in the world of academic contemporary poetry, poets will tell you they cannot always identify where certain elements came from. In the strong literary tradition of India and Pakistan, poets talked about haal, or a certain kind of ‘state’, that would fall upon them, and from which they could then start writing. In traditional witchcraft, even in simple spells, words rhyme, dance and play. The Ἐφέσια γράμματα (Ephésia grámmata), Greek ‘Ephesian letters’, were the most celebrated words of power in the classical world, and used in a variety of magical applications eventually providing the slang term for magic itself. They were simply six words, and to this day nobody really knows their meaning. They were spoken during exorcisms and for the protection of newlyweds; Greek boxers were even said to carry rolls of parchment with Ephésia grámmata to magically heighten their strength in combat.

What I’m saying is that you can go wherever you like with this course. Contemplate ritual. Contemplate what magic means for you and to you. Contemplate alchemy, or the bringing together of disparate objects to effect change. Contemplate YOU. Contemplate your personal power.

Maybe find a special bag and fill it with a few objects of significance. You can call it a witch bag, a medicine bag or a poet’s bag, the label is insignificant. Choose up to ten items, for example a small toy from your childhood, a photo, a fragrance, a pebble, a crystal, a nail – anything and everything as long as it transports you and has meaning for you. Bring it with you to the course.

What is common to all magical practice is the idea of using a tool to stimulate your intended outcome. For me, that is sound and movement. I use sound and vibration in my own poetic practice. The question for us is not really whether the poem is a magical event. It is how to create the circumstances to come into your own personal power as a poet.


Charge your poems with the ancient power of charm, spell, hymn and hex on Sasha’s new one-day workshop, Technicians of the Sacred: The Poem as a Magical Event. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.

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