It has long been observed that whilst the ego is useful in making daily and ordinary decisions in our life, it is less effective when it comes to more important issues; it is by nature competitive, and it tends to subordinate the greater good for more immediate gains and self-gratification. We know as well that the ego is largely driven by the left hemisphere of the brain, which is rational and analytic; again, rationality and analysis are good, but taken to extremes, have unfortunate side-effects: namely, a craving for certainty, a rejection of ambiguity, a need to be right, a lack of openness, and a foreclosure of intuition and the mystical dimension of being human.

We learn from research in this that techniques like meditation, for example, have a profoundly positive effect on the human psyche and even life span, and that one aspect of meditating is the re-balancing of the left and right brain hemispheres. So, as the left hemisphere is correlated with reason, logic, numbers and more practical applications, the right brain is more concerned with images, feelings, intuitions and the mystical. Indeed, as Lee Pulos puts it: “the right hemisphere is the decompression chamber into the subconscious”. It is important to say, however, that both are vital to healthy functioning of the human being; but it is equally true to say that in the West especially there has developed an over-reliance on left brain activity and dominance.

What has this to do with poetry? Everything! For it was Maggie Ross who said: “The importance of poetry in restoring the balance of the mind cannot be overestimated as it draws on both aspects of knowing simultaneously”. In other words, being in the ‘poetic’ state, that is the condition in which one can write poetry – hear the Muse – means that the left and right brains are becoming more balanced – more coherent. We could almost say – but probably wouldn’t – that writing poetry can be an alternative to practising meditation! I wouldn’t say it myself, but I do observe people for whom I think this is very true.

But, whatever, the benefits are clear. Meditation and poetry (and certain other disciplines too) balance and co-ordinate the two brains, gets them in sync, and so provide a kind of harmony in which a deeper level of awareness, understanding and expression is possible. In fact, if we consider some elementary examples of how writing helps us, we might then begin to guess at just how powerful poetry is.

Most of us write shopping lists, for example; and it is remarkable when we think about it, just how powerful a simple shopping list is: it means we stop worrying about whether we are going to remember everything, it enables us to do the shopping in the most efficient way possible, and the act of writing also stimulates us to take a wider overview – not just what do we need now, but what might we need in the next few days. More powerful still is when we start writing down our plans for the future: this ‘authoring’ means we start manipulating our own futures, and exercising a kind of control that is usually impossible without the act of writing. But clearly, shopping lists and life or business plans are invariably left brain activities. But when we step up to write poetry, then we get that extra benefit that comes from the right brain being activated: how much more powerful when the words are not lists or just aide-memoires but active interpretations of our experiences and the meanings inherent in them? Moreover, these meanings may be ones you are fully aware of, or alternatively of which the process of writing may uncover or discover.

And this balance requires that we enter a peculiar mind-set: one of relaxation, yet total clarity and focus at the same time; and as I said before the right hemisphere is the decompression chamber into our subconscious where we can access images and dreams – all that propels all our desires, which are, of course, the issues of the heart with which poetry is and should be most concerned.

Once, then, the hemispheres are balanced the magic begins. The magic of words. The God-given power to Adam and Eve of naming the animals – all the beasts we encounter, real and metaphorical. The magic? Ah, the magic of poetry – when poetry truly intoxicates. Here is a question: what is the most magical word in the English language? Think about it before you answer! We will all have our own views, and for some of us it will be about personal association, and there is nothing wrong with that. Perhaps the word ‘rose’ is magical for you; or perhaps the word ‘love’, or maybe even someone’s name: Linda my wife’s name is magical for me, or perhaps a son or daughter’s name always makes you light up as you hear that sound.

But here perhaps is the most purely magical word in the English language: abracadabra! Truly a magical word, and truly magical too in that it invokes the whole naming process of Adam via the letters (originally Hebrew) of the alphabet: A B C D. There is one point to understand about alphabets (notice, too, the A and B even in the word alphabet): and this is that in magical words the internal sound reflects external reality: there is a consistency, and no jarring. In poetical jargon, this is onomatopoeia, or what we might call mimesis. The words are ‘true’ – which is why children love them, why they love nursery rhymes and all forms of word play, and when we are uncorrupted, we love them too as adults. The sheer fun of it; the sheer truth of it.

For me the greatest example in the English language of a ‘magical’ poem, and one which perfectly exemplifies the whole condition I have outlined of how poetry comes to be written (though with one important caveat I must mention shortly) is Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’.  The final part of this poem reads:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This verse is intoxicating; almost childish – the almost over-emphatic alliteration of damsel/dulcimer – yet sublime. Of what is she singing?  Mount Abora – A and B again, the alphabet – and she is ‘Abyssinian’ (A and B again!) and she is the Muse of course, because Mount Helikon was sacred to the Muses, and one proposed etymology of ‘muse’ is from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning either to ‘think’ or ‘tower/mountain’. All the important cult centres of the Muses were on mountains or hills: in other words, a height, somewhere above, celestial, where the gods – the Muses – abide.

But she is elusive. ‘Could I revive within me …’ How in those simple words one feels the agony of wanting to get back to her – to the good life – to ‘such a deep delight’ (those delicious Ds again, picked up like a refrain) – and how difficult it is. But – hey – no good repining; immediately Coleridge suddenly conjures up the methodology to get there, and the verb has the force of an imperative:

‘Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread’

The poet is a prophet (honeydew) – the external eyes are closed (as often in prayer or meditation) so that the inner faculty can be harnessed, and there is deep reverence – ‘holy’ – which allows the magic to overwhelm the poet. And in that state we experience the ‘milk of paradise’. The word ‘drunk’ here has a double connotation – meaning in the first instance that one has literally drunk milk, but with the added suggestion that one is ‘drunk’ on this milk. In other words, that the mind itself is changed, is transformed. We are truly in another place.

Now my caveat about Coleridge’s experience derives from the fact that he was on opium when he wrote the poem, and that opium did for him creatively (picking up my note about debauchery made in Part 1 of this article). There is with nearly all the Romantics the danger of ‘excess’, but conceding that point and the danger, the wider one is still true: that the Romantics explored more fully than before the sources of inspiration and creativity.

A poem I like to set alongside ‘Kubla Khan’ is the first few lines of John Keats’s revised Hyperion poem: ‘The Fall of Hyperion.’

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not
Trac’d upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
‘Thou art no Poet may’st not tell thy dreams?’
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purpos’d to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.

The genius of this unfinished epic – and epic it is – is inexhaustible, but for now simply notice four words in this short extract:  dreams, weave, paradise and enchantment. Ring a bell? Coleridge talks of ‘vision’ but here Keats has ‘dreams’; but then the ‘weaving’ – the profound metaphor I see as combining the left and write sides of the brain – lead to ‘paradise’. It is a false paradise in the opening of Keats, but nonetheless the imagery is instructive – for poesy alone can make the real jump that crosses the chasm that is ‘dumb enchantment’ – our speechlessness in the face of existence, or our stupefaction as we freeze before the hollow of time.

Poetry, then, comes from the Muses, and is a form of enchantment; we must be in a ‘holy’ state of mind to receive and process it. If we do, the result is transformational; we find our way back (and forward), albeit briefly, to paradise – a living harmony of the mind where the ‘milk’ of living nurtures us. We can get into that state artificially via narcotics and other means, but these approaches ultimately desecrate the Muses’ temple (and incidentally, temple refers to their sacred building, which is also the two sides of our brain), and there are consequences, as Coleridge discovered.

In Part 4 of this series of articles we will consider the language of poetry and enchantment, language before the Fall of Mankind or in the Golden Age, what being a ‘living soul’ means and how this is related to writing poetry. Finally, I will explore what this means for our contemporary poetry scene.


James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at and contacted at james@motivational He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition.

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18 Responses

  1. James Sale

    My dear friends I see that no-one did guess or predict my most ‘magical’ word, but now it is out, it is in the text, please read part 3 for the answer and why; over the next week I shall review all the alternatives proposed by you, and make my decision as to the winner of my prize, The Lyre Speaks True, for the best alternative in my opinion.

    • Sally Cook

      Dear James Sale —

      I started to answer your quest for the most magical word in the English language, but then had a re-emergence of aggravating computer problems which distracted me from answering.

      I apologize, but still would like to weigh in. My original answer would have been that there is no one magical word; there are many. But If I had to choose, one of them at the top of the list would be truth. Not an official truth, or someone else’s truth, but your individual truth.

      Further, what I would consider more magical than any one word would be the attitude with which poetry is approached. Certainly that is partly contemplative, and somewhat magical, as you have said.

      I find one additional item which got sidelined in your excellent essay. That would be process. I refer to the process of mixing left-brain procedure with the intuitive.
      So often I see poems with great potential to say something cloaked with vague language and/or hampered by awkward meter, and I think that this is mostly due to over-simplification. Today It is considered top of the line in the arts and so many other areas of life just to feel, to react.

      My knowledge of it is that poetry has a world rhythm, or many world rhythms with which it speaks. It is up to us to learn these rhythms so well that we incorporate them into whatever manner we express ourselves.
      Even though you say we can all be poets, all those who write are not poets. Dividing the brain into right and left makes sense; it simply doesn’t go far enough.

      Thank you for introducing what should be a very helpful topic

      • James Sale

        Hi Sally – thank you so much for your perceptive comments. I have a backlog of postings on SoCP that I wish to reply to, and your poetry is one of them – but as always, if it is not a computer glitch, it’s an international phone call that takes one away from responding for the afternoon! Of especial interest is your take-up of my point about all can be poets. This is actually one of my own cases of living with ‘negative capability’, for I know full well that theoretically, ideologically, all can be poets, just as I know so few really are. Lord Chesterfield – yes, he of Dr Johnson infamy – once said: “I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.” There is more in my Part 4 of this series, and if you don’t think I have said enough then on the topic I’ll beg Evan Mantyk the indulgence of permitting me to make it a 5 Part series! Thanks for taking the trouble to respond and I shall include your ‘truth’ in a review of all the suggestions that have been made to date. Truth is a word, like so many that have been suggested, that I particularly like. What is truth? asked Pontius Pilate; but Dr Johnson said something else: “The mind can only repose on the stability of truth”. To be wholly relativistic, of course, is self-defeating, for it itself cannot be true. To say ‘all things are relative’ is to make an absolute statement; so within the deepest expression of doubt there remains a residue which one is positing as not doubtful. We’ll talk anon I am sure.

  2. Satyananda Sarangi

    Sir, greetings. 🙂

    I completely agree to your point that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are balanced while writing poetry.
    I put it this way – the left hemisphere is closely related to mathematics ( owing to logic and reasoning) and thereby leads to structuring of a poem ( usage of meter is a mathematical property since it employs a regularity). The right part causes an inflow of images; it plays the guardian of thoughts and thereby contributes to the theme and depth of a poem ( this is linked to the mystical or the metaphysical aspect). In short, both the hemispheres work equally and their balance results in powerful poetry- the same poetry written by all classical and formal poets but absent in case of contemporary ones. If the left part overrides the right, then we have poetry that is ugly, depressing and far away from beauty (this point can be correlated to part-2 of this series where you have talked of such poetry where post modernists think that all they are writing about is truth). And if the right overshadows the left, we may have good lines yet falling short of striking a cord with readers. Therefore, a balance is a must.

    The reference to Kubla Khan by Coleridge in the above essay reminds me of my own uncanny experiences which I would like to share. Back in January 2017, I had a strange dream one night. Perhaps it must have been some force that led me to write a poem on this dream( a very long poem indeed, around hundred odd lines) and all of us know how tough it is to recollect dreams. Surely, this whole incident must have been what we deem as the power of Muse. Isn’t it?

    Looking forward to the fourth part of this wonderful series. Always a pleasure to share thoughts with you.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Satyananda, Your points about what Apollo might have called ‘too much’ or excess – too right brain or too left brain – are I think spot-on and a useful clarification of what I am trying to say. In the case of Coleridge he just about gets away with it; the balance is so fine. if one were to say he erred, then it is, I think, clearly towards a kind of right brain dominance. That said, of course, the imagination, the subconscious, the Muse, has its own emotional logic that is not logic. Pascal said, the heart has its reasons that reason does not know about, which sums it up. And yes, fascinating, your dream – I am sure that is important, and maybe more so than even writing a poem, for when we remember dreams so clearly they often have a deeper meaning and resonance for our life. Thank you for your contributions.

      • Satyananda Sarangi

        Greetings Sir!
        I’ve always found the interactions with you very valuable and interesting.
        Now talking of employing meter in poetry, I have always been confronted with the problem that English is not my first language. It is obvious that the understanding of meter (knowledge of the stressed and unstressed syllables) comes naturally to poets from the English speaking world. In spite of being an Indian who had his schooling from a place where English was the medium of instruction, I may be sure of the number of syllable(s) in a given word, but may not trace the stress therein right away. It is due to this language barrier that I prefer to use, for instance, ten syllables in every line- this is somewhat close to iambic pentameter. Moreover, in doing so, I am trying to balance the left and right hemispheres, but the left may still lag behind the right since English isn’t my mother tongue. More importantly, I have followed this technique of ten syllables per line in most of my sonnets without altering remaining characteristics of a typical sonnet.

        Now, coming to that dream of mine, I still can’t believe how I could a pen a poem on a theme that I had only dreamt of. And I’m convinced that this was where the Muse came into play. Sharing a few lines from that very poem ( since it has no meter I would like you to ignore the errors if any) :

        It was curved and curled in graceful wonder,
        Speckled with many slow surging saplings
        That enchanted us in spring with their swings,
        Through the corn fields, that pathway lay yonder.

        Crystal clear waters like a mirror stood;
        The renowned lake with tinted gold and sheen,
        For ages, by then, had displayed such scene
        As grand as the one in paradise could.

        What divine hand had chiseled this sculpture?
        Ah! What sublime dream did his eyes behold?
        Even by saints of yore, it wasn’t foretold
        As the lake’s moonlit shore glazed with lustre.

        A bevy of swans had made it their home;
        Serving as a great delight to the eye,
        They would swim in circles and at times fly
        Amidst the transparent droplets of foam.

        © 2017 Satyananda Sarangi , All rights reserved.

        Now the question that makes me wonder is ‘ If comprehending the stressed and unstressed parts is a natural gift to poets of the English Speaking world, then why do they not harness it?’
        Perhaps, the answer to this could be the impact of the muse, which is very well echoed throughout the three parts of this series.

        Thank you. Always glad to learn from you through discussions. 🙂

      • James Sale

        Thanks Satyananda: check out Part 4 of my article for a more detailed consideration of meter, which obviously interests you and which you, as a not your mother tongue speaker, have some hesitation or reservation about. I A Richards, one of the ‘great’ critics of the C20th put it this way in his The Principles of Literary Criticism: “Meter for the most difficult and most delicate utterances is the all but inevitable means”. This is profoundly true of the English language, and it is the failure to understand or grasp this that is at the root of so much poetic failure. We can write some good poetry without meter, but if we aspire to the highest level, then we must master it; and in English this doesn’t mean getting to grips with the molossus and the tribrach; it does mean becoming fluent in the iambic meter – the reasons for which see part 4!

  3. Wade Cub leiser

    Here is the theory proposed—now! yes, in the cranium tissue—
    spinally nervy extensions—a flash! and the swing of a bat, then!
    poikilo pieces of puzzle, a proto-Vergilian structure—
    zooms of stricredible visiew! a colorful patterning patint,
    flames of remarkable beos! the abracadabra of life’s flight,
    suddenly speeding, revealed, and splayed, sprayed aerosol splashings,
    thousands of particles moving, o, traveling bubbles and round beds—
    caught in the instant in sunlight—the fuel of fortunate futures!

    • James Sale

      Not sure that’s what I am saying, Cub, but nice try! Specially like that word you use in the poem – abracadabra – that’s it!

      • B. S. Eliud Acrewe

        Mr. Leiser has apparently flipped his top with intoxicating Postmodernist drivel, that locates poetry in the cranium. Where is his left hemisphere at a time like this? He seems to be blithering out new words with his right brain without any control whatsoever. What can he possibly mean when he writes such inane phrases as the “abracadabra of life’s flight”? I think he lost his mind in a miasma of PostRomantic Surrealism.

        Nevertheless I should give him credit for two things, lest I seem too critical: the length of his line and an accentual attempt at dactylic hexametres, much in the manner of Longfellow’s “Evangeline.” Other than that, his words seem like an over indulgence in a drug-induced, Victorian alliterative stupor, something you definitely eschew, Mr. Sale.

      • James Sale

        Yes, BS I got through Hiawatha in my early 20s and even enjoyed it – at first. But moving on to Evangeline I seem to remember not getting past page 1, and I am a big skeptic about these ‘advanced’ metrical patterns. As it happens, part 4 of my Poetry and the Muses article is going to make it, I hope, abundantly clear why. I hope you can wait till then for my reasons. But thank you for your always perceptive comments – and sometimes I feel you know me more than I know myself. Isn’t that terrible? I hadn’t fully realised that I eschew “over indulgence in a drug-induced, Victorian alliterative stupor”, but now you mention it, you’re right! That’s exactly what I do eschew. Thank you for making me much clearer on this matter, BS: you are a true friend.

  4. Basil Drew Eceu

    Tennyson understood well
    the mystical magical elements of medieval England,
    its gleam and its gloom, its dream and its doom, the stream of its stars strewn.
    O, yes, and he felt the pageant of clashing knights and lovely ladies,
    of kings, queens, and impoverished peasants, bright banners and castles,
    feeling as well its fall into oblivion. It hurt him hard.
    He was not prepared to meet the New Order, nor its horror;
    he pined away for ancient moods, ancient woods, and Celtic druids;
    perhaps because that Old Order seemed more real than his own.

    • James Sale

      Yes, Drew – that was Tennyson – but I fortunately am not like that; nor would I wish my article to lead people to imagine that I want to return to the Romantics or any other period. We learn from these people, but we have to apply the learning to the problems and language we have now. It is vital we are contemporary, even though we may choose to use the tools of the past – and meter is just such a tool. Of course, again to avoid possible confusion, being contemporary does not mean being fashionable; but the timeless always enters time and we have to frame a response to it.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Although, Mr. Sale, there is something in what Drew has presented that makes me think.

        The most fantastic, or, shall we say, phantasmic/fantastical poetry ever produced was that of the Middle Ages. True, the Romantics privileged this period, and I think quite often in all the wrong way, but sometimes even so, at least on the French side, with a certain understanding of what underlies the fantasy aspect of medieval literature.

        The reason for this lay in the our Catholic notion of contemplation which is the same as theirs. The great Mysteries of our faith, which are its object, possess tremendous power. They shower the intellect with their divine light. The theatre of the imagination, that “inter” where the “legere” takes place, hence, that “reading within,” if you will—that place where the phantasms of the object move about in a kind of pageant—that place is also vivified by grace and produces fruit.

        Romanticism denied the intellective and theological aspect of the medieval fantasy realm. That is why it falls flat.

        It is even in my own poetry.

        Take the first two quatrains of Sonnet 5 from the Sonnets for Christ the King. They are that regal pageant, that fantasy. Then, at the volta, we return to reality with the married state and its enclosure. The couplet then re-asserts what the fantasy could not, but without refuting it and rather joining it:

        For Elizabeth

        If charm were a country, then you would be
        Its capital of many domes and spires
        Gilded and gleaming off a crystal sea,
        And graced with every art that love inspires.

        If beauty a nation, then you, its queen,
        Would wield the scepter of love’s dazzling power
        Beguiling all thy subjects with serene
        And regal allure from a silver tower.

        Alas, the fairest flow’rs remain unknown
        Behind the garden walls of married life;
        And thou, the loveliest, shouldst not bemoan
        The humble title of a poet’s wife:

        To capitals yet made these lines proclaim
        Eternal love, and gild thy beauty’s fame.

        © Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      • James Sale

        Yes, you are right in many ways; I do have a penchant for the Romantics, I have to admit, but the imagination taken too far, as they discovered, can have terrible consequences. In my own homely way what I see you are saying is that the Mediaeval period was far more ‘grounded’ than the Romantics, which is true for several reasons, one of which is clearly the general religious consensus, and how that meant people interpreted what the cosmos was and meant to them. There were other factors as well. But as we know, belief then affects what poetry is possible …

  5. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Because I am a Thomist, I do not have that right/left brain framework, although I can say that Sale has given us something which is easily “transposable” into Thomistic terms.

    It has to do with (I’ll try to be as understandable as possible I hope) the way in which the active intellect can be said to be at rest when its end, that of knowing, is in act.

    Our idea of meditation is a bit different, because it is creative, involves the composition of a scene or event, in cooperation with the imagination, as an aid to the intellect’s, shall we say, receiving illumination from the Mystery that, paradoxically, surpasses the intellect’s finite sphere of comprehension.

    And the state Sale speaks of is best, in a way, when it has its foundation in the darkness of God. It is from there that “light breaks forth,” as I say in sonnet on Zurbaran.

    This is a very healthful discussion. Thank you, as always, James Sale.

    • James Sale

      Thanks you for further illumination, Mr Mackenzie – I am reminded by one of your comments of that wonderful line by Henry Vaughan: There is in God, some say, A deep but dazzling darkness …

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        I appreciate “dazzling darkness,” simply because it so well expresses one of many countless paradoxes of the interior life and seems a truly useful approach to the works of St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, even St. Thérèse de Lisieux.

        Keeping in mind also that I am someone who has sung the traditional Tenebrae service of Holy Week many, many times, to speak of the great riches of divine darkness. One of the earliest rites of Christendom which must have moved these same poets as well. For, our life is an integrated life. There is not, shall we say, poetry here, the liturgy there, contemplation in another place and daily life way out there.

        And that is what made the Middle Ages truly great, the integration of faith and art and life. I agree with you that the Romantics would reduce all of this to an emotion in a frightful misinterpretation of the past informed by all the wrong ideas.

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