Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

It is no coincidence that “A Magus” first appeared in a poetry collection entitled This Strangest Everything (1966). A remarkable hodgepodge that contains abundant evidence of the social, political, and ecological crises of the Cold War years in which it was written, the poem encompasses a wide variety of themes. By employing unnatural images and irrational shifts of subject, however, the poet draws attention to the fact that its meaning cannot easily be reduced to some simple moral, religious, or sociopolitical statement.

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By confronting readers with vivid devices, provocative questions, and a mystifyingly abrupt and not very satisfying ending, the poet forces them to acknowledge the fact that they are indeed reading a poem and not a history book or a newspaper. Poetry, acutely aware of its forms and devices, is the form that traditionally conveys in a highly memorable manner the bewildering complexity of the world.

At the center of this world is the mystery of life, “this strangest everything,” which poets since time immemorial have been praising and celebrating in their poems. Ciardi’s poetry is no exception, a fact emphasized both by this particular poem and by the poet’s own advice to his readers: “To read a poem, come prepared for delight.”

Ciardi provokes delight in a variety of ways throughout “A Magus,” as its own unique surprises, mystifications, and evocations attest. Reveling in the myriad wonders of the real world, the poet also revels in the strange wonders of his own creation—of space-spores giving rise to howling fruit and upside-down trees, of planes that crash through time and space, of missionaries to Kenya who command birds to enter the fire of their hand, where they “glow like metal.”

According to Ciardi, true poetry “insists on battering at life, and on making the poem capture the thing seen and felt in its own unique complex. It does not repeat; it creates.” The rhyme and rhythm of the language in “A Magus,” its strange premise and skewed vision, and its unsettling images and juxtapositions all combine to form a memorable experience, something “seen and felt,” not merely read and summarized.

The multilayered complexity and dynamic depths of imagination displayed by the poem echo the richness of human experience itself. For significant human experience, as poet and narrator alike urge the reader to remember, is not rooted exclusively in the rational and explicable; as the narrator so insistently points out, the world is full of “things I believe whose meaning I cannot say.”

The inability to formulate and express the meaning of experience, especially poetic experience, or even to understand fully what one hears and sees, is a central concept of the poem. It is also, as Ciardi would no doubt point out, one of the most common aspects of the indescribable, ever-changing reality of being human.

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