The Ratio of Reason to Magic: The Poetry of Norman Finkelstein

When he was in high school, Norman Finkelstein’s English teacher submitted four of the young student's poems to the New York City High School Poetry Contest. They’d already been published in the school’s literary magazine, but this was different, especially when he won.

“They were read by professional actors, and my photo and poems were displayed in a window of Brentano’s bookstore,” Finkelstein says. “It was a big deal.”

At the time he was also reading Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot and other well-known poets of the Modern era. Their influence was irreversible.

 Poetry for me can be playful, but also it can have a magical transformation that teases us out of our thoughts.

“By high school I was thinking of myself as a poet,” Finkelstein says, and after earning a degree in English at Binghamton University in New York, he went on for a PhD at Emory University in Atlanta.

Finkelstein, a Professor of English at Xavier since 1980, has been writing poetry ever since and in September, he published his 10th volume of poetry. The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New and Selected Poems, is a collection of works drawn from his previous volumes spanning nearly 40 years of poetry plus the opening movement of his new serial poem, “From the Files of the Immanent Foundation.”

The title comes from the poem “Ratio” and alludes to “the way in which a poem can, through rational process or some magical way or verbal incantation, take you somewhere, to some mental capacities we glom onto in this totally digitalized world,” he says.

“My work tries to keep pace with that, but I’m still interested in the lyric poem as an expression of inwardness,” he says. “The poem still takes us into psychic depths through play of words, and there is still a relationship to spells and incantations and charms that are prayer-like and liturgical and ritualistic. People don’t want to give that up.”

Finkelstein says he's a non-traditional poet. He does not use rhyme or meter. “I work on a poem in my head then put it in a notebook and then on the computer. I play with the line breaks and lineation.

“Poetry for me can be playful but also it can have a magical transformation that teases us out of our thoughts. That kind of play with repetition and transformation of words and images is an important part of my work.”

The poet Rachel Tzvia Back describes him as “a poet ever reinventing what poetry might, and even must, do. With its musical precision and its intellectual rigor...Finkelstein’s poetry stands distinctive in our poetic landscape, proffering riches that are rare and rewarding.”

Finkelstein believes poetry is enjoying a comeback, though the audience is small. He had several readings in Cincinnati of selections from Ratio and traveled for readings last fall at the University of Notre Dame, Duke University, and at bookstores and other locations in New York, Las Vegas, La Jolla, Calif., and Louisville.

At Xavier, Finkelstein teaches modern and contemporary American literature, Jewish American literature, literary theory and creative writing. More information can be found at his website. His book is available for $25 from Dos Madres Press.

Learn more about majoring in English at Xavier.

Read a sample from the book:

When he came out of the mirror, a wind
from elsewhere was blowing his hair. I can’t
read those books anymore; the past was never
like that, but then again, neither was the
future. I can’t read those books because of
the roads, because of the rooks, because of
the way the car stalls, night falls. This rhyme
measures the ratio of reason to magic.
Every break indicates that something has
slipped through. Eventually they all sound
alike, the ones who escape and the ones
who dazzle the audience because they have
come back from the dead. One made a deal
with the inventor, one made a deal with
the lord of that music, thin and sad and
faraway. In the book he spoke Latin.
In the movie there were many hats.