Poets Online Archive
Magical Thinking
April 2006

I read Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, " The Rider", and thought it would make a good model poem.  I thought I marked the page and set it aside. When I picked up the book again a few weeks later, I couldn't recall which poem I wanted to use. I paged through 3 of her books on my shelf, started reading and rediscovered "Making a Fist " which I had heard her read years ago and had reread many times. I finally found "The Rider."  I wasn't sure which one I would use for the prompt.

What was it about those two poems that appealed to me? I let it brew for a few days, and then it came to me. Magical thinking.

I had recently read Joan Didion's book, The Year of Magical Thinking.  It tells her story of the year that followed the death of her husband, while their only daughter lay unconscious in a nearby hospital suffering from pneumonia and septic shock.

Magical thinking is that belief that we can somehow cause something to happen in an unscientific but magical way. It's causal reasoning that mistakes correlation for causation. Someone may believe a hat brings luck when it is worn, and even if some hatless days go fine, and hatted ones go badly, the belief remains.

So, is it superstition or wishful thinking?  Not really.  For Joan Didion, in her magical thinking she "believed that given the right circumstances he would come back."  The psychological influences on a person's body, mind or behavior are very complex. Even serious scientists cannot dismiss that magical thinking is capable of having measurable effects on the believer.

In Nye's poem "The Rider", a boy believes that if he "roller-skated fast enough, his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him" and subsequently the narrator considers whether it would also work as she rides a bicycle.  In the second poem, a child is told - and believes - that you will die when you can no longer make a fist, and so "logically" concludes that as long as she can keep making a fist, she cannot die.

Probably, magical thinking is more common with children. I recall believing once that I could somehow get a teacher to ignore me in class by willing myself to be temporarily invisible. It didn't always work, but there were definitely times that I did not get called upon to answer.

This type of thinking also manifests itself strongly in people suffering from some mental illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Whether you consider it superstition, illness, magic or faith, we asked our readers to write about magical thinking.

Please  look at our blog for more on this poem and prompt, and join a conversation with fellow poets.


Naomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 to a Palestinian father and American mother. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. She has also edited many anthologies of poems, for audiences both young and old including the popular, This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World.   She lives in San Antonio, Texas with her family.


Probably no more than four or five,
she ran and hid behind the shrubs
murmuring over and over
a self-made mantra of sounds she didn't understand,
trying to hide their voices that flung insults
in unexpected antiphony-so regular, so practiced,
so frequent were their arguments.
Over and over, she chanted her nonsense syllables,
over and over and over, trying to stop the shouting,
trying to will silence to come.
She crouched and scraped the earth
with a stick, scarring the ground,
promising herself that when she chanted
her last refrain, they would stop.
Her voice grew softer with each syllable.
And then the silence came.

Mary Kendall


A red cardinal flies past
and lingers on the
front porch railing for a moment or two

Resting a moment or two longer
on the front porch railing
to the house we're thinking of buying

and I know it's the right house
The bird is a good omen. The best.

Still leaning against the car
my stomach flips as the bird flies
to a nearby tree and perches.
I think it will leave soon.

My son tells me years later
when he's only seven,
and was just a distant thought
on the horizon when we
bought the house,
that red cardinals are afraid
of the cold and extreme heat
so they only come in
Spring and Fall.
He believes this is true
Either way it is poetic
And magical.

Magical like my red cardinal
set to flight to find me
anywhere in the world
any season.
The spirit of my late father
come to visit to check on me
To give me his blessing.

Margaret R. Saraco

Poem, The

Fair voiced Calliope,
here I am
holding a tablet in my hand,
my eyes are closed
and I'm thinking hard
about how you will teach me
to sing like Achilles.

I will count the beats of my heart
and when I reach one hundred
I will open my eyes
and the first thing I'll see will be
the poem.

The poem that I will mail
and they will accept. The one
that leads to the book deal,
the tour, the readings, the prize.

I'm putting my hand to my breast.
One, two, three, four

Pamela Milne


Oh to have the slim, svelte body of my twenties.
My memories encouraged
By the photographer of the office Christmas parties.
I plan my diets and do my exercises
Futilely seeking results on a bathroom scale.

You have two hours to finish your application for the SATs.
What are you waiting for?
I wish I could get them done for you.
The next afternoon, my neighbor
Gives me a thumbs-up regarding his son’s success.

To change myself or change another
Involves more than a wish.
But wishing is enough to start the magic
Fulfilling the confidence of the dream.

Ellen Kaplan


When I was younger
Teacher Molly was a source of jokes,
With her sweet chicken soup,
Molly gave the recipe to all .
One chicken
Four cups of water,
Four scallions,
Four slices of ginger,
Even if you did not have a cold.
And boil once and simmer on
For the heat of trust makes magic.

The magic lives in the trust
The evil eye senses only black,
The light of magic is trust.

Look ahead when crossing
The springtime flooded streams,
You will not slip
Your magic is your trust.
Your trust glues you to the rocks
To go ahead.

Edward N Halperin


I am nine and I must avoid all the cracks in the sidewalk-
careful not to step on even one. I walk the sidewalk,
a child in a swamp looking for high spots.
Aware of who is watching from dark windows that gaze
into the street, I am saving a life with my funny walking.
My mother is my only high spot and she must be saved
at all costs.
Without her, I am lost to the watching eyes in my own house.
In one more year, I will be a woman. So young to have that
responsibility, I will hide the stained evidence for months
until my mother wonders why I have no underwear.
Her womanhood came much later and so mine shocks
and saddens her, and leaves her speechless.
But right now, all I know is that who is watching is dangerous
and if I can walk correct enough, long enough, my high spot,
my safe place will stay in sight.

My belief sustained me but did not save me. Beliefs carry us
to the high spots without understanding.
Even today, I do not step on cracks.
I no longer crab-walk, since I have developed a kind of radar.
I did not save my mother. She stayed comfortably behind
with her belief that I made it safely to some shoreline
just outside her vantage point. I did make it-not safely,
but whole and with bitter knowledge of the
darkness in between the high spots.

Karen A. Kimbell


Everyone in every car is her
although you know she is a blonde
and you have never seen her profile
she has cars galore
as well as your husband
he probably picks up his socks now.

You start counting cars, a mantra
if this many pass, he will pass
her by. Come back: rebuild
on no foundation. Erosion means
we forget why we loved
resentment eats through bedrock
the chasm in the bed will widen.

You buy new pants from Banana Republic
pretend to be an urban professional
though you work most days in a bathrobe
pretend that counting Audis isn't crazy
as meeting men on the Internet
writing bright and brittle emails
sales pitches for you. She drives by again
turns her wipers on to
erase the glare of your eyes.

Patty Tomsky

Scripto Continua

It's what we call the writing
from early centuries
when papyrus was scarce
and Greek texts
to give us a Bible
were copied
without punctuation or spacing
no upper or lower case

and I see a line

and know that it is a test question
Are you a theist?
    god is now here
Are you an atheist?
    god is nowhere

and I'm thinking that if I say my litany
God is now here,
God is now here,
God is now here,

then it will be so.

Ken Ronkowitz


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