Monday, January 3, 2011


Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, written by J. R. R. Tolkien was my beginning introduction to the “golem” concept. The character, obsessed with reclaiming his “precious” One Ring, aroused both my pity and loathing. His obsession deformed him. The One Ring would never restore him if he did regain possession.

I read of Golem again in Poetry is a Kind of Money by Kay Ryan.

Poetry is a kind of money
Whose value depends upon reserves.
It’s not the paper it’s written on
Or its self-announced denomination,
But the bullion, sweated from the earth
And hidden, which preserves its worth.
Nobody knows how this works,
And how can it?   Why does something
Stacked in some secret bank or cabinet,
Some miser’s trove, far back, lambent,
And gloated over by its golem, make us
So solemnly convinced of the transaction
When Mandelstam says gold, even
In translation?

Golem first meant “unformed” as King David in Psalm 139 honored God as omnicient. “When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.” Through Jewish folklore and tradition, golem became a creation made of earth, given life through magical incantations.  The golem would protect the faithful in the Jewish community.

Ryan uses the creature as a protector. Osip Mandelshtam, a Russian poet during the Stalin era, once said: “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed.”

The “golem” concept intrigues me. Tolkien differed from Jewish folklore, creating a figure that endured a life of its own. A golem I would create would answer to me and never betray me. Golem is not God. It is a tool.

Our folklore emanates from our yearning and desires. It illustrates the world as we think it should be. Dangerous fancy.

Ryan, Kay. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, NY, 2010)

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