Sunday, January 20, 2013

Poetry Makes Something Happen + Poem: Marianne Moore

"Poetry makes nothing happen," or so writes W. H. Auden in his famous elegy, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," though he went on to qualify this oft-quoted fragment with a much cannier and profounder understanding of poetry, noting that

                                it survives
     In the valley of its making where executives
     Would never want to tamper, flows on south
     From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
     Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
     A way of happening, a mouth.

That is to say, by its very existence and presence, by our engagement with it, poetry creates a reality--or many, aesthetic, discursive, imaginative, material, social, historical, ontological--that is significant, that does make something "happen," though we usually don't credit it beyond its immediate effects on us as listeners and readers.  Poetry is a "way of happening," a "mouth"--processual, sensuous, truth-telling, connected to the root sources of our understanding of the world--that we would do well to listen to. It is a means of knowledge, sensuous and real even as it foregrounds its artifice. It cannot offer the only truth or means to reality, but it provides one of them. Thus Plato feared it, and Aristotle lauded it. About it "men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there," the speaker in William Carlos Williams's "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower" astutely notes; the "new," the real "news" lies in those "despised poems": the deeper truths, a deeper awareness not just of language, but of the world, the self, ourselves.

But all of this sounds like a poetry advocate trying to make the case for why we ought to read poems. Like lemons for the kidneys, or cucumbers for the skin, or whole oats for digestion, or apples for combatting colds and staying thin, this verges on a prescription, which doesn't make poetry so palatable. Especially because it often seems like it should be simple, but, as the quote from Auden above makes clear, it often isn't. Especially when it is doing the many things poetry can do all at once. What I am saying about poetry, also applies to fiction and other literary forms. For poetry it is language, its use and arrangement, for prose fictional forms it is language and the various tools and techniques of narrative, but in both cases, as well as for related and analogous genres (drama, creative nonfiction, narrative cinema and video, long-form narrative TV, etc.), more goes on that mere entertainment. They are "good" for us, not just in the cathartic sense, as Aristotle suggested, but they have specific effects on the mind that we still have not fully reckoned with.

In the past I have blogged before about psychological and cognitive scientific research showing that fiction can provoke feelings of aggression and empathyfictional narratives create powerful physical virtuality for readers; nonsensical and syntactically difficult texts providing important spurs for thought; mirror neurons are a key factor in our processing embodied reality; embodied cognition is so powerful that our bodies even respond with movement to certain metaphorical cues; poetry itself slows down our eye movements as we read it; and that, at a more holistic level, neuroaesthetics is a growing field, and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel has written an important book about it. I even reviewed James Geary's excellent book on metaphor and how it is considerably more potent on our brains and bodies than most of us imagine. Now comes another article showing the yet more powerful effects of literary texts, or certain ones at least: poetry by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, and other canonical Euro-American Anglophone writers.

According to Julie Henry, an education reporter for the Telegraph, Liverpool University literary scholars and cognitive scientists working together have found that poetry and dramatic texts by Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others has "beneficial" effects on the mind, in part because of the complexity of the texts' linguistic organization arrests and holds the reader's attention, even if briefly, provoking self-reflection as a result. As with many of the other studies, the brain researchers used scanning devices to monitor brain activity while conducting a series of tests, and they found that when they presented the test subjects with the poetic and dramatic texts versus more straightforward prose versions, the poetic texts triggered more electrical activity in the brain, particularly when the test subjects encountered "unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure."

Yet this temporary electrical activity did persist beyond the initial flicker, leading the subjects to continue reading the texts. Poetry in particular increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, Henry states, "an area concerned with 'autobiographical memory,'" suggesting that poems aid readers in thinking about and understanding their own lives in relation to what they have read. One of the researchers, English professor Philip Davis, will reportedly tell a conference this week that "Serious literature acts like a rocket booster to the brain," reorganizing it in vital ways. "[Poetry] is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive." (This appears to be true of fiction as well.) Yet Henry adds that the researchers claim this means that classic literary texts were more valuable than self-help books, though this appears to be a bit of scientism running amok, and she doesn't give evidence for this. Davis's assertion appears to be borne out by many of the studies I point to in the links above, and in overviews by writers like Geary, George Lakoff, Steven Pinker, and others. But what about a self-help book written using the techniques of poetry or fiction, or written as poetry or fiction (cf. Thomas Traherne's deeply meditative work, or John Ashbery's semi-parodic, playful version in Three Poems)? Perhaps the researchers' claims go a bit too far, or are simply not precise enough.

Nevertheless, Henry's article underpins the reality that we ought to read Auden's fragment not just more carfully, but ironically at the very least, for he, like every poet of worth, certainly has been aware, at least at some point regard her or his own poetry, as well as regarding the poetry they admire, that poetry, and literary language and texts more broadly do make things happen, even if not in the immediate sense that some poets--and writers in general--might like. Or that tyrants and philosophers might not. You might even point to one of the world's most poetic books, The Holy Bible, especially the King James version, which, for anyone who has (had to) read it, has decided cognitive effects, sometimes hypnotic, and these cannot all be chalked up merely to social, cultural and sometimes political and economic traditions and contexts. Reading certain sections of the Bible can be entrancing; I would imagine they spark the same sorts of electrical activity, and effects that Davis describes above.

This got me thinking about a poem fragment that Geoffrey Jacques sent in a recent email, which brought back almost immediately thought not with complete clarity the following poem, which I hope some enterprising brain scientist studies in relation to the topic above. If you have never read it, you are in for a treat. Many of the poems I've posted on here would also be worthy of study in this regard, but I am posting this one since Geoffrey cited it and it is does promote a decent amount of mind work. Read it aloud and see if you can do so without stumbling, listening to the words as you do so, before you begin analyzing it, if you can. I can assure you that it's doing something (good) to and for your brain, even if just making you more attentive to words, sounds, and language's power. But of course it's doing far, far more than that. Eliminating the need for self-help texts, analysis and therapy or more, I can't say. But a boost--or several kinds--is occurring.

The poem, a sonnet, by Marianne Moore (1887-1972, and native of Kirkwood, Missouri), "No Swan So Fine":


"No water so still as the
   dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
   as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
   candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins, and everlastings,
   it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers--at ease and tall. The king is dead.

Copyright © Marianne Moore, from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, New York: Penguin Books, 1982. All rights reserved.

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