Poetry on the Brain

The Poetry Foundation is a great resource with a seemingly endless amount of material to investigate. This afternoon, enjoying the first day of a week's vacation, I checked out this highlighted discussion, which was a little spicy at times, of a new book by Iain McGilchrist called The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010). Ange Mlinko, poet and critic, approaches the book through the eyes of a poet seeking to understand what can be learned from a book whose purpose is to explore the right and left hemispheres of the brain and how poetry plays its part to stimulate those hemispheres.

The conversation, dipping occasionally into murky scientific waters, did find its way to a familiar topic: is it better to write poems that are more complex or straightforward? is it more fun to read difficult poems, or not?

Modern American poetry's use or non-use of metaphor and metonymy wedged into the back-and-forth, and ultimately the question of accessibility to what the poem wishes to accomplish comes forward to equal that with difficulty comes pleasure in reading and contemplating the poem.

Paradoxically, it is most difficult to make the familiar seem new, and so Iain McGilchrist provides a nice comment of the modern poetic state when he says : "There is a tension between what has to engage our conscious debating minds and what must carry us into a realm beyond any such
ratiocination. An excessive fear of being direct, and the worship of the difficult, endemic in Modernism, threaten at times to undermine the direction that poetry inevitably takes, away from what we have to “work out” for ourselves toward what we thought we knew already, but in fact never understood. In poetry, being simple takes more skill than being difficult."

Here is a link to a well-known Ashbery poem that McGilchrist claims abandons the reader at the end when the poem should hold them the strongest. I agree that I do feel a little abandoned, but find joy in that letting go: I was able to ratiocinate (fun word, right?) up to that point well enough, and now the balance has shifted, the tension now in a new "realm" where our minds can, potentially, make connections otherwise impossible.


Post a Comment