Overweening Generalist

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Poetry and Human Nervous Systems

Eight years or so ago I read a book called The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, by Ernest L. Rossi. Subtitled "New Concepts of Therapeutic Hypnosis," it was challenging and almost unduly interesting. When we hear or read words, a fantastic world of non-conscious systems gets kicked into gear. The ramifications staggered me. I remember thinking something along the lines of, "This is too powerful. It can't be correct...can it?" 

We already have life-experiences with language, words, phrases, the way they're conveyed...all of this effects the limbic system and hypothalamus (emotional brain), which reverberates to the frontal cortex. But the emotional brain, being involved, means that information cascades to all parts of the body via the neuropeptide system and involves the endocrine system/autonomic nervous system, and the immune system. And that's just the basics. The book was a tough slog, but a total buzz, and even if I only understood 30% of it, it was worth it. 

The upshot: just more evidence that Descartes was wrong. Mind and body are not separate at all. They have always been a unity, and Descartes fell prey to an overweening rationalism, or a "tender-mindedness," as William James might have put it.

(Around age 12 I accidentally "discovered" that, if I summoned a certain type of image in my "mind" almost immediately a radical reaction took place in an area near my pelvic region...Some academics would hear my personal story, and vis a vis Descartes, say my experience constituted "dissentual data." Okay, but it seemed fairly "sensual" to me!)

In the ensuing months, I began to feel haunted by some ideas Rossi's book seemed to suggest. The book was concerned with the psychobiology of hypnosis and how it "worked" in healing. But it also "suggested" almost too much about the electronic media and politics, how advertising works, how political language could be used...I started to feel paranoid. On this topic of language and politics I will blog in future days, goddess willing, but I'd rather use this time to talk about something beautiful along the lines (hypnotically?) suggested in Rossi's book: poetry, and how it might infuse us, psychobiologically.


I recently read a lecture that one of my favorite living poets, Robert Hass, gave in May, 2003, in Berkeley, "On Teaching Poetry." In the middle of the lecture he talks about teaching Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," a poem he fell in love with in high school.

Here's Hass:

"The narrator of that poem comes across a lonely knight who is 'alone and palely loitering' around a withered lake. The narrator asks him what his ailment is, and the knight tells the story of a beautiful woman, or some kind of female creature, who took him into her cave and made love to him and abandoned him before he woke up in the morning; and he, the knight, can't leave the place where this occurred because she might come back again [...] One of the delicious moments in the poem is the young knight's description of his seduction:

                She looked at me as she did love,
                 And made sweet moan.

"Now, if you will, say that last phrase aloud. 'And made sweet moan.'"

Hass says that when he teaches this, young men in his class are not daydreaming. They are paying attention. But there's a nuance to this charged eroticism about paralysis by ideal beauty, and it's in the physicality of a line like "And made sweet moan." Hass again, on what happens when you say those words:

"...if you articulate just the sequence of vowel sounds - ahhh, aayyy, eeeee, ooooh - is that they begin in the far back of the throat, move to the mid-back, to the mouth, and then breathe out through the lips, in a perfectly modulated and progressive release of breath. That's one of the first things poetry is: the physical structure of the actual breath of a given utterance and its emotion."

Hass says, and I believe him due to personal experience, that even if we read the musicality of poetry to ourselves, there's a mental equivalent to the physical sensation, and it becomes deeply implanted in us, its effects are deeper than any of the "ideas" the poem may be offering. The resonance of our nervous systems and the ideas comes a bit later.

Let us attend to the sounds of words and their musicality.


The Mad Poet Ezra Pound called this musical aspect of poetry melopoeia. In his essay from 1927 or '28, "How To Read," he says this about melopoeia:

"The melopoeia can be appreciated by a foreigner with a sensitive ear, even though he be ignorant of the language in which the poem is written. It is practically impossible to transfer or translate it from one language to another, save perhaps by divine accident, and for half a line at a time." - p.25 of Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, but "How To Read" is found all over the place.

NOW: what does this line from Ezra Pound do to all the non-conscious systems in your body?:

                                          As cool as the pale wet leaves 
                                               of lily-of-the-valley,
                                          She lay beside me in the dawn.


The Hass lecture is from a pressing of only 400 paperbound copies, but it will probably turn up in some collection of his, if it hasn't already. I highly recommend his book of poems, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005. It'll do unspeakable things to your entire nervous system! 


ARW23 said...

How poetically insightful, revealing, liberating, yet enigmatic. Apropos logopoeia, phanopoeia and melopoeia note:

Pendant que le parfum des verts tamariniers,
Qui circule dans l'air et m'enfle la narine,
Se mele dans mon ame au chant des mariniers.
(Charles Baudelaire)

Those who know do not speak;
Those who speak do not know.

(Lao Tzu)

Kroz noc
Kose moje drage duboko sumore
kao more


michael said...

Those examples all sound/feel completely different in my mouth. I had no idea Lao-Tzu's chinese was so close to our English! (sorry!)

For some reason, I've always gotten big laffs whenever I attempted to read a foreign language that I didn't understand. I go out of my way to ACT like I can read it, and adopt what I think is the "accent" (an admittedly difficult thing to describe, but we all know it when we hear it), and use hand gestures. It's fun!

French sounds very melodic to me, although strictly speaking, it is not melody; it is something between melody and speech that I mean. I know there are experimental poets who have written texts to be SOUNDED. The tongue-twister is an experiment in variations on one sound, usually a consonant. 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers..."

ARW23 said...

....or perhaps...."What noise annoys an oyster? A noisy noise annoys an oyster."

michael said...

That one's great for clearing your sinuses and for preparing to have your adnoids removed. May as well enjoy them before they're gone, eh? I recommend that one for the highly phlegmatic.

The oyster-twister is fun to perform (that IS, after all, what we're doing when we recite these things), and I'd say it's INNOCENT. Unlike some other twisters with a devious agenda, such as this seemingly innocuous one:

"I saw Susie sitting in a shoe shine shop.
Where she sits she shines, and where she shines she sits."

Perilous too!

ARW23 said...

Very funny! BUT, in praxis, after 23 of these 'oyster-twisters' one does not need to spray nasals with afrin.

ARW23 said...

Try this one if you dare: "cvrci crni cvrcak na cvoru crne smrce".

Eric Wagner said...

27 years ago I lent that Rossi book to someone in an African dance company to which I belonged.

Zukofsky did a lot of work with translating the sounds of other languages into English, especially with Catullus.

Yet another terrific blog. Thank you.