Tag Archives: Frost

Emily Dickinson’s Neuroaesthetics

English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...The process of reading as well as the effect it has on us as individuals is only just beginning to be understood. Recent instruments of brain imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have unleashed a bevy of information on our own neurology, bringing us closer and closer to understanding that slipping locus: mind. Floating within the liminal space between the empiric and the transcendent is art; at one point it seemed both fields grew parallel to one another, then they seemed to approach infinity asymptotically, now, in the field of neuroaesthetics, their paths will meet.

Emily Dickinson thrusts the entangled nature of art and science and the phenomenological experience of reading into our consciousness by disrupting or displacing it so that we consider our relation to not only what is being read but also our psychological self and our culture as a whole. Like many modern poets, Dickinson uses neologistic linguistic devices to corrupt language, so that we reassess our relation to it and the socio-cultural context in which it is placed. But her primary technique is elision, a method that demands we do not take her 
Basquiatlanguage for granted and slip into negligent forms of reading or contentment with the world of her poetry. Jean-Michel Basquiat once said, ‘I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact they are obscured makes you want to read more.’ Through linguistic obfuscation or total elision, Dickinson accomplish the same thing, reflecting and elucidating the functions of reading language for the reader.

Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (2009) offers a relatively simple definition of the neurological complexities in the process of reading. Dehaene writes, ‘Written word processing starts in our eyes. Only the center of the retina, called the fovea, has a fine enough resolution to allow for the recognition of small print. Our gaze must therefore move around the page constantly. Whenever our eyes stop, we recognize one or two words. Each of them is then split up into myriad fragments by retinal neurons and must be put back together before it can be recognized. Our visual system progressively extracts graphemes, syllables, prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Two major parallel processing routes eventually come into play: the phonological route, which converts letters into speech sound, and the lexical route, which gives access to a mental dictionary of word meaning’ (9 [italics mine]).

The act of reading involves the process of encoding, retrieval, and decoding. Overtime our neurons become trained, internalizing graphic signs in constituent parts, i.e. phonemes and graphemes. Each time we look at a word, synapses fire in order for the brain to retrieve information from within memory banks and subsequently sift through their potential meanings. This process occurs within approximately a tenth to a half a second. The eye shifts back and forth intermittently, pausing at moments when the brain decodes small chains of language or when the eye must respond to changes in light or other external shifts in the surrounding environment. These movements of the eye are called saccades. Saccadic movement allows the fovea to scan lines of text, as the fovea is only wide enough to see six to seven characters at a time. The encoded graphic representations of language are then sent (primarily) to an area located in the occipital region of the brain where encoded language is decoded through a process Dehaene calls ‘neuronal recycling,’ allowing the brain to recall patterns and become attuned to the subtleties of language, such as homonym. All of this takes an incredible amount of neurological activity and thus energy and heightens the significance of language in the development of not only culture but also who we are as individuals.

In 1862 Dickinson experienced her greatest moment of personal and mental turmoil, however it was also her most prolific period in which she wrote 366 poems. Capitalizing on the somewhat vague understanding of Dickinson’s condition, psychoanalysts often studied this period of Dickinson’s work to show the significant fragmentation in the processes of thought during psychotic breakdowns. Perhaps her agoraphobia allowed her to regress into her interiority due to little contact with the outside world or maybe her anxiety was sublimated into art (likely both); whatever the cause of her creative energy, it is during this time that her poetry seems to focus most heavily on the manner in which body and brain receive information.

As we have seen in the brief introduction to the neurology of reading, the brain receives graphemes (and most information) in fragmented units and subsequently interprets coherent wholes out of them, oftentimes intercalating the missing pieces. Given that the mind only registers one or two words at each pause, Dickinson’s dash takes on great importance in regard to the way we read and understand her work. In implementing the dash, Dickinson is asking the mind to pause in order for it to register unconsciously what it has just encoded, allowing the decoding process to initiate before the movement to the next graphic chain, thereby providing a neurologic immediacy to the process of reading her work. This is an important aspect of Dickinson’s poetry as her elision often renders syntactical meaning perplexing. Through fragmentation, the brain slows and processes what it is reading, interpolates the elided information, and focuses on the language present. This seems counterintuitive to what the dashes and the abstraction of Dickinson’s work seem to be accomplishing (or not accomplishing) superficially. The dash does sometimes speed up the reader consciously but by placing this meaningless (meaningless in that it has no lexical meaning) graphic, the brain processes the information better. It is this type of poetic trickery or obfuscation that makes her poetry so immediate, so physical. Consider how important each chain becomes in ‘Departed – to the judgment –’(1862):

Departed – to the judgment –
A Mighty Afternoon –
Great Clouds – like Ushers – leaning –
Creation – looking on –
The flesh – Surrendered – Cancelled –
The Bodiless – begun –
Two Worlds – like Audiences – disperse –
And leave the Soul – alone –

She seems aware of the saccadic movement of the eye and the importance it has in reading and is therefore asking us to slow down, to encode/decode the unit before moving on to the next chain or line; she wants our attention to remain for some time on the segments delineated by the dash before continuing and she does not want to fill the space with conjunctions, prepositions or useless language.

The abstraction present in this poem is typical of Dickinson and furthers our desires to pay particular attention to the language. The poem seems to be about the soul’s state after death under that public eye of nature; it is a dying into nature whereby the body is surrendered and cancelled. The setting of the death is a storm. In a letter discussing her growing dependence upon her sister and her fear of being alone, Dickinson writes, ‘Vinnie has been all, so long, I feel the oddest fright at parting with her for an hour, lest a storm arise, and I go unsheltered’ (Letter 200). Storms become an important symbol and metaphor of psychological torment; read this way, the poem is enacting the psychological state of a panic attack. Anxiety is the term for a fear without a specific focus and patients describe them ‘as a simulation of death’ (McDermott). (Dickinson’s panic attacks were probably the reason for her obsession with death and the persistent placement of the speaker in the very act of dying or beyond the grave.) In the poem, ‘Two Worlds’ are leaving the ‘Soul – alone’, one is explicitly the body and so the second (because it cannot be the Soul which leaves the Soul alone) is likely the mind; thus the speaker is experiencing being both without body and without mind. During panic attacks, patients describe the feelings of being disconnected from their body and that they are ‘going insane.’ In this poem Dickinson is relaying through form the psychological distress of death or impending doom whose locus is indeterminate or abstract, hence the poem’s enigmatic nature. The form and content represent that ‘snarl in the brain’ present during her greatest moments of psychological torment.

The cryptic nature of Dickinson’s poetry is also due to the fact that she is often skeptical of religion, afterlife, and morality as well as the manner in which humans are able to receive and subsequently record external phenomena. In her poetry, this skepticism is often the result of the tender and quite capricious nature of the brain’s neurological makeup, which, according to Joseph LeDoux, is what makes the self: he calls this notion the synaptic self. It is clear that synapses allow us to be; the unconscious processes of synaptic firings allow us to breathe, sit, walk, think, speak, read etc. However, LeDoux argues that synapses are as important as nature (genetics) and nurture (or religion, culture etc.). An important aspect of this theory is that because we are consistently changing physiologically, our mindset changes as well. We are, by the very nature of our somewhat whimsical synapses, protean. Helen Vendler writes that Dickinson creates ‘structures that mimic the structure of life at any moment she conceives it’ and ‘[b]y those structures…channels our reactions, adjusts our pace to her and molds our thinking after her own’ (34).  Dickinson discusses the manner in which our brains often run counter to ourselves (a theme taken up in my post on Frost’s ‘Spring Pools’) despite our desires to think differently in ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’ (1864).

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make it fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.

For Dickinson, the fissure in the mind feels like it is a direct result of the brain’s being split: she initiates with the Whitmanian thesis: ‘[w]e do not have a body, we are a body’ (Lehrer). While this poem discusses cognitive disjunction known to everyone, the language chosen as well as the form into which it is placed heightens the problem of the poem by making that very problem latent in the diction and syntax.

lobessssIn the process of reading, the visual recognition of word triggers myriad neurological circuits that have been conditioned and fortified through our environment, learning, and reading behaviors. With the recognition of a graphic form as a potential grapheme or word, we begin the process of decoding the smallest groupings of letters into potential words while simultaneously seeking in lexical and auditory memory banks, memories that we can apply to what is seen. The brain does not do this immediately, and so it must sequence patterns of recognition to seek out banks of possible auditory and lexical meaning. Overtime, through the process of reading and ‘neuron recycling,’ the brain becomes aware of homonyms and understands it must differentiate these twinned lexical graphics using contextual signs. However, this is not always immediately possible, and so meanings slide and we fall victim to innocent parapraxis while reading or speaking. In ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’ the difficulty of the poem is substantiated by homonymic difficulties, echoing in the reader’s mind the struggle which Dickinson is discussing.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb cleave has two separate meanings. The first is (1) ‘To part or divide by a cutting blow; to hew asunder; to split’. The second meaning is its exact opposite: (2) ‘To attach to.’ (Because the line break is accentuated by the dash, the brain may register this latter meaning first). At the close of the second line—with that hard split—the meaning becomes clear and the cleaving is a splitting. What makes this homonymic moment more impressive is the fact that Dickinson is lamenting the loss of the second meaning, she in fact wishes her mind would cleave (2) and not cleave (1). This would lack importance if it were an insolated incident within the poem, however Dickinson repeats the lexical trickery with the word ravel. Here ravel in fact has three meanings. (1) ‘To entangle; to confuse, perplex; to render incoherent or muddled;’ (2) ‘of a skein of yarn, a spool or reel of thread, etc.: to become unwound;’ and (3) ‘to knit or bring together.’ The superficial meaning is the first meaning (1): Dickinson cannot connect one thought to the next and is therefore confused. It is the last two meanings that perform the deception. Taking ‘Seam by Seam’ to be a knitting metaphor, ravel initially means that her thoughts are unwound; however, the secondary definition means that in its becoming unwound it is knit together, just as one must unravel a spool of thread to ravel (knit) an article of clothing. The sequence (patterning) ravels out of caterwauling auditory input (‘Balls – upon a floor’) and Dickinson is consciously unable to align her thinking patterns to that sequence; though subconsciously, on a neurological level, the brain is making meaning: on a superficial level the disparate meaning of lexical input is consciously rendered cryptic and yet meaning arises out of the mind’s ability to pattern properly, however unlikely it seems.

In her use of dichotomous language, Dickinson is lamenting not the fact that she cannot think properly but rather that this is in fact the process of thought, especially in times of psychological distress. The cleaving of the mind as a result of the brain’s splitting continues the theme of being disconnected from her body, and in that disconnect her thoughts become subject to the seemingly arbitrary will of synaptic energies, however it is those very energies that create the poem. Two years prior to the composition of this poem, and during a tumultuous time, Dickinson wrote on the notion of the brain’s arbitrary connections in ‘The Brain, within its Groove’ (1862):

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
‘Twere easier for You—
To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills—

This poem is attuned to LeDoux’s notion of the synaptic self whereby the self, as much at is informed by culture, religion, etc. is really dependent upon patterns of synapse. The brain is plastic and is changing constantly through synapses as we continue to change day to day. This plasticity not only literally reshapes our minds but also our personality, our thoughts and even our beliefs. Dickinson is stating, as countless neurologists have stated (and recidivists proven), it is easier to learn than it is to unlearn.

***

Works Cited:

Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson & Theodora Ward, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

McDermott, John F. ‘Emily Dickinson’s “Nervous Prostration” and its Possible Relation to Her Work .’Emily Dickinson Journal. 9.1 (2008): 71-86.

Vendler, Helen. ‘Emily Dickinson Thinking.’ Parnassus 26.1 (2001): 34-56.

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Stanley Kunitz: The Testing-Tree

Magic LanternI haven’t dreamed in months. My brain is numb with thinking, burned-out, gutted. I wake each morning to only the hoary, fragmented recollection of the pages I was reading before I fell into sleep, adrift in the glow of the kitchen light. I know that dreams had flickered and doused like lights in an electric storm, but they are impossibly distant (magic) lanterns and the mind’s nights are uneventful. So I have turned again to my dreamer, Stanley Kunitz.


Kunitz makes it into every important anthology and yet I’ve never heard his name murmured by graduates of verse in any 
New York City dive. Kunitz died in 2006 at the age of 100 and he racked up every important literary award and position along Kunitz1the way. His honors include the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the State Poet of New York, the Pulitzer Prize, and the United States Poet Laureate. But no one seems to be writing or talking about this contemporary of Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens etc. whose wide-reaching influence includes Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and so forth and so on until the early 21st century.

Kunitz’s ‘The Testing-Tree’ is one of his most visionary poems. In it, he progresses from a reflection on his childhood to, as he states, a recurring dream. In future, I will likely provide some entryways into the poem . But for now, I think it should only be read and read again. All I will say is listen to the voice. This is a voice that has lived. A voice that has loved and hurt, hurt and plunged, plunged and risen. It is an authoritative and chilling voice; a human voice whose heart ‘breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.’ His is a voice that has dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.

Here’s the poem:

The Testing-Tree

1

On my way home from school
   up tribal Providence Hill
      past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
   I scuffed in the drainage ditch
      among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
   rolled out of glacial time
      into my pitcher's hand;
then sprinted lickety-
   split on my magic Keds
      from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
   with my flying skin
      as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
   over that stretch of road,
      with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
   that on the given course
      I was the world's fastest human.


2

Around the bend
   that tried to loop me home
      dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
   riddled with rabbit-life
      where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
   and a stringy old lilac
      more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
   remembered a door in the 
      long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
   brushing the stickseed off,
      wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel's hair,
   spotting the print of the deer
      and the red fox's scats.
Once I owned the key
   to an umbrageous trail
      thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
   gave me right of passage
      as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
   soundlessly heel-and-toe
      practicing my Indian walk.


3

Past the abandoned quarry
   where the pale sun bobbed
      in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
   where the ferns gave foothold,
      I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
   with the stones in my pocket
      changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
   to the slightest leaf-stir.
      I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
   at fifty measured paces,
      of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
   Jehovah of acorns,
      watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip's War
   in its annulated core
      under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
    I have only three throws
       bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
   while the air flowed saffron,
      I played my game for keeps--
for love, for poetry,
   and for eternal life--
      after the trials of summer.

4

In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl's face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!

Robert Frost: Spring Pools

Robert Frost, American poet

Not uncommon to the northeast, our weather has been rather erratic this year. A week or so ago I walked through the park in a long-sleeve and today I’ve become something of a frigophobic. In any event, sustained warmth is approaching; and because of this there is a widespread air of relief among those that are out-of-doors, a latent optimism ready to spring. This type of optimism is not such a positive thing. It is, rather unfortunately, a form of the modern American condition: in winter, we whimper for warmth, come spring and summer, we grumble under the sun. Doubtless, we lack presence; or perhaps we’re a lot of malcontents. The former is more poetic. As I thought about this, Robert Frost’s ironic and incongruent nature struck me, particularly in his poem ‘Spring Pools’ (1928).

‘Spring Pools’ is the first poem in Frost’s 1928 collection titled West-Running Brook. The male speaker in the title poem ‘West-Running Brook,’ comes to take on a rather pragmatic reading of the brook and nature in general. It is difficult to isolate a single excerpt from the poem without desiring to quote the poem’s entirety but here is the ‘gist’ of the poem:

‘Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself
It is from that water we were from
Long, long before we were from any creature.
Here we, in our impatience of the steps,
Get back to the beginning of beginnings,
The stream of everything that runs away.
Some say existence like a Pirouot
And Pirouette, forever in one place,
Stands still and dances, but it runs away;
It seriously, sadly, runs away
To fill the abyss’s void with emptiness.
It flows beside us in the water brook,
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment.
………………………………………………………..
Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current of the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.’                                  
                                -Lines 38-73

Reflection_2Emerson, a very important philosopher for Frost, writes in his essay ‘Nature’ (1836), ‘Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?’ Both ‘West-Running Brook’ and ‘Spring Pools’ are about the Emersonian flux, but they are dealt with entirely differently. More important than this common motif, is the Emersonian desire for presence. In ‘The Over-Soul’ (1841) (an essay that also discusses the omniscient flow of nature, as in the excerpt above) Emerson writes, ‘Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and to-morrow you arrive there, and know them by inhabiting them.’ He means don’t strive to look into the future because we ‘will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places…’ ‘West-Running Brook’ is about (among other things) accepting Time and Nature. ‘Spring Pools’, again the first poem of the collection, wishes to deny the course with (what I think is a sad) hubris.

The difference between the flow of the brook in ‘West-Running Brook’ and the trees in ‘Spring Pools’ is one of power dynamics. For Frost, the trees are tyrants, siphoning water and beauty from the smaller plants and the reflective pools through their xylem in order to secure their own splendor. The trees’ foliage garnered through this violent extraction would then ‘blot out’ the forest floor from the sun, killing more plants. Frost deems the trees malevolent (‘pent-up buds’ is, I think, a sinister language) and disregards the pragmatism in ‘West-Running Brook’—that Nature and Time ‘seriously, sadly, runs away’— preferring that the moment be sustained. He desires a presence akin to Emerson’s but without the consequence of death. He asserts this desire with phlegmatic hubris: ‘Let them think twice before they use their powers / To blot out and drink up and sweep away / These flowery waters and these watery flowers’ but the final line is stated with such a downhearted tone (note the word ‘only’) that we feel for the hubristic old man striving to stop the currents of time as we might feel for Milton’s Satan: ‘From snow that melted only yesterday.’

Throughout West-Running Brook nature becomes ‘dark,’ a sinister but necessary thing. In ‘Spring Pools,’ I believe Frost is cynically portraying a reversal of the American mind that will become corrected throughout the collection, reaching its culmination in ‘West-Running Brook,’ which asserts an understanding of flux. We must accept the way things are despite our own stubborn desires for something different. We must be the wave we are and learn to ‘run counter’ to ourselves. It will be winter for some time, but spring is soon to come.

Here’s the poem. Listen to the poem (read by Ted Hughes) by clicking the link below.

Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Ted Hughes reading ‘Spring Pools’