Campbell Corner Language Exchange


Speech After Long Silence : Of Poetry and Consciousness

by Noga Arikha

- Delivered at the 2005 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize Reading


When Phillis Levin and Elfie Raymond asked me to introduce this poetry reading, I hesitated: what do I, a historian of ideas about mind and body and consciousness, who deals with concepts and their history, have to say about poetry? Why in the world should I introduce the winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Contest, and the runners-up?

But then I accepted. After all, the necessity of poetry was infused into my childhood, into my consciousness - my mother is a poet. I wrote poetry as a 20-year old, as most 20-year olds do. Occasionally, in an intense moment, I will still feel that the only thing left me to do is to write poetically. The outcome is irrelevant; the act is all, and it feels like a supreme act. Supreme in that moment. Deep down I still believe that if one is to have "Speech after long silence", as Yeats has it in the incipit to one of his short poems, then it better be poetic speech. Somehow it is the most intelligent speech.

Those who live and think in prose as myself can forget that language can perform miracles. Scholars are often tin-eared. Students of the mind easily forget their own minds; that is what is needed for science to function. One has long classified emotions and moods - the history of such efforts fascinates me. Today one actually researches the neurological and physiological correlates of emotions. We now study emotions, even the response to music and to painting. There is research into such phenomena as the need for familiarity, for example, that refers to evolved brain functions and genetically determined habits; on the nature of disgust, or of fear; on the origins of a sweet tooth. All this is interesting, and important. We are physical, evolved creatures; and to understand our own nature, we must go to nature. We must analyse the stuff that we are made of. But there is more stuff to ourselves than the stuff we see and know, and I have been struggling with this powerful awareness, perhaps infused with the sense of art I grew up with. I cannot help but focus on how scientific curiosity can trump self-knowledge - by neglecting the very stuff of which thoughts themselves are made: language.

The point is this: poetry is where we come from - verbally. It is the only form of linguistic intimacy. It is the outcome of listening to what lies within language, in spite of how we must use language every day. The four-year old son of a philosopher friend of mine declared to his mother recently that there are two kinds of thought: thoughts in the mouth and thoughts in the head. Thoughts in the mouth are written, he said, and thoughts in the head are dreams.

It might be that poems are the thoughts in the head that are written - that would explain why poets are commonly perceived as special knowers, endowed with a special insight into consciousness that others have lost, left behind in their childhood, in their pre-linguistic life perhaps. Cognitive psychologists, philosophers and scientists who research the human mind do so by using language descriptively - they write prose, thoughts in the mouth to account for the origins of writing and thinking, to depict the thoughts in the head. Poets on the other hand use language performatively; the poem is something like verbally embodied consciousness. Poetic language at best is transparent; at the place that Wittgenstein famously identified as inaccessible to meaningful language, and that seventeenth-century natural philosophers had believed was the realm of post-lapsarian man. Pre-Adamic language is in the head - or so it would seem, if one is to believe the four-year old boy.

Certainly the poem follows the rhythms of the mind; in that sense a cognitive psychologist could very well analyse it in order to understand the mind better. But that is precisely what cannot be done. The poet is able to gather into one place the intensity of insights; of course the technical ability is needed to do so, just as technical ability is empty without insight. But what sort of insight is the poetic insight?

What is it about the elaborate transformation of language into performance, the emphasis of the musicality of linguistic sound, that so transcends prosaic descriptive, language? Why is it that the poetic experience matters? Is poetic insight equivalent, or inferior, or superior to philosophical insight? Is that even a valid question?

Not a few researchers of the human mind, myself included, have referred to that extraordinary poem by Emily Dickinson beginning The Brain is Wider than the Sky (ca. 1862) for its insightfulness. The neuroscientist Gerald Edelman recently entitled his popular book on consciousness "Wider than the sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness". He writes there that the poem impressed him because, "in extolling the width and depth of the mind, Dickinson referred exclusively to the brain". But there is more to it, surely. Indeed she referred to the brain - and indeed in 1862 that might have been a novelty, though actually not as much so as Edelman supposes. I think what is impressive here is the poem itself. The use of a poetic line as epigraph confers on it authority - qua poem. It acquires declarative value. Those who refer to it implicitly treat it as an example of just how insightful the poet can be about her very mind, of just how transparent to ourselves we can be, if only we let ourselves unmask language, as Nietzsche would have put it - Nietzsche that most poetic of thinkers, the philosopher (of sorts) who most aspired to the condition of art. Many of you probably know the poem in question - but it doesn't hurt to tell it again:

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea -
For - hold them - Blue to Blue -
The one the other will absorb -
As Sponges - Buckets - do -

The Brain is just the weight of God -
For - Heft them - Pound for Pound -
And they will differ - if they do -
As Syllable from Sound -

Could this have been said in prose? No, of course not. "Blue to blue" - that is not prose; it responds here to the sea, that which is absorbed by the brain, "as sponges - buckets - do" - and here there is a description of a function, evocative enough for the neuroscientist perhaps to be impressed by the accuracy of this functional analogy. But analyse enough and you will have concepts, the sad remnants of what once was a poetic whole. Separate form from content and all that is left are the thoughts in the mouth, mournfully torn away from the thoughts in the head.

We know this is true; yet, the philosopher - the aesthetician in this case - might ask, how is it so? Why do semantic, verbal echoes produce emotion? A good poem is good because it suggests more than it declares. Semantic echoes echoed within rhymes somehow say more than straight lines (rhyming here unintentional) - as they do in music. In the Renaissance, principles of invention, judgement, arrangement, order and decorum governed the composition of poetry, and of prose. We have it from a not very well known humanist poet called Raffaele Brandolini, who wrote a treatise On music and poetry for Pope Leo X in around 1513, that "the poet's esteem proceeds first from the invention of his poem, next from its composition, third from its ornament, fourth from his fluency in recitation, and finally from his delivery". All this, a good student of rhetoric would have known, guaranteed the efficacy of the written word, the production of commensurate emotion.

This was the Renaissance - when rhetoric was itself an art. We are removed from that period now. Philosophers rarely pay attention to style. Nietzsche fumed against "them" for that reason: he knew that style is much more than dress. Language can describe precisely; but philosophical, and for that matter scientific language is quite different from literary language. There is scientific work today that might provide some rudimentary answers to the question of why echoes produce emotion - of why what we say in verse may in the end matter more to our emotional selves than what we say in prosaic prose, to our intellectual selves. It is precisely for this reason that artistic emotion is not graspable by any discourse other than what produced it. Use prose to translate Dickinson's poem and you will be as much as a buffoon as when you use philosophical concepts to understand a joke. There is something about the poem that no account of its operations upon our soul, so to speak - upon our minds, really - can render.

Cognitive short-cuts are necessary for a sense of value - and perhaps students of the mind can make something of that. Description does not really matter; evocation does, and evocation happens performatively. Studies on the physiology of emotion are important; but we must also remember that the very language in which they are set ensures the gap between description and evocation. There is no such gap in a good poem (that is, arguably, what makes it good in the first place).

And so there is a limit to the extent to which disciplines - the arts and the sciences - can meet because they are defined by their respective, mutually exclusive rhetoric. The gap that remains explicitly at the center of scientific or philosophical investigations into the human mind guarantees the place within which the science can be pursued and can explain. It also guarantees that art, always needed, remain the litmus test of consciousness. We have been testing this tonight - and we'll continue to do so, with this year's winner, Jennifer Chang, who knows all about inner echoes, and how to describe just what it is like to be in this world, "two parts water, to one part salt", in her words.