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This is Your Brain on Poetry

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As you read this, Dr. Jacopo Annese is slicing up a brain. Not just any brain, but the brain of Henry Molaison, a man famous for his inability to form new memories after he underwent brain surgery in the early 1950s. Dr. Annese, a San Diego scientist, is digging into Molaison's gray matter with hopes of figuring out exactly how human memory works. The NYT reports that recordings of Molaison's brain slices will "produce a searchable Google Earth-like map of the brain with which scientists expect to clarify the mystery of how and where memories are created--and how they are retrieved."

So Dr. Annese and his compatriots are, in effect, plunging into the greatest poetic mystery of all time.

Memory--and the wonder and terror it inspires--has generated great poems from Simonides, famous for eulogizing ancient Greek nobility, to Coleridge, who longed for his faraway friends in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," to the contemporary poets writing an "experiment in collective autobiography," The Grand Piano. These poets--Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, and Carla Harryman among them--have spent their careers using poetry to prod the brain in other areas besides just the comfortable spot where (to paraphrase Wordsworth) emotion is recollected in tranquility.

Poetry in this tradition--one that is less interested in telling stories and more interested in exploring how story-language works--attempts to make the emotion present in the reading experience. Tranquility can come later. They're not re-telling memories in a poem (like the memory recounted in William Stafford's much-anthologized "Traveling Through the Dark"), but rather using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader's brain while he or she is reading (Bernadette Mayer's writing is a great example of this kind of thing). To varying degrees, these poets have delved into what literary critic Reuven Tsur has called Cognitive Poetics, a field of study that has taken "reader-response" theory to a whole other level.

Tsur makes the case that certain sound patterns have inherent properties that fire up the "poetic" parts of the brain, and that by paying attention to those patterns we can read poetry in an entirely new way. A wave of contemporary poets--the Grand Piano folks as well as Clark Coolidge, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Eric Baus, Christian Bok, and, in his way, Tao Lin--have taken up Tsur's ideas about reading and used them in their writing. A "Cogntivie Poet" won't simply say "When I first made out with so-and-so, I did the happy dance!" Rather, she will use word combinations that cause the attentive reader to feel, to create a new experience, a memory, by the act of reading. It will make the reader's brain do the happy dance.

Here's how Bhanu Kapil handles a childhood memory in her poem "The House of Waters":

Mud walls whose surfaces belonged to the plantar surfaces of human hands. I could see
finger marks, whorls. Once, I was a living being, embellished with skin: fortunate and blighted
in turns. I turned. In circles. In the adventure playground, which was concrete. When I fell,
the nurse would daub me with yellow smears, that stang.

It's heady stuff, and it follows in Gertrude Stein's footsteps much more than Robert Frost's. It also can be full of messy failures that achieve nothing at all besides piles of linguistic gobbeldy-goo (it's experimental, after all). For these reasons, only the most adventurous poetry readers have so far taken it up . This kind of poetry isn't a comfort. Rather, it's a challenge. It's an experiment much like that of Dr. Annese, who, when he first sliced into H.M.'s brain uttered the quite expressive phrase, "Ah ha ha!"

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