Monday, March 5, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 3: Thought, Word and Deed; Metaphor and Imagination

“What you seek is like music. It sweeps you aloft so that you are moving in glory among the stars. Take time to find the unseen.”

--from A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Last time, we explored the question of what sort of person might be a poet. Now, let’s turn our attention to the poetic existence. Such existence is all about mental attention and where you turn yours.

There are certain mental activities that take place within both hemispheres of the brain; music and poetry are among these activities. Engagement with what is through the lens of possibility might also be a way to describe this. (Flights of your fancy pass through landscapes of dream and imagination; where do they lead you?)

I am sure these are bold statements to make, without recourse to scientific data, neurological comparisons or a degree in biochemistry, but my intuition tells me this is so.

We go about our daily activities, some reflexively or by rote, some by thought and plan. Throughout our days, we may follow a daily routine that seems tedious, and yet each day is different—there is always something irregular punctuating the regular activities. We think, we speak, we act and we witness; later our minds review these actions and happenings, categorizing, analyzing and judging. This is the activity of the left hemisphere of the brain, the center of language, logic and order.

Meanwhile, the right hemisphere of the brain may engage with the remembrance of these activities in a completely different manner than the left hemisphere. This other hemisphere processes experience as imagery, symbolism, impression; reflections tend to be of the big picture variety, leaping from idea to idea in a more random manner. Shades, shadows, colors, sounds, shapes and silence that may have been among the daily experiences run through this entirely different filtering process.

Left hemisphere and right hemisphere register experience differently, and to that I say “vive la difference”! The right hemisphere has a natural tendency to lavish attention on much smaller details (moments of surprise, apprehension of beauty, tiny joys, slights, hurtful words from someone, seeing someone act in a mean or careless way and other seemingly useless bits of awareness that flow through our days). When the mind is engaged in this way, the person, embedded or immersed in experience, is likely to be completely sincere and guileless—and free.

Gaston Bachelard, a French mathematician and chemist who turned his attention to poetics (joining science, aesthetics and psychoanalysis) had this to say about the way our experience, embedded in the memory as imagery, transcends the original experience:

From the standpoint of its will to shape experience, the literary image is a physical reality that has its own relief. More precisely, it is the psychic relief, the multi-leveled psyche. It furrows or it raises; it finds a depth or suggests an elevation; it rises or falls between heaven and earth. It is polyphonic because it is poly-semantic. If meanings become too profuse, it can fall to word-play. If it restricts itself to a single meaning, it can fall into didacticism. The true poet avoids both dangers. He plays and he teaches. In him, the word reflects and reflows; in him time begins to wait. 1

A very fancy and beautiful way to talk about a poet’s main exercise with regard to the images derived from experience: metaphor.

It may be unnecessary for me to offer this explanation, but etymologically, metaphor comes from meta, which means “transcendent”, and pherein, which means “carry”. The word metaphor means to “carry beyond”.  Aristotle assigned the sense of meaning for metaphor that we have today:
“The converted use of a word (metaphor) as the application of one word to signify another, where the former is usually used to mean something else.” 2

Why? Why is metaphor the poet’s main exercise?

We experience mostly in part, and even that part we cannot claim to truly understand or own. Our experience of something is not the thing itself. Metaphor points the way to a kind of definition—even revelation—that might make an impression on someone else, or perhaps offer an apprehension of the experience.

Even so, as beautiful as an apprehension may be, it continues to elude being the thing itself. One cannot buy or trade experience (although you wouldn’t know that by looking at self-help and spirituality sections of any bookstore or library). Your experience is your own, period. The prophet Isaiah sums this up rather well (Isaiah 55: 8-9 NIV):

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

This is so for everyone. If you want to try to make someone understand your experience, you have to communicated by using metaphors or analogies the other person might understand.

We’ve talked about the role of experience and the role of metaphor; what we haven’t touched on is why we would waste our time engaging in poetic streams of thought. Many people have addressed this in books about writing, literary criticism and psychology.

Ultimately, I think that we can boil all this down to a few essential reasons. Firstly, it is mental stimulus that is a byproduct of awareness; everyone needs to exercise the brain cells. Secondly, writing is therapeutic in the sense that the kernel you start with is a happening that captivates your attention and the exercise of writing helps you to work through that captivation (whether it is a positive or negative one). 

Thirdly, I think of writing as a meditation practice. I set aside time to do this (granted, sometimes I actually have to shove aside other obligations in order to make time for writing), and I allow my right brain hemisphere to explore, as uninhibited by the left hemisphere as possible. How I do this is an experience I can describe, but not impart in a way that would be useful for anyone trying to “learn” how to do it. Personal discovery of how to “get in the zone” is likely an integral part of the practice.

It may be a matter of, as the epigraph above suggests, taking the time to pay attention to “the unseen”.


1 Bachelard, Gaston. L’Air et les songes (Librarie José Corti, 1962). pp 286-288
2 Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher (London: Macmillan and Co., 1902), 77-79.


Next time: Peak Experiences, the Abyss and Everything in Between,
Writing as Meditation Practice

… Meanwhile, when something catches your attention, write it down and keep thinking about it!