Above: Kirsten Fischler, Knotty Thoughts: Neuronal Web I, mixed media on reclaimed wood, 24″ x 36″, 2011.
As Poetry Recycles Neurons: Flocks of Words, Tracks of Letters
FWS All-Level Coordinated Studies Program
“Poetry is good for neural development.” You can buy a T-shirt that says so. This program will engage you experientially in understanding how and why the recycling of neurons informs poetry’s transformative power. We’ll explore how reading can be understood from an evolutionary perspective as an exaptation in which the ability to interpret animal tracks and bird flight was co-opted for the ciphering of lines and circles as letters and words. This exploration will include the scientific writing of Stanislas Dehaene as well as the poetry of Susan Howe, who in “Pythagorian Silence” writes: “age of earth and us all chattering/a sentence or character/ suddenly/steps out to seek for truth fails/falls into a stream of ink Sequence/trails off/ … flocks of words flying together tense/as an order/cast off to crows.” We’ll recite, analyze, discuss, perform, and write poems about the mind’s reflexivity.
Our goal is a mindful recycling of neurons, one in which the neuroscience of poetry reveals a continuity with the neurology of our ancestors. Thus, we’ll reflect on our experiences of flocks of words and tracks of letters as binding mechanisms for neural integration and ecological adaptation. Indeed, Frederick Turner refers to poetry as a “neural lyre.” Urban spoken-word poets and indigenous healers produce what Eliot describes as “music heard so deeply it is not heard at all/ And you are the music while the music lasts.” We’re equally interested in how poetry can have the opposite effect on consciousness. We’ll engage in contemplative practices to learn more about experiences of neural disintegration, such as the thumps and jolts of modern life. As Seamus Heaney put it, poetry is “a thump to the TV set to restore the picture” and “a jolt to the fibrillating heart.” Throughout the year we’ll be exploring the emergence of a new meta-field of scholarship in which poetry and neuroscience interact, remaking and renewing the meaning and impact of the poetic as words become flesh … and vice-versa. Emily Dickinson’s poetic rendering of this polarity provides one model of the neuro-phenomenological: “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.” We’ll experiment with this process of “sequence ravelling out of sound” as a transformation of a new archaic.
Fall quarter’s immersion in the scholarship of this meta-field will include group research projects: ethnographic studies of poetic jolts. When, where and from whom or from what do we hear poetry? Can we sense it in our own reading and writing? Our fall quarter nature retreat to the Hoh Rain Forest and the beaches of the Olympic Peninsula will introduce practices we’ll use throughout the year for experiencing the reciprocity between specific forms of poetry and states of consciousness.
During winter quarter we’ll experience and articulate specific forms of consciousness and language in relation to a particular passion. One of us might want to explore Gerard Manley Hopkins’ love of bluebells and windhovers in relationship to his poetry, or create a poetic world around a passion for sport or to experience how fantasy sports are a poetic world. One of us might immerse herself in the biodynamic rhythms of chocolate sustainably farmed, or listen for the resonance between silence and sound in YoYo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G. The methodology of our field study will aspire to that of 18 th C poet and civil engineer, Novalis for whom “knowledge and creation were united in a wondrous mutual tie.” Writing in response to our field studies will take the form of reciprocal creations such as in Melissa Kwasny’s Reading Novalis in Montana.
Spring quarter work will combine theory and practice. Students will engage in peer group community-based service projects that use poetry to “jolt fibrillating hearts.” Writing projects will accompany this work in order to illuminate the relationship between the growth of dendrites and the flourishing of both neurons and community. There will be a weekly film and poetry series that inspires “poetic jolts” and demonstrates their meaning for communal life. Throughout the year students will keep a creative journal, a field notebook, participate in poetry writing and recitation, and compile an anthology of program work.
Required Fees: Fall $100 for an overnight field trip; Winter $50/Spring $30 for field study expenses.
Possible Fall Quarter Texts: (Note: Registered students will receive an official required book list by mid-summer. This is only a tentative book list.)
- Poetry: A Pocket Anthology by R.S. Gwynn*
- Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention by Stanislas Dehaene
- The Tree of Meaning by Robert Bringhurst*
- The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner
- The Lyrics of Leonard Cohen by Leonard Cohen*
- Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century by Marjorie Perloff*
- The Midnight by Susan Howe
*Denotes texts that might be used fall, winter and spring quarters.