Sometimes I wonder how it would go if I had to chose between writing and reading. It’s one of those desert island questions. More than travel, more than interpersonal relations, more than food, sex, sleep, these are the two loves of my life. They are what connect me to myself, and connect my self to the world.
Though I am increasingly wary of “the world”, I realize that without it neither reading nor writing would be an option. The world is the wild card in the deck. Prison, I imagine to be a kind of surgical procedure that detaches one from the world and therefore eliminates the need to read and to write. Dying would (will) accomplish the same thing. Death must be the worst prison of all. Reading is like a system of dikes, set up against death, against demise, against emptiness, while writing is a kind of systematic robbing of all that accumulated muck and music that have gone into making the dikes in the first place. Reading gives, writing takes. The two need each other in all sorts of ways. If there were no writers, there would be no readers. This relationship is sustained in a commercial fashion. It is only in the world of poetry that the writers have become the readers, and the readers the writers – the two activities have merged in a non-commercial contract. The connection between literature and commerce has always been vital. Poetry, because of this severance, can only exist on life-support, a kind of aeolian respirator. I don’t know any non-poets (or stretching it a bit, non-writers) who read poetry. They exist, like Antonio Damasio (more about him in a moment), but I just don’t know any personally. Poetry has become that thing that you can no longer explain, or rationalize, or justify to anyone who is not intimately involved in its making. As absurd as it sounds, the continuing education of poets is like training and maintaining a community of doctors, after sickness had already been wiped out, long after there were any patients to treat. For this community of doctors disease would have already become hypothetical, an elaborate and complex talking point. And the old practices, opening the chest and fixing the heart, then stitching the chest back up again, would have already been consigned to the remote past.
So, which would I choose? Reading or writing?
I recall a coffee with Ann Lauterbach somewhere uptown. She had just begun to teach, officially. Until then she’d worked at (besides poetry) things mostly connected with the world of painting and galleries. But she also held workshops, and between 1982 and 1984 a group of us met once a week, at a long table in her TriBeCa loft, with wine and cigarettes. We talked poems, we talked books, we got angry with each other. Annie would draw out the conversation; she would talk either about something she’d been reading as a way to try to crack open one of our problems, or she’d talk syllables and sounds, like a word mechanic. We were all anxious to display our reading, how much we knew, how deeply we felt about the various movements that were cropping up all over the place, not only in poetry, but in painting, and music, and simply life in the streets, life in the city. This coffee we had together came a bit later. I was already living in Paris. For a few years I continued to do the rounds, once or twice annually. I still felt like a New Yorker in those days, 1985, 1986, though I no longer lived there. On that afternoon Annie was buzzing, since she’d just come form a workshop. I think she was working part time at Columbia. And what she said has always stuck with me. “This new generation of students doesn’t read. They want to be poets, but they don’t read poetry. They don’t know anything.”
I wondered how that could be. She could have been exaggerating, a manifestation of her shock at suddenly becoming an educator; when most poets of her generation had gone straight from the MFA to the MFA, she had loitered into her early forties in London and New York. But I did take what she said seriously, especially the implication that her students had no interest in older poetry, in history, or psychology. They might have never read, for example, Edward Gibbon – a whole sub-world of 18th century prose simply did not exist for them. Tacitus, Thucydides, forget it. Heraclitus, who came up with the term “logos”, said you can’t step into the same river twice. But contrary to what Cratylus, his disciple, said, you should at least try to step into it once. For me, at the time, and ever since I had begun writing poetry, there was just no separation. The two activities, reading (not just poetry) and writing, were part of the same pursuit, which at the time could become almost pathological as though my very survival depended upon engaging myself so thoroughly in the texture of the word that I would be able to fend off the dearth of an inarticulate world. I was never without a book, never without a pen, a notepad and a constant stream of ideas, which came from the books rather than the world, or so I thought.
That was the education of the poet.
There is a pertinent passage in Seamus Heaney’s essay “Feeling into Words”, first given as a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature in October of 1974 and later published in Finders Keepers, Selected Prose, 1971-2001.
“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up.
How, then, do you find it? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else, you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ‘Ah, I wish I had said that, in that particular way.’ This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, the
One bit from this passage draws my attention above everything else: “…you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system.” Both the echo-chamber (a Wordsworthian trope) and “the whole nervous system” describe an interaction of circuitries which at the time (1974) was an utterly novel way of seeing things. It would take cognitive neuroscience another few years to begin to describe language reception as a body need, as question of “the whole nervous system.” As Heaney himself suggested at the time: “it may not even be a metaphor.”
In poetry it seems that we are creating concrete representations of that process whereby stimulus meets brain, whose neurophysical need to make sense of stimulus is, in turn, activated, and activated to do so in forms which somehow have a need to perfect themselves in order to reinforce the sense being made; something like beauty begetting meaning, and all of it happening in an act of mutual mind-body self-preservation, a negotiation between body and mind via the hard circuitry of the brain – producing what we might call the eloquence of survival, of which poetry is our most demanding expression.
In an achingly beautiful passage from Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza, he seems to describe a rationale for aesthetic life:
“The arrangement underscores the “body-mindedness” of the mind. The mind exists because there is a body to furnish it with contents. On the other hand, the mind ends up performing practical and useful tasks for the body – controlling the execution of automated responses in relation to the correct target; anticipating the planning of novel responses; creating all sorts of circumstances and objects that are beneficial to the body’s survival. The images that flow in the mind are reflections of the interaction between the organism and the environment, reflections of how the brain’s reaction to the environment affects the body, reflections of how the body’s adjustments are faring in the unfolding life state.
Someone might argue that since the brain provides the most immediate substrates of the mind – neural maps – the critical component to consider in the mind-body problem is the body’s brain, not the body-proper. What do we gain by considering the mind in the perspective of the body, as opposed to considering the mind in the perspective of just the brain? The answer is that we gain a rationale for the mind that we would not discover if we considered the mind only in the perspective of the brain. The mind exists for the body, is engaged in telling the story of the body’s multifarious events, and uses that story to optimize the life of the organism. Much as I dislike sentences that require laborious parsing, I am tempted to offer one as a summary of my view: The brain’s body-furnished, body-minded mind is a servant of the whole body.”
This transaction, the mind’s narrative of the body, takes place in a part of the brain known as Wernicke’s area – Seamus Heaney’s “echo-chamber of your head”, which ends up (and Demasio would be the first to agree) “delighting the whole nervous system”. This, as Heaney states, is a process beyond metaphor, a somatic process of which metaphor is a high-end product. Wernicke’s area is responsible for the evaluation of content nouns, of meaning, a kind of lexical field of heather in full bloom. Through a process of mental pollination, this information is delivered up to an adjacent field, known as Broca’s area. This is where syntax is processed, after which it is sent to the cortex for actual production: for the emitting of speech acts – poetry, in other words.
But what happens if poets deny Wernicke’s area the stimulus it needs to create the narrative in which “the mind tells the story of the body”. This area of the brain, particularly in the poet’s “unfolding life state,” is favored by the input of, not life per se, but the mimesis of life, of already idealized, formalized and, let’s say, aestheticized versions of life, through the “in-fluence” of “other writer’s sounds.” And I don’t think Heaney was talking only about the sounds of his immediate contemporaries. He was talking about foreign sounds, the sounds of antiquity, Anglo-Saxon sounds, the bog-noise of history.
Life takes care of itself, but getting at the meaning of life requires study and historical imagination. In Plato’s Apology (38a) Socrates tells us that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” a much cited passage, part of the philosopher’s response to his Athenian prosecutors. Seamus Heaney, himself, in an essay on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, referred to him as “a twentieth-century version of the examined life.” The same theme, with the same players, comes up again in Heaney’s poem, “A Daylight Art” from The Haw Lantern(1987), which is about Socrates “On the day he was to take the poison.” Plato, of course, never underestimated the power of poets. Indeed, it seems to me that they still have the edge over other disciplines, other rhetorics, in the department of meaning-making. Heaney’s anticipatory 1974 lecture, which might be re-titled “Beyond Metaphor”, is proof of this. But we are losing ground, and part of that is because we no longer have the life conditions to properly educate ourselves in our own tradition. Because our careers as they have shaped up require it of us, we read far too many of our peers and way too few of our forerunners. Our peers can really only tell us the news of the day, in the language of the day.
Seen in the light of cognitive neuroscience it is easier, and less emotionally fraught, to begin to understand why poetry, and by extension, literature and erudite culture in general, is already well along the road to extinction. It is a question of stimulus; the world is changing how we feel about the world, and the aesthetic products which derive from the need to articulate those feelings are changing as a consequence. Since poetry is now written largely without rules (or written with self-invented rules), since the common craft of metrics, rhyming, quantifying are no longer taught, largely dispensed with by the community, the result is a less universal and a more personal poem, a poem that can no longer be “read”, except by the writer and the writer’s closest cohorts – those who know the language. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. There is simply no need in today’s world to write or to read epics composed in ottava rima which tell the life-stories of unlikely heroes.
And yet if I were forced to choose, between reading and writing, I can’t guarantee that my complete set of Byron – a crumbling leather bound collection published in 1824 just two years after the poet’s death – would not seem the more attractive option. Just to hold these books in my hands delights my whole nervous system and, at times, there seems nothing more perfect in English than Byron’s making the Italian ottava rima his own.
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...