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Unread 02-19-2019, 12:30 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Default Ange Mlinko and Iain McGilchrist

I just stumbled across this, while looking for something else:

This Is Your Brain On Poetry
Can neuroscience help us understand what makes a good poem?

[I had originally posted this to the David Mason on poetic identity thread now on General Talk, because I had mentioned Iain McGilchrist in that context, but this article seemed off-topic there.]

I should probably repeat the caveat that I posted earlier in that thread, about the whole left brain/right brain field of study having degenerated into rather silly and unsubstantiated claims in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, leading many people to reject anything related to it as dubious pop science. McGilchrist, a neuroscientist and also a teacher of poetry at Oxford, has tried to salvage some things of real value in that discredited area.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 02-19-2019 at 12:42 PM.
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Unread 02-22-2019, 06:00 PM
Don Jones's Avatar
Don Jones Don Jones is offline
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Finally found time to respond to this, Julie. Thanks for posting.

Mlinko can certainly keep up with McGilchrist in this brief exchange. What I found most interesting was his response to Mlinko’s claim that modernist poetry is more right brain oriented because it requires greater intuitions to “get.” I assume that, for her, “modernism” is a catch-all, including her own post-modern practice.

For her, a poem that uses meter and an explicit metaphor is more concrete, obvious, and logical, depending as it does, perhaps, on the left brain and its love of the transparent and self-evidentiary. She compares two poems: Larkin’s “The Trees” (explicit metaphor) with Ashbery’s “Some Trees” (what she calls “metonymic”) in making this assertion.

McGilchrist responds:

And I could not agree less that having a clear metrical pattern and rhyme scheme is limiting, or tends to suggest the left hemisphere’s attitude to language. They are the condition of all music and dance, the right hemisphere’s domain, and when we decide to dispense with them, we take a knowing risk. Here the resigned simplicity of the regular meter [in Larkin’s “The Trees”] emphasizes the inevitability of its subject.


The Ashbery is a great poem, too, but just because it takes more working out exactly what is being said, it seems to me the less powerful of the two. The last line, “these accents seem their own defense,” although suggestively self-referring, is so far from transparent that it makes us scratch our heads at the very moment when the poet needs to carry us with him. There is a tension between what has to engage our conscious debating minds and what must carry us into a realm beyond any such ratiocination. An excessive fear of being direct, and the worship of the difficult, endemic in Modernism, threaten at times to undermine the direction that poetry inevitably takes, away from what we have to “work out” for ourselves toward what we thought we knew already, but in fact never understood. In poetry, being simple takes more skill than being difficult. It comes back to a fundamental distinction between newness and novelty which I make repeatedly in The Master and His Emissary: poetry need not seek novelty, because true poetry makes what had seemed familiar new. My emphasis.

As McGilchrist also notes, “The Trees” is among Larkin’s most accessible poems. What I find odd about Mlinko’s assertion, if we are to consider only her binaries, is that we would have to exclude much of Larkin’s work, which is more opaque and metrically subtle yet also not inaccessible a la Ashbery. I’m aware she would welcome nuance but her tendency here to reduce things to elemental quanta or tools shuts her off from a healthier discourse about poetry.
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Unread 02-26-2019, 12:01 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Thanks for those thoughts, Don.

McGilchrist keeps saying, "The contrast isn't between left and right. It's between part and whole." And then Mlinko asks him yet another left vs. right question.

I enjoyed their discussion, but I found it a bit ironic that Mlinko seemed to be defending the right brain in such a stereotypically left-brained way.

As you emphasized above, the "left brain : right brain = formal verse : free verse" correlation just doesn't hold water. Even if rules and structure and rhyme and meter are inherently appealing to the left brain, that doesn't mean formal poetry is inherently inimical to the right brain. When writing formal poems, formalists often end up in unexpected, non-linear-thinking places, precisely because we have to consider so many unrelated possibilities while in search of a rhyme or a conveniently-stressed word.
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Unread 02-27-2019, 06:35 AM
Michael F's Avatar
Michael F Michael F is offline
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So I have an observation/question:

Isn’t the making of a metaphor inherently something of a ‘right-brain’ endeavor? We want to compare two things, or describe one thing in terms of another, so we reach for a metaphor. Where does the metaphor come from? Somewhere in the misty realm of creativity. It’s not entirely a logical process, though I do think logical evaluation of the metaphor comes into play.

Last edited by Michael F; 03-05-2019 at 07:12 PM. Reason: irrelevant rambling, sorry
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