Wednesday 12 August 2009

Poetry as Meditation

Does poetry prompt us to read in a way that differs from the way in which we read prose? Joan Peskin (2007) has shown that when the same words were displayed as poetry or as prose, high school students read these words differently in each case. She found that:
The identification of a text as a poem triggered significantly more references to the conventional expectations as well as greater appreciation of aesthetic elements that add a layer of meaning. Students also spent longer thinking about the poem-shaped texts and rated the poems as more enjoyable, challenging, emotionally engaging, and as eliciting more imagery.
Coming from a different direction, Reuven Tsur (1987) has proposed that Coleridge's Kubla Khan has features that include rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and rhythm, that give it a hypnotic quality, which he compares with some kinds of music.

At the recent conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA) Sarah Jackson of the University of Cumbria, UK, presented a paper in which she described a pilot study of four readers reading T.S. Eliot's poem Ash Wednesday. Here are the first four lines of Section V of the poem, (for which Jackson offered analyses).
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
Jackson had her readers think aloud as they read 19 lines of this part of the poem, and she presented summaries of their responses. For instance, Reader 3 offered: Lines 1-4: "confusion with no composition of place." Lines 5 to 6: "understanding starts after later processing." Line 7: "understanding starts on initial processing." Lines 8 to 10: "calm and stillness." Following Tsur, and offering analyses based on the kinds of stylistic devices he describes, Walker proposed that what readers were perhaps doing when they read Ash Wednesday was to take the apparently discrepant, and disorienting, parts of Eliot's text to form what she calls "a gestalt that characterized the whole as a meditative poem." My sense from the protocols she presents is of readers moving through confusion to moments of understanding, and of feeling moved.

I was reminded of Brian Stock's (2007) proposal, which I discussed previously on this site (click here) that some readers from medieval times up to the Renaissance followed an explicit practice of reading that Stock calls "ascetic," that is to say, designed to promote self improvement. Stock likens this Western practice of reading to Eastern practices of meditation. The Western—book-based—practice has two phases: first taking one's book, detaching oneself from the world, and reading the words to oneself, then second a reflection to make the meanings of what one has been reading parts of oneself. Before I heard Jackson's paper, I don't think I had heard the idea put directly that reading poetry is a form of meditation. Although the explicit practice that Stock describes may now be confined to people who each day read a devotional religious text, perhaps implicitly we adopt this kind of practice when we read poetry.

T. S. Eliot (1930). Ash Wednesday, in The Waste Land and other poems (pp. 55-64). London: Faber (current edition 1940).

Sarah Jackson (2009). Does Ash Wednesday enable a reader to perceive an altered state of concsiousness. Paper presented at the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA-2009). Middelburg, the Netherlands.

Joan Peskin (2007). The genre of poetry: Secondary school students' conventional expectations and interpretive operations. English in Education, 41, 20-36.

Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

Reuven Tsur (2006). Khubla Khan: Poetic structure, hypnotic quality and cognitive style: A study in mental, vocal, and critical performance. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Drawing of TS Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse.


Nathan said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. There is much of interest here, but I'd like speak to one thing in particular, building on your initial comments about the distinction between of poetry and prose.

To my mind, the line break -- by which we identify poetry at the most basic level -- lies at the heart of this meditative possibility. Meditation, whether you're speaking about Buddhist exercises or Gregorian chants, begins at the level of breath. So does a poem. When the rhythm of the breath falls into a certain cadence, directed by the line and sympathetic to the sounds and associations of words, there is a powerful and palpable resonance.

This reminds me of Allen Ginsberg's wonderful observation about (mid-1960s) Bob Dylan in Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home:

"What struck me was that he had become one -- or had become identical with his breath. Dylan had become a column of air, so to speak, at certain moments, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body. He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman, with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.'

Drew Clement said...

This is a very insightful thought and an idea that I have believed in for a number of years. Poetry and Shakespeare have something undeniably special that makes the mind work into overtime while reading. I have fallen asleep reading books hundreds of time, especially in my university days. Never once have I fallen asleep reading poetry. It is simply too engaging.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Nathan, for this very interesting comment. It had not occurred to me that line breaks and breaths were related, but now that you point it out, this seems exactly right. As you say, it make the relation between Eastern breathing-based practices of meditation and poetry even stronger. Continuing with the relation of poetry to these kinds of functions, what do you think of iambic metre, which is much favoured in English poetry: de-DOM ... de-DOM ... de-DOM? It defamiliarizes the the usual pattern of spoken English which tends to be trochaic (stress on the first syllable as in coffee rather than café). Could iambic metre be the beating of the human heart?

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Drew, for your comment. It's very interesting, I think, to wonder how it is that poetry, and Shakespeare more generally, can enable the mind to reach a state of being so distinctive and meaningful. I don't find all poetry engaging. Some poetry makes me feel a bit stupid for not being able to engage with it when I know others are able to. But when I do engage with poetry it can reach this very special state.

Bill Benzon said...

[1st comment of 2]

On the poetic line, from my (rather long and detailed) essay on "Kubla Khan":

Considered as a unit of analysis, the line is a conjunction of units of thought, or sense, and units of physical realization - speaking and hearing.

The significance of the poetic line is easily demonstrated by the common experiment of taking some fragment of ordinary prose and breaking it into separate lines. The result is rarely good poetry, but the poetry-like presentation invites one to consider each line both as a unit by itself in addition to its connections with the lines before and after. The quasi-autonomy of the poetic line belongs to the cultural conventions governing how we read poetry. The psychological, not to mention the neural, underpinnings of this effect are, as far as I know, obscure.

Nonetheless, the linguist Wallace Chafe has quite a bit to say about what he calls an intonation unit, and that seems germane to any consideration of the poetic line. In Discourse, Consciousness, and Time Chafe asserts that the intonation unit is "a unit of mental and linguistic processing" (Chafe 1994, pp. 55 ff. 290 ff.). He begins developing the notion by discussing breathing and speech (p. 57): "Anyone who listens objectively to speech will quickly notice that is not produced in a continuous, uninterrupted flow but in spurts. This quality of language is, among other things, a biological necessity." He goes on to observe that "this physiological requirement operates in happy synchrony with some basic functional segmentations of discourse," namely "that each intonation unit verbalizes the information active in the speaker's mind at its onset" (p. 63).

While it is not obvious to me just what Chafe means here, I offer a crude analogy to indicate what I understand to be the case. Speaking is a bit like fishing, you toss the line in expectation of catching a fish. But you do not really know what you will hook. Sometimes you get a fish, but you may also get nothing, or an old rubber boot. In this analogy, syntax is like tossing the line while semantics is reeling in the fish, or the boot. The syntactic toss is made with respect to your current position in the discourse (i.e. the current state of the system). You are seeking a certain kind of meaning in relation to where you are now.

Chafe identifies three different kinds of intonation units. Substantive units tend to be roughly five words long on average and, as the term suggests, present the substance of one's thought. Regulatory units are generally a word or so long (e.g. and then, maybe, mhm, oh, and so forth), and serve to regulate the flow of ideas, rather than to present their substance. Given these durations, a single line of poetry can readily encompass a substantive unit or both a substantive and a regulatory unit.

[continued in next comment]

Bill Benzon said...

[2nd comment of 2]

The third kind of unit, fragmentary, results when one of the other types is aborted in mid-execution. That is to say, one is always listening to one's own speech and is never quite sure, at the outset of a phrase, whether or not one's toss of the syntactic line will reel-in the right fish. If things do not go as intended, the phrase may be aborted. Fragments do not concern us, as we are dealing with a text that has been thought-out and, presumably, edited, rather than with free speech, which is what Chafe studied.

Chafe's notion is consistent with an observation made initially by Ernst Pöppel. After reviewing studies by others and offering some of his own, Pöppel concluded that our awareness of the present extends roughly three to four seconds. That suggested that lines of poetry last no longer than that and that, where written lines appeared to take longer to read, they have a strong break in the middle. Working with a poet and critic, Frederick Turner, Pöppel found evidence for these notions in the poetry of several cultures, thus showing how versification technique deals with this constraint (cf. Turner and Pöppel 1983, Pöppel 1985, pp. 75-82).

Forgetting about meaning, now, and considering the line as a unit of organized sound, we find the line defined as a certain number of metric feet, or measures. These units are, in turn, defined by stressed and unstressed or long and short syllables according to the versification system. The number of feet that constitutes a line varies according to the formal specifications of a particular verse form. These details need not concern us.

What does concern us, however, is that meter is periodic. Periodicity is fundamental to the operations of the human nervous system. I have argued, in Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, that music involves a linkage between two streams a neural activity, a periodic one, and an aperiodic one that evolves from an initial to a final state. So it is with poetry as well, and the line is the focal point of the coordination between these two streams, a coordination with Coleridge manipulates in critical ways in the "Kubla Khan."

Finally, we should remember that, however deeply the sign may be split between signified and signifier, in the brain, it is all electrochemical activity in neural tissue. The tissue that serves speaking sounds and hearing them is much like the tissue that serves ideas, perceptions, and feelings. In the brain, the signifier and the signified dance to rhythms beaten out by the same neural drummers.

Nathan said...

Hi Keith. I think the iamb definitely suggests the heartbeat, and I like that interesting connection to the notion of breath. Regarding iambic metre, I've always been told that it's actually most like spoken English, but I haven't made a point of testing this out myself. I suppose that the way we use pronouns and prepositions in a sentence often dictates an iambic pattern (e.g. an archaic but still natural-sounding example: "She dwelt among untrodden ways / Beside the springs of Dove" – Wordsworth). But then I look at what I've just written, and the words "prepositions in a sentence often dictates" is definitely trochaic. Maybe it depends on the number of polysyllabic words in the sentence. It seems sensible that (iambic) genres like the epic and the ballad would seek proximity to common speech, but I'm afraid I haven't studied this enough to say anything more.

Thanks for the ideas!

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Nathan, for your new comment. The study I know of on this is by Jessica Hay & Randy Diehl (2007). Perception of rhythmic grouping: Testing the iambic/trochaic law. Perception and Psychophysics, 69, 113-122. In the article they say that English is generally more trochaic, and this was the source for my assertion.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much Bill, for your two comments. And thanks for this idea of Pöppel: that the present lasts three or four seconds. With this in mind, I have just read out loud to myself, fairly steadily without rushing, the opening sonnet of Romeo and Juliet, and it came out as 3.7 seconds per line. And I have also just timed my breathing interval which was about 3.5 seconds. So that would fit in both with what Nathan said in his first comment, and what Pöppel said.

Bill Benzon said...

Thanks Keith. Actually, I believe that Paul Fraisse is the one who first tracked down the temporal present to a 3-4 second interval. Pöppel was building on his work.

On the breath, I believe that one difference between us and other primates is that we exert voluntary control over breathing; they cannot. Thus gaining such control is one of the steps necessary in the transition from clever ape to proto-human. Without such control, speach would be impossible.

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