Promiscuous poetry and mental melodies

November 4, 2005

"Early humans had discrete
intelligences for social activity,
knowledge of nature
technical knowhow. Creativity
occurred when these
overflowed into each other"

LANGUAGE, POETRY AND THE BRAIN:
ART AND MIND FESTIVAL
Theatre Royal Winchester


‘On the train into Winchester we pass a field of thistles. The sight is a trigger, making me think of the opening lines of a poem:

"Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men/ Thistles spike the summer air." This is the beginning of Ted Hughes's Thistles, which associates those once outlawed weeds with northern rebellion against the civilising ethos of the Roman world. I used to know the rest by heart, but now I can remember only one more phrase, imprecisely: "the stain of a Viking underground". What might it be to recollect the poem line by line.

Would that be the neurological equivalent of writing it in the first place?

I'm on my way to hear an archaeologist, two neuroscientists and a violinist talk about music, language and the brain.

It promises "to illuminate poetic creation". Literally, at least, the illumination is rudimentary. We are shown in red the areas that fire when the brain performs simple activities such as reading a musical score, tasks that are passive rather than creative. Would more be required if I were to recover my image of the Viking?

Larry Parsons, one of the neuroscientists, points to "area 44", which recognises melodies and is responsible for improvisation. I spot a link with my own writing. When stuck, I find a formula of words, such as:

"There's more to life than...", then improvise, say, 12 ways to finish the sentence, quickly visiting different parts of my experience and knowledge.

This produces connections and sometimes induces a promiscuity of association that leads to the finished poem. It is what helps the mind to see Vikings in thistles.

This notion of promiscuity is supported by Steven Mithen's theory of "cognitive fluidity". Mithen, an "evolutionary" archaeologist, argues that early humans had discrete intelligences for social activity, knowledge of nature and technical knowhow. Creativity occurred when those overflowed into each other.

All the speakers agree that music and language are related, a consensus I would not challenge. To demonstrate this, violinist Paul Robertson plays Bach. That is, he plays the note equivalents of the letters, a motif the composer used in the "Redemption" fugue. Then Robertson plays the bit that says "Bach is redeemed". Mithen suggests that we recollect our evolutionary history when making music. I detect a belief that gives passion to his work. He is not just seeking a plausible account for the existence of music and poetry - it is a gasp at the marvel of their emergence, that matter found expression, that the very stones should speak. We are now at the speculative edge of science.

I am not despondent. The origins of language are an old enigma. "The raw materials of utterance are drawn/ from deep inside the body," wrote the Latin poet Lucretius. Utterance seems a good word to encompass the noise we make, the forms of musical and vocal expression it takes.

Earlier that week, I held poetry workshops in Winchester prison. At the meeting, footage of the men reciting their poems is shown. These are not the flower of poetic creation, but they are often raw and moving. One Liverpudlian comes up with some 40 inventive, rhythmically sustained lines.

He ends "yeh yeh can't stop singin". The video freezes on his face. Behind his gleeful, almost ecstatic expression, a process both powerful and complex has occurred. What it is exactly may prove difficult to uncover.

Maurice Riordan is a poet. His most recent collection, Floods, is published by Faber, £7.99.

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