Coincidence & synthesis

I adore random synthesis. I love how coincident information, ideas, and experiences connect to enrich my understanding or pique my interest.

Today, a friend sent me a link to a chapter from the Dalai Lama’s book and another friend sent me to New York Magazine‘s Science of Us blog to read Cody Delistraty’s piece on the neurology of poetry reading. Meanwhile, I have been cleaning my bookshelves and reading Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows.

books1Delistraty’s essay reports on a study (in Germany) conducted by Eugen Wassiliwizky, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, on what happens in the human brain when people read or hear poetry. The Institute has sponsored quite a few studies on the neurological responses to the arts, which offers researchers not just the findings from one area of aesthetics but the opportunity to compare responses across artistic disciplines.

For example:

…[Neurological] responses… seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.

The authors also found evidence to support the idea of poetry’s pleasure as a slow-building experience, or what they called a “pre-chill”: While listening to poems they found particularly evocative, the listeners subconsciously anticipated the coming emotional arousal in a way that was neurologically similar to the reward anticipation one might get from, for instance, unwrapping a chocolate bar.

Delistraty notes that in this study, “the poetic lines that most emotionally stirred people were also most memorable for them later.”

Our brains ready themselves for surprise, delight, arousal, some emotional leap in the poem–even before the poem ends–anticipation. I know that feeling well. We are anticipating some kind of surprise or delight as the poem unfolds in our reading or listening real-time imaginations: a kind of freedom that we anticipate but cannot expect (the poem may surprise us in ways we had not anticipated; or it may disappoint our hopes).

Hirshfield writes:

On the one hand…poetic transformation occurs by what might be called the paradox of intimate distance. The freedom inherent in art to choose stance, attitude, approach, form, word, is in itself an act of emancipation. When distance increases…we often feel more, not less, because we are able to take in the whole.

What we “take in” as whole includes the phenomenon of reality, even though the poem operates in the imagination–another paradox. Reading a good poem, then, opens consciousness. bkmk-violet

I realize that in the years keeping this blog, I have never yet found a satisfactory understanding of what makes human beings conscious or from whence consciousness originates; but that’s one reason I keep reading and writing, Socratic gadfly that I am. And that brings me to the third random reading that, to my mind, synthesizes well with the essays I’ve mentioned. Here’s an excerpt from one of the Dalia Lama’s books that was posted on Lion’s Roar, a Buddhist-oriented website. In this chapter, His Holiness has been visiting with neurosurgeons and brain researchers at the cutting edge of medical science–people deeply, empirically engaged with the science of the human mind:

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The Buddhist understanding of mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation…

The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact…A crucial point about the study of consciousness, as opposed to the study of the physical world, relates to the personal perspective. In examining the physical world, leaving aside the problematic issue of quantum mechanics, we are dealing with phenomena that lend themselves well to the dominant scientific method of the objective, third-person method of inquiry… In the realm of subjective experiences, however, the story is completely different. *

~

Part of what makes poetry, or any art form, “work” is that appeal to the subjective. Subjectivity excludes the empirical; there’s always, somehow, more to art than science can explain–wonderful as science is. Delistraty writes, “poetry transcends…methodical scrutiny. It valorizes the unconscious, opening us up to new perspectives; it implies the possibility of unlimited pleasure.”

Hirshfield names that pleasure, that surprise, that alteration within the reader “hope” –a wonderful synthesis.

snowdrops

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* The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness The Dalai Lama; full discussion on https://www.lionsroar.com/studying-mind-from-the-inside/

Aesthetic values

Today, the weather was beautiful; the trees, early-greening, and the gold tassels of oaks shimmering in the sun, and the cherry and dogwood blossoms: beautiful.

I think about how we value beauty. And maybe do not know what it is–or recognize its many forms–as it is, by its nature, subjective.Liz MZ

A friend I knew was physically beautiful. Or was that mostly her generosity and cheerfulness, her sparkling eyes? She had specific aesthetic tastes she followed with delight; but she remained practical, full of humor. Today, there was a poetry reading in commemoration of her life.

A beautiful day, a beautiful event, a beautiful friend.

~

The aged best-beloved who recently departed was also a person who had particular ideas about beauty. She cultivated flowers, liked certain artists, wanted her rooms decorated just so. She had an expectation that she could control her death, too–she wanted it, also, to be beautiful.

She was, I fear, thwarted in that desire.

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My brother the amateur science historian has taken it upon himself to defend the reputation of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a late-Enlightenment scientist best known in the 20th century for coining the term “Caucasian” (though there is some dispute about the neologism). An overview can be found here, but my brother’s argument hinges upon the way the word “beauty” was defined in 18th-century Germany and the ways Blumenbach employed it in Latin in his 1795 masterwork, De generis humani varietate nativa (3rd ed).

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What do we mean by beauty? Must the meaning hinge upon perspective and culture?

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There are tumors in the body of the beloved. The surgeon, with his amazing equipment that can take photographs deep inside the tubes and organs of a human being and his unimaginably small and precise surgical tools, shows me “before and after” images.

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His enthusiasm enlivens his description of the surgery: Look at these tumors–unusual, hardly see these and I’ve been at this thirty years–but afterwards, very clean. Look here–no sign. Went very well. Beautiful!

Beautiful?

Does he mean the tumors, or his surgical work? In either case–would I define this as beautiful?

~

And a colleague who has had major surgery does a close reading of the (“rather horrifying”) fluoroscopes from the operation and in them finds something beautiful. Something she can create her own art from. Because what the surgeon accomplished was to her mind art; and art is beautiful, though often in a way that isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing as, say, a lilac in bloom is pleasing.

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Does it matter–should it–that something is ‘beautiful’ ?

I am asking but I do not expect to find an answer, myself.

 

 

Beautiful brain

While waiting for the snow to evaporate and melt, the gardener experiences agitation; the days are longer–it must be time to plant seeds…but the soil is too wet and too cold.

Fortunately, there are always books! I have read Daniel Dennett on religion, George Lakoff on the embodied basis for philosophy, and am plowing rapidly through Ruth Whippman’s (acerbic and very funny) America the Anxious.  Also I am slowly savoring an anthology of Jewish women’s poems, The Dybbuk of Delight, that I randomly discovered in the library.

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But here’s a book I want to own, when I can justify more book purchases: Beautiful Brain: the Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, because Art! because Neuroscience! because Beauty! The blog Hyperallergic says the drawings are going to be touring museums (see The Dynamic Brain Drawings of the Father of Neuroscience), which might also become a must-do for me when the exhibit travels to New York City next January.

What Cajal was doing back at the turn of the last century still inspires artists, not just medical scientists, today (see my post on Greg Dunn’s neuro-artworks). These compellingly beautiful and quite accurate drawings may also inspire poets and armchair philosophers who have lately spent a great deal of time pondering the resilience of the brain and the challenges that rupture a sense of self when cognition is interrupted.

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Credit goes to Abrams Books for these graphics and for the decision to publish this beautiful text.

 

 

Nesting

When I go out of doors on a splendid day, I keep finding things to observe and tasks to do–before long, I realize I have spent more time than I intended (and indoor tasks are calling). Today’s yardwork entailed cutting back weed brush and vines before the trees and shrubs leaf. It can be challenging, as it requires the intrepid gardener to crawl into the woodlot and under the large pines and tamarack to yank loose entwined wild grape, Asiatic rose, elderberry, blackberry, and poison ivy stems, there in the tangled vitality of plants-that-thrive-where-I-don’t-want-them.

The mourning doves kept me company with their coos, and small birds busily checked out the birdhouses in the meadow. Soon it will be nesting time (already is, for the owls).

Always, when I cut brush, I find last year’s nests. Look at this one:

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A bird made this! Probably an oriole. It is a sweet little bag woven or knitted without any tools but the animal’s own body. Beak and feet, saliva, and the nestling body rounding out the basket within.

Here, you can see the interior of the nest; I folded back the strong but delicately-woven sack and the interior nest is visible.

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I was a little surprised at how well the bird-made mesh held up as I handled it. It is really resilient–those birds know what they’re doing!

Here is a more detailed photo of the little nest-basket inside of the sack:

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The process of gardening heals me in so many ways. I sense the need to write poetry again, and I get the urge to tidy up the landscape and prep the vegetable patch. Things will return to themselves in their own time and their own ways. The birds return. The flowers return. My own nest needs attention, and the energy for that attention will also return.

Give it time.

In this photo, the shadow on the right shows how porous the nest’s weave is, almost like macrame. It seems like a miracle to me. And so beautiful.

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Moment for beauty

Bill Lantry over at Peacock Journal has been endeavoring to continue our appreciation for the beautiful. I’m pleased that the editors chose three of my poems for the journal, which is a rotating online site, well-archived, and quite lovely.

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Dirk Van Nouhuys–photo

Here are the poems:

Peacock Journal–Ann E. Michael poems

Please explore the site further. Yours, in beauty.

Museum musing

On a drizzly, quite autumnal day, I returned to one of my favorite places, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Our main purpose this trip was to visit the American Craft galleries, where wood-turner and artist David Ellsworth’s work, including some collaborations with his wife, glass-bead artist Wendy Ellsworth, currently resides for a one-year exhibit. It’s not every day that I can enter a world-class museum and say, “I am friends with the artist who created this marvelous object!” Kudos to the Ellsworths and to the museum for recognizing the importance of David’s astonishing work.

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Crafted from a dense burl of wood, precisely bandsawn, these sculptures from Ellsworth’s “Line Ascending” series range from 2 to 5 feet in height and conjure possibilities from dinosaur horns to mountains to minarets.

I had not had a chance on previous visits to walk through the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the museum, so despite the drizzle, we followed the paths through the 1-acre urban park. The hardscaping is very nice, though by now a bit cliched, since it seems every city garden in the US uses New York’s (admittedly amazing) High Line as its model. The Anne d’Harnoncourt garden likewise utilizes native plants in the garden areas–a trend of which I approve. The views of Philadelphia, its fountains and the river, are nicely framed, and the park is laid out well for “rooms” to contain or display large sculpture. I am sorry to report that few of the sculptures resident at present are appealing, though. My spouse remarked that one of the Sol Lewitt pieces “looks like a barbecue grill platform.” In another setting, that might not have been so obvious (or so funny). Nonetheless, it was pleasant to wander the sculpture garden paths and muse on things aesthetic instead of thinking about the large stack of student essays awaiting my attention.

Evaluating freshman composition papers requires a different aesthetic altogether.

 

 

 

 

Doubt

The prompt of questioning, and recent reading on ethics, have led me to pose for myself a framework for poems that walk between the abstract (ideas, values, philosophies) and the more concrete, pragmatic phenomena in my life (ethics, gardens, weeds, human beings). I find myself thinking again about edges, about fringes, hedgerows, the between-spaces.

That happens to be where doubt arises, too–when we feel in-between, on the edge, and in all likelihood, uncertain.

Fanny Howe, excerpt from “Doubt”

While a whole change in discourse is a sign of conversion, the alteration of a single word only signals a kind of doubt about the value of the surrounding words.

Poets tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind. What holds them poised in this position is the occasional eruption of happiness.

While we would all like to know if the individual person is a phenomenon either culturally or spiritually conceived and why everyone doesn’t kill everyone else, including themselves, since they can— poets act out the problem with their words.*

Acting out problems and doubts in words. Yes, that directive works for poetry as I understand it. Theater, a related art, allows an acting out of conflicts employing a method that keeps us from killing ourselves and each other. The same may be said for any art; perhaps even our development of a philosophy of aesthetics offers the possibility of acting out.

And there is always room for doubt, as doubt has a way of making room in us and among us. The alteration of a single word–from you to them, from proper to prosper, from hie to high: in student writing, these are generally spelling errors; in the work of a thoughtful poet, they may signal a change in viewpoint, a pun that twists the initial intention, a turn in the poem’s story or rhetoric, a region of ambiguity. Howe wrestles with doubt and celebrates it:

“Doubt is what allows a single gesture to have a heart.”

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Edges. The meadow’s just beyond.

Any single gesture. The prayer hands, the bow, the outstretched arm, the Mona Lisa’s smile, the inked line, the poem.

The trapeze artist who walks along a genuine edge, balanced.

Doubt may live deep in the center of everything, but it is hidden there. Along the fringe of things, where the meadow and the forest meet, doubts are much more visible and less harmful.

What we learn along the edge we can take with us into the deeps: our doubts and ambiguities go with us, a kind of enrichment we might learn to accept instead of resent, if we are poets. The troubled state of mind persists, but “the occasional eruption of happiness” keeps the balanced hovering possible.

That eruption of happiness? I am familiar with it. Sometimes, when I’m working on a poem, I feel like a kite in an inconstant wind.

~

 

*Howe, Fanny.  Gone : Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.