Lifting Poetic Weights

golden light on books in Rausing room
Golden Glow coming off books in the Rausing Room at Uppsala University

Yesterday I took part in a workshop organised by Kerstin Rydebek, Dean of Humanities at Uppsala. The seminar took place in the lovely Rausing Room where I  occasionally glanced up at the golden light coming off these lovely books. My husband, Phil Davis,  presented some work by the multidisciplinary team at CRILS, and I was struck by a slide with a diagram about the effect of poetry on brain activity. Professor Rhiannon Corcoran, a colleague at CRILS, a psychologist and neuroscientist,  summed some of this up in this observation:

‘The ingenuity of poetry exists in the distilled nature of the information processing it prompts – particularly when heard.’

Phil spoke about the activity in the tail of the left caudate nucleus, which indicates the activation of a pleasure reward when  we recognise or understand something new. This happens when people process complex poetic information which surprises them. It’s about  thinking new thoughts when the old ones (which we all use habitually, to save time and energy) are no longer working.  (If Rhiannon reads this she’ll probably think it sounds like a garbled version of something a parrot might have copied her saying – apologies. I’m out of my depth and out of my field, but even so I am enjoying thinking about why  reading hard poetry can be so rewarding) I’ll look for an example, see later.

This week I’ve been reading and writing about small sections of Wordsworth’s poem ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ (which you can read in full here) and today’s portion is this;

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learn{e}d art
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.

Yesterday I was thinking about each section coming as a sort of run at, a new start on trying to think through the problem,  the problem being the sense outlined at the beginning of the poem that something has been lost, that something  else once was, and that the  golden light of heaven which, a previous stanza tells us, used to lie ‘about us in our infancy’  is no longer seen. Now, starting again, Wordsworth seems to stand back and look at what a six-year-old child is:

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!

The first thing I notice here is the love coming off the lines as Wordsworth looks at the boy, radiating out from the word ‘darling’, also somehow backlit by ‘blisses’ and later, by the rhyme word, ‘kisses’ and by the ‘light upon him from his father’s eyes’.   I’m looking a loved, happy child, who is getting to grips with the world through creative play;

See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learn{e}d art
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;

The child  is practising life through play, rehearsing  great human occasions ,  ‘a wedding or a funeral’ and flitting about with a collage of small game playings…playing out scenes  of ‘business, love or strife.’ But none of these games last, he must keep trying new ideas;

But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.

This may be a moment when the left caudate nucleus is lighting up in me.  There is a disjunction which is activated through the rhyme between ‘vocation’ (which is serious and adult, a word from a moral or even religious vocabulary), and ‘imitation’, (which seems to indicate an area of falsity).  Those two words do not go together,  so when I read them, crashed together by the strong rhyme, my mind, affected by the crash, judders. My thoughts – which in this section of the poem are relatively prosaic, it’s a quick sketch of something I know well, a six-year-old child, I am not stretched here –  are brought up sharp and must realign.  How can ‘imitation’ be ‘vocation’?

‘Imitation’ is an important back-connector to other parts of the poem we’ve read already – one of the 3-D words which make the poem more than merely linear. Here  it connects to the idea of  (see other blog days this week) of Earth as a foster-home. We’re not natural.  Therefore, of course, the child’s ‘whole vocation’ is ‘endless imitation’, so despite my worries about imitation=false, it is also entirely natural.  We learn to be human by copying other humans.  I think ‘vocation’ forgives and  offers context for  the  falseness of ‘imitation’.

Most of this section seems to be relatively easy  – a gentle stroll down the street we  know so well  – until we get to those last two lines, when something else happens.  Weightlifting, new muscle flex. And after that – the endorphins.

Time’s up.  Travelling today from Uppsala to a little house in the country near Tyreso. ‘Work over,’ to misquote a Chinese fortune cookie I once saw, ‘time for play.’

2 thoughts on “Lifting Poetic Weights

  1. Jamie April 8, 2017 / 12:22 pm

    Aha! reading this part I suddenly remember, exactly, the first time I read this poem – I was alone in the house, the house I grew up in, walking up and down the landing in and out of the bedrooms, reading it aloud, and the next thing I knew it was like the house was suddenly filled with the ghost of childhood me, and all sorts of emotions came flooding

    • drjanedavis April 9, 2017 / 10:42 am

      That sounds a very powerful experience, Jamie. Have you written about it? If not, task waiting.

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