Right brain, left brain

My time in the legal profession was valuable in numerous ways, but there is little doubt in my mind that the development of a fine analytical sense does not necessarily help when it comes to writing poetry. I used to think that this was simply a case  of the left side of the brain being dominant, as a result of constant use, and the right side suffering as a result. But while there’s some truth in this simple explanation, it doesn’t go far enough.

Emily Dickinson tells us to “tell all the truth but tell it slant”[1] and the most successful poems are incontrovertibly those that go beyond a mere statement of their theme – they use imagery, sound and other tools.  In his wish to make his message clear, a lawyer will spell things out, avoiding any Dickinsonian “slant”.  This is not the way of the poet, since it leaves no room for the reader’s imagination.

I was reminded of all of this by an article in the latest Poetry Review. Nuar Alsadir, who is both poet and psychoanalyst, explores the issue of language and consciousness. For her the issue is one of the poet bypassing the reader’s experience of the world, gained through knowledge and expectation, in order to create something new. In an interesting passage on adjectives, which Joseph Brodsky said should be reduced to a minimum, and Roland Barthes described as “that poorest of linguistic categories” she explains that this was because they link to coded expressions – in other words, because we recognise how we’re supposed to take them they may lead to us recognising a set interpretation instead of cognising something new.

Barthes suggested that we should instead tune into what he called the grain of the voice, leading to what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan describes as “jouissance” – a term which I understood as orgasm but which Lacan uses to describe “the sense in which the body experiences itself…at the level at which pain begins to appear”.

Alsadir argues that works that preserve the grain throw before us an unmediated sense of the unconscious, which we cannot wilfully access but can get an inkling of by following the grain with techniques similar to those used in psychoanalysis. She quotes John Ashbery, who said in an interview “When one goes at ideas directly, with hammer and tongs, as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg”. She suggests usage of free association, writing as a process of discovery, resulting in a work encoded with meaning and emotion that is not limited to what is carried in dictionary definitions or recognisable logic.

She goes on to refer to the choreographer Merce Cunningham’s use of dice in order to determine his dancer’s moves, a technique also used in the creative process by Cunningham’s partner, the composer John Cage.  Cunningham explains that when he uses this technique he is finding resources which are not the product of his will but which are an energy and a law he has to obey.

This is very similar to poets describing their process as an unveiling of a poem that already pre-exists. The poet’s laborious work, drafting and redrafting, is a gradual uncovering, the poem leading the creator on.

I go along with this to a certain extent, but my residual legal mind has reservations. As regards the poet, the result of using some of these techniques does not necessarily produce the greater clarity wished. I am all in favour of developing the right brain, but the poet has to make choices at some point in the process. Otherwise the result may be a self-indulgently arbitrary work that is incomprehensible. Which brings us in turn to the reader. The poet’s objective has to be, in one way or another, to produce the feeling of “jouissance” in the reader – that fresh cognition that Lacan speaks of. I feel that this can only be achieved through some middle course, negotiated between the subconscious inspiration and the conscious shaping. But I am open to persuasion.

By this stage the hapless poet – particularly the hapless former lawyer turned poet – thinks “Ok, but where do I start?”  John Cage answers “Begin anywhere”.

14 October 2019


[1] Poem 1263

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4 Comments

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with you about the necessity of using the left brain in order to produce a coherent poem. This is most noticeable when writing in a formal pattern, but always an essential, unless incoherence is the aim, which it might be. I believe the trick is to harness the left brain – to rein it in, as it were, like choosing the right tool for the job. The right brain will produce the essence of the poem. I tend to believe that some of us are what I would call natural poets, who have an instinctive ability to produce ‘juissance’ in the reader and who are fortunate indeed. It’s not about the use or otherwise of adjectives – it’s about using the right word in the right place, and not a word more. As for free association, I suppose if one just wanted to produce a poem as an exercise that might help, but having something to impart in the first place, something to catch that’s hovering in the ether, playing peek-a boo, that’s when to write a poem –
    when the Muse breathes on you… Writing a lot of poems so that we have a lot of poems is left-brain thinking.
    The peculiar fact that writing to a formal pattern can release a poem the substance of which comes as a complete surprise to the poet is possibly an example of using only that part of the left brain necessary to the task.
    Something hovering seems to think it’s found a home.
    I don’t have a website, but I will check your site should you wish to respond, or you could e-mail me of course.

    1. Thanks so much for this, Patti. The question is, I suppose, where “the Muse” comes from in the psyche.

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