Thoughts: Confusion, Difficulty, and Poetry

This is an excerpt from my book Trance Poetics: A Writing Mind. I am posting it now in honor of Ann Lauterbach whose work has inspired “The Difficulty With Poetry: Opacity and Implication in the New and Old,” a conference being held this weekend at Bard College, as part of The Institute for Writing and Thinking.

Confusion creates new neurons

OwenPhillips Shakespeare's Brain

“The arc beyond the already known, a radiance that enters so you know you are porous, possibly even contaminated as the skin, touched, knows itself as that which is touched.”                   –Ann Lauterbach, The Night Sky (153)

I’ve always believed that art, music, and poetry have the magic ability to “take us out of our minds.” Meaning, to defy our expectations and allow us to “see” with a renewed sense of vision; or hear with a renewed sense of listening.

This “renewed sense” doesn’t have to mean “pleasant.” Often it’s in the  move into and through the anxiety of uncertainty – I’m hearing something in a new way, and I don’t like it!” where real learning happens.

Milton Erikson, the father of therapeutic hypnosis, believed that when a person is “stuck” in a problem she is very likely thinking about the problem way too much. All this thinking results in the knotted bramble of neural clusters, all firing to make the problem even bigger.

He believed that if a person allowed even a fraction of a second to knock out these kinds of habitual thoughts with a radically different frame of  reference – something that surprised or shocked them so much that their previous patterns of association (the problem) had to leave their body and mind completely – that this moment of “pure awareness” and fascination could result in something new: an opportunity for an altered mode of attention.

Neurologically, this is the phenomenological correlate of a critical change in the molecular structure of proteins in the parts of the brain that are associated with learning; the creation of new cell assemblies. Or, to put it simply, the creation of new neural pathways that just might – in the same way that a campfire grows larger with kindling – represent an entirely new way of being, in spite of the problem.

“Psychological problems develop when people do not permit the naturally changing circumstances of life to interrupt their old and no longer useful patterns of association and experience so that new solutions and attitudes may emerge.”
– Milton Erikson (20)

And this movement of mind (and its subsequent re-kindling) involves experiencing change in a way that involves the reconfiguration of a person’s most deeply held beliefs about self and world.

Which is probably why you might say that certain books, or pieces of music, “changed your life.”

Shakespeare — who in spite of his reputation for being difficult has been changing lives since 1568 — is interesting to consider in this regard. In an article called The Shakespeared Brain, a team of cross-curricular researchers from the University of Liverpool found that reading Shakespeare has a dramatic effect on the human brain. {ref: This is your brain on Shakespeare}

One of Shakespeare’s stylistic feats is his ability to create sentences in which parts of speech are scrambled or used in ways that defy the rules of grammar. For example, “he childed as I fathered” – a line from King Lear in which nouns “child, father” act like verbs.

What the researchers realized is that when people read, nouns and verbs are processed in different parts of their brain. So when a person reads sentences that are stylistically difficult, the brain has to fire extra neurons to measure and process the confusion.

Those extra neurons result in what they call a “P600 surge”—meaning that when our brains encounter difficulty or confusion it has to work a little harder to fit what is difficult into what we already know. Think of this like a jazz quartet – you’ve got the bass player keeping the background beat going, while the pianist pushes the melody towards ever more complex vibrations and syncopations.

Even just for a moment. To hear the music of the language instead of the incessant chatter—so often negative — that reverberates our thoughts. So that the knee-jerk reaction, “I don’t understand this therefore I hate it,” is suspended.

Of course, expecting a work of art or language to provoke an eureka response that escalates into a profound, transcendent, meditative state every single time (and being upset when it doesn’t manifest) is the creation of another kind of expectation. But that’s ok – the brain functions on expectations. It’s being open to creating new ones that becomes a really useful trick for managing moods and getting unstuck from emotional or physical suffering.

And, writing in brand new ways that may surprise you.

Looping//Interludes

There is a scene I just can’t get out of my head.

There are images, and this is what I remember (fade to black.)

I’ll always remember (fade to black) the scene.

I’ll never forget what happened.

(Fade to black) it’s ingrained in my mind.

Whenever I close my eyes I see these scenes repeating.

There are images (fade to black) and I can see them so clearly it’s as if they were real.

Because what happened was internal, beyond words.

Surfacing as images with no frames.

As if these impressions (fade to black) are all that survived:

On the slope side of a pasture, wild horses.

Under a tree, a cow.

A woman darts across the burning room to avoid the beams collapsing all around her.

Into the pasture, where the horses quickly disperse.

A bomber flies low over a cornfield.

Running through, she has on a dress that matches the flowers.

Picks up a feather and is blown away.

Crushed.

Shattered.

Plummeted.

Flatlined.

She is in smithereens, reduced to shards, smaller than a crumb.

That is what happened.

Scenes, and then (fade to black).

Before, and after, in a sequence.

In the clearing, a man and a woman are suddenly present.

After the fade to black, another sequence.

“Nothing,” is closure.

Simultaneously, the houses are crumbling.

It’s hard to say what happens after that.

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