A wealth of research and finely written essays testifies to the unique value of poetry though it may be quite different from one culture to another. Our own experience tells us that poetry is at least different from rationality, reasoning, or purely informational writing and at best is quite transcendent, almost religious, sweeping us into feeling. But what IS the difference?
In some cultures and individuals, it is the cadence of the words, the patterning for rhyme, sometimes specific subjects, its relationship to oral culture or music. In some places it is assigned time and location: at night or on rising, some turn of the day/night. It might be soft words of love, vigorous epithets of condemnation, or pledges of faith.
Just the same, it’s words. I’ve been trying to push words off to the side, take wind out of their sails, reduce them and their grip on us in law, governance, required texts, fancy rhetoric that is NOT poetic, church. And I relate this to neuron studies, particularly those that make explicit the evolution of the brain, whether reptile, mammal or human. Strangely, sometimes a wee simple worm is enlightening.
One of the most under-considered strategies of evolution is doubling back to use old structures in new ways, to link new and old structures, always to conserve. Bells and whistles are accidents. If the structure and function of the whole finds a way to use them -- “soooo, the larynx is in a slightly different place now -- what can it do there that it couldn’t in the old place?” Like, TALK. Make words by interrupting the flow of breath with sibilance and clicks and bitten-off air. But that’s the tongue, the teeth, the palate and -- oh, the vocal chords.
This is from a website (and book) called www.babelsdawn.com:
“It got me thinking about the FOXP2 gene (discussed here) that fine tuned control over the lower jaw. One of the things we can do with that lower mouth is cough and clear our throat more easily than people without the mutation. It seems a trivial task compared with speaking precisely, but one peculiarity of human anatomy is the way our windpipe (trachea) and esophagus are available to each other. The system allows us to speak, but at the risk of choking to death . . .
“The larynx works like a valve, opening and closing to let air pass. When it is shut, food can pass into the esophagus at no risk to the lungs. The best place for such a seal is right at the top of the trachea so that no food or drink accidentally goes even a little ways down it, but humans have a second use for the valve. We work it like a musical instrument shaping the sounds made by passing air as we speak. The musical valve works best if we pull it a bit down into the trachea so that the air wave shaped by the larynx can resonate before leaving the mouth.”
This is the entrancing stuff that babies discover by babbling. We sing before we speak, making vowels, fricatives and plosives for the pure pleasure of the sounds. We aren’t born speaking because anatomy recapitulates evolution -- at first the larynx is in the animal position so the baby won’t choke. It takes four years for the larynx to have moved into the standard adult human position. And boys who are becoming men will experience a second descent of the larynx and their voices. Then they get guitars and are filled with emotion, potency, and new sound. It is thought that this sexual voice change evolved earlier than baby larynx migration because deep sexy voices mean big dominant animals that make lots of babies. Drums and brass. Maybe.
“The fossil evidence seems to put the decline of body dimorphism based at about 2 million years ago, with the appearance of Homo in the fossil record. Is that when the male larynx began to descend?
“So far no conclusive evidence that the adolescent’s larynx descent preceded the descent of the infant larynx. Fossils might provide some ambiguous answers, but a more likely source will probably have to await understanding of the genetic control of these two processes. Then we can, perhaps, determine which genes are older.”
“Objective: A mutation in the FOXP2 gene has been the first genetic association with a language disorder. Language disorder is considered as a core symptom of schizophrenia. Therefore, the FOXP2 gene could be considered a good candidate gene for the vulnerability to schizophrenia.
“Conclusions: These results suggested that the FOXP2 gene may confer vulnerability to schizophrenic patients with auditory hallucinations.”
There are two other things FOXP2 genes can do. They are related to “embedded recursions” which is a grammatical structure in which lists of description are attached to an object. I taught it as “parallel structure.” All the descriptors must be in a sequence of the same grammatical type: adjectives, or prepositional phrases, or participles.
The other thing is the FOX2P does is allow coughing to clear jams in the esophagus/windpipe crossover. Before FOX2P, the people whose larynxes best allowed them to sing and chant poetry may have risked choking to death.
So oral poetry is made possible by anatomy, genes that control brain function (coughing is controlled by the brain and so are voices), allure in the time of human dimorphism, and a desire to share information -- but also emotion. Writing it down is derived from the oral form.
Except that reasoning -- in the most extreme form mathematical formulas -- really needs to be written to be kept track of. Bookkeeping is mathematical records. But it’s embedded recursion: you have to keep the numbers in columns, parallel structures. Maybe there’s a bit of crossover when poetry is meant to form a structure on the page as well as in speaking or even in thinking.
Adolescence is the “feeling” age which now is closely entwined with music again -- I mean, music with words, courtship music to keep the species surviving. It’s not just physical creation of babies, but also the emotional support of lullabies and rhythm games.
The point is that we keep trying to make speech into a competition where some words are forbidden and others are imposed to show one is civilized or elite or gifted, but we neglect the older dark unconscious brain parts that are still there, still involved. Poetry is a way to bring all the brain parts back into the game of communication: the laughter, the shivering, the capacity to trampoline to transcendence. It must involve the sensorium, which is the only way to poke apertures through our boundaries against the world. And that means that a poem might be memorably evocative through an object: an old red wheelbarrow in the rain.