Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Poetry and Synesthesia: Any Thoughts?

A poet acquaintance, responding to Nin's interview with me, sent me the following note:
Your interview interested me on a number of levels (your basic process, of course, but also, I've been thinking a lot about theme, and I was engaged by the way you said this book came together.) 
But the reason I'm writing is because of this comment you made: "Nonetheless, I do believe that the music and the writing are linked. I write by ear: that is, I hear a cadence in a line or a sentence and find a word to fit the cadence. This is true no matter what I am writing: a sonnet, a free-verse poem, an essay, a Facebook status, a letter to my kid’s teacher. Always, the sound comes first." 
I've been recently researching (okay, reading Wikipedia) about synesthesia, and I wonder if you've been diagnosed or have ever considered that your behavior of putting words to the cadence is beyond what a typical individual could do (in other words, that it is unique to your brain). In reading about synesthesia, I realized that I fit (at least slightly) into one of the many categories, which is that I picture numbers and time periods as following a path (always the same path), meaning the number four is at a specific position in a 3D place in my mind, as is, for instance, January. Anyway! I'm curious whether we all have some variation of this behavior (my husband associates numbers with colors). Any thoughts on this?
This was what I said in return:
No, I've never been diagnosed [with synesthesia], though whenever I've read about it, I've identified myself with the symptoms. As a child, I used to sense a strong relationship between individual words and colors. That's faded away to a certain degree now, mostly because I have a lifetime of experience and memories associated with particular physical things. But as soon as I try to reimmerse myself in the sensation of words-as-colors, I feel a clarity of impulse.
I've talked to numbers of other poets who also feel a cadence propulsion when they write. For many I think this is linked as much to the syntactical propulsions of the English sentence as anything else. We're so attuned to the expectations of grammar that we hear what "ought to" come next in a sentence even before we know what that something is. While I also feel this impulse in myself, I have an additional premonition of syllable stress, whether or not I am writing a formal poem. Although this premonition is still present when I am writing in prose, it is not nearly so insistent as it is when I feel a poem "coming on," so to say. A sense of rhythmic aura is partly how I know that I need to write, even when I don't have any idea what I need to write about.
And then this was what she said:
Thanks, Dawn, for this intriguing response. Rhythmic aura. This particular, careful description of your experience leads me into another area of thinking: the ways in which we choose to describe the activity of our minds. This, in itself, is perhaps a definition for poetry. The synesthesia (or whatever it may be) operates on a more unconscious (can something be "more" or "less" unconscious?) level, much like the muse.
Have any of you had parallel experiences or reactions? And what do you think about her speculation that "the way in which we choose to describe the activity of our minds, . . . in itself, is perhaps a definition for poetry"? She's working herself up to writing poems about this fascination; and, as much as anything, I am excited to watch another poetic mind beetle into an obsession.


Dawn Potter said...

The following remarks appeared on my Facebook link, but I thought the rest of you might be interested as well.

Carol: For me, it begins with a slight buzzing in my head, then it spreads downward and is not "sated" until I begin to compose a poem or an essay.

Mary: For me it's a feeling of centeredness --physical, not just emotional, yes.

Nate: I think that while there are individuals with very tangible, physical reactions that make for what we consider a synesthete, that all of us cross our senses in one way or another, especially when working within art. I think this happens for most through a mental association of ideas (purely as an idea, what is color to scent to touch anyway?). Hearing about my childhood from family, especially recalling the things my mother would ask me (What color are lies?) and knowing how I react to stimuli now, it seems that ever since I've been able to communicate, I've shown signs of an increased sensitivity to the arrangement of particular words, subtle body language as audibly deafening, certain surroundings and the way light works with them, and the "mood" of crowds. These are mostly physical reactions, and not always pleasant as I sometimes will have dissonant experiences in a very lovely place that is aesthetically pleasing. I tend to sense, associate, and measure interactions with people and objects as an intuitive change in air pressure, a temperature change that I "feel" in my forehead (I always compare it to someone placing a hand over your brow) and a dryness of mouth I've read has something to do with neurotransmitters like dopamine shifting around, as well as a heavy pull toward assigning a color to people and objects that will mentally appear to me as if "sensed". I've had several friends and acquaintances in both scientific and spiritual areas refer to me as an "empath" (sometimes saying "for lack of a better word") when I expressed these symptoms of sensitivity, and wouldn't know where I fell on the synesthetic scale, if at all. However, as I said earlier, a description of the experience doesn't tend to always make a whole hell of a lot of sense when written out, but I think that we all have some sort of synesthetic experience. When thinking of it in connection with poetry, I return to the neurotransmitter dopamine again, as one of the symptoms typical of the onset of schizophrenia (caused by an overabundance of dopamine receptor activity) is to have a speech pattern of hard rhymes or alliteration strung together, known as "clanging".

Carlene said...

Meter usually strikes me first, whole phrases, images...linking them together is the challenge afterwards. Sometimes they just lie dormant, scraps and snippets affixed to the fridge with magnets. I wonder, though, if those of us with some (or a lot) of formal other-arts training (music, painting, dance, etc.) tend to use those means to allow words access to our subconscious?

What I admire most in poems that strike me and stay with me is a beautiful turn of phrase, a freshness of language, something that enters the ear and resonates. It doesn't have to have formal meter, but it needs to feel like intentional speech.

Not sure if I'm making any sense, but I like this conversation!