Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Poet as Absent-minded Neuroscientist: The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin & Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Our thoughts go out to the people of Canterbury in the aftermath of Saturday's 7.1 earthquake - especially to our friends and family and fellow Tuesday Poets. With the knowledge that you're all safe, may the spirits of poetry fly to your comfort and carry your minds away from any troubles you face.

Lines from Philip Larkin's "The Whitsun Weddings" and Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"

Here's Larkin's narrator in "The Whitsun Weddings" (you can listen to the entire poem here):

At first, I didn't notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what's happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,

Here's Nabokov's fictional poet John Shade, from "Pale Fire" (from the novel Pale Fire):

When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end...
...And while the safety blade with scrape and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek...
Dressing in all the rooms, I rhyme and roam
Throughout the house with, in my fist, a comb
Or a shoehorn, which turns into the spoon
I eat my egg with. In the afternoon
You drive me to the library. We dine
At half past six. And that odd muse of mine,
My versipel, is with me everywhere,
In carrel and in car, and in my chair.

In previous posts we've discussed the song of poetry, its music, its efforts to capture and preserve unique specimens of perfect beauty. Now we can look at where it lives (in shadows, sidelong glimpses, midge-like sparks of memory) and how it's found, allured, gently caressed, almost never coming when it's called (see my post on poets and their cats). In the above excerpts, notice how both narrators -- composing some of the most beautiful lines in English -- present themselves as engaged in the mundane activities of ordinary life: Reading, in the case of Larkin's narrator. Shaving, in the case of John Shade.

The sort of shaving commercial which appeared around the time Nabokov was writing Pale Fire.

Marvelous illusions. Joyce's nail-paring. In fact, these poems were more likely constructed out of intense, agonizing, jackhammering desk-work (or podium-work, in Nabokov's case), but the special effect is one of detachment, absent-mindedness. A uniquely artistic pairing: blind-spots to the outside world coupled with a most vivid spotlight on the musings of our brain.

We've already heard Jonah Lehrer's take on Proust (see his book, Proust was a Neuroscientist), how the greatest of French novelists discovered the importance of smell, taste and our present mood upon our recollections (we can add madeleines-and-tea to reading, shaving, the bowel movement of Leopold Bloom, etc) -- but Larkin and Nabokov, as shown above, deserve honorary chairs amongst the emerging bio-poetic panel of brain scientists: mainly for their insights into the idea that the most unexpected and brilliant poetic sprites of fancy often come to us when we're occupied with the most familiar, the most routine.

Obligation touches genius "like a scourge of scorpions," writes Coleridge; and yet in my view, meditation, in the monkish sense (obligatory musing, you might say), is just as unlikely to produce a great poem. Reading, shaving, showering, smoking, driving a car -- the auto-pilot activities of the everyday, according to scientists such as Rebecca Saxe of MIT and Randy Buckner of Harvard, may be the true handmaids of our genius. At such times, they've noted, certain regions of the brain, including, for example, the right temporal parietal juncture (responsible for our imagining what other people are thinking) kick into action, indeed, appear to take on a life of their own, rummaging through the past like kids in a costume-trunk and performing for us fanciful skits about the future.

Traveling through time, designing and preparing for imaginary futures -- a human survival trait, no doubt. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that, in moments of mind-block, you turn to a Gillette Mach3 Turbo or a Silk-Effects for Women to find your muse -- although who knows? I'm simply suggesting that the narrator of a poem or novel will often appear more alive to us, more real to us, if his or her mind wanders (like ours, like everyone's) during moments of daily habit; and that this quality of an absent-minded exterior combined with a radiant, boundless interior is what makes poems like "The Whitsun Weddings" and "Pale Fire" such extraordinary works of art.

Zireaux is an Auckland-based novelist, poet and playwright. For Zireaux' other Tuesday Poems please visit ImmortalMuse.com, and in the live blog roll in the sidebar there are more Tuesday Poems.


T. Clear said...

Wow -- great post! Lehrer's book is indeed fascinating, something to ponder over a long period of time (for me, at least). Leave it to artists/writers to lead the charge forward!

My mentor in college, Nelson Bentley,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Bentley, preached that as poets, it was essential to do all the "normal" activities of an ordinary life: work, get married, mow the lawn, do the laundry, etc. (vs. sitting in an attic for hours on end acting out the romantic notion of what it means to write). At the tender age of twenty, it's the last thing any of us wanted to do. But of course, after the stint of an imagined-Bohemian life, or as close to that notion as we could get, the routine of a life began to stretch out into the future, leading us -- me -- to this place thirty-some years hence, with boxes full of poetry composed among the mountains of laundry, the sinksful of dishes, dashed out in the few minutes before work, scratched on a scrap of paper on my lunchbreak. There was a time when my children were very young and we lived in a tiny house, where I did all my writing standing up, at the piano, as that was the only available space unplowed by the machinations of family life.

Excellent poem choices; Nabakov's is a particular delight.

Anyway, thanks for sparking the electrical circuits of my brain, and for the reminder that even the act of shaving is, in its own way, important for more than just an act of grooming.

LentenStuffe said...


Heavy hitting, eh. I've always considered Pale Fire a horrifying book, brilliant, but horrifying.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Clear, a toast to Bentley; sounds like a true poet, and with you as an example of one of his poems -- and yourself a poet to admire -- obviously a brilliant mentor. To laundry! To lawn-mowing! Skipping through space on the frailest of speck-islands, a blink of time, sole survivors after billions of years of premature death and failed loves -- is the toothbrush not a work of wonder? The three-in-one shower head not enough? Enjoyed your "Lure." You'll make a Mecca of Carrowholly (I've booked my ticket).

John -- horrifying, yes, I see your point. But then, what beauty isn't horrifying (to wit, the savage beauty in your own brilliant work)?