October 27, 2021

Why Does Some Music (and some poetry) Stick in Our Brains?

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

I listened to an NPR episode of Shortwave on why music sticks in our brains and it made me think that some of the current research on music also applies to poems. The connection is emotion. Emotions are important to memory in general and songs - and I believe many poems - can make us feel a range of emotions that help our brain encode information better in our brains.

It was about the neuroscience behind those moments when you surprise yourself by still remembering a song.

Some elements that aid memory are rhyme, repetition and rhythm, which are important because they help us encode information better. 

Music always has an auditory stimulus. Poems sometimes have an auditory memory helper when we hear them read aloud. 

They found that we tend to learn the chorus of a song first - because we hear it over and over in a song. 

In school, children are often given a song memory hook - for example, learning the alphabet "song."

When a song enters your brain, neural activity in your brain stem and into the primary auditory cortex where the music gets processed. Lyrics mean that the language center of your brain will also get involved and tone and fluctuations in speech are also being processed.

If you are also reading the lyrics or following sheet music - or reading a poem as you hear it spoken - then the visual processing center of your brain also gets activated. 

Music also activates your motor cortex, which coordinates body movements. Do you ever tap your feet, sway with a poem, or dance? Probably not.

We know that when we enjoy music, our brain releases dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brain. I'd like to know if that happens with some poetry. With no research to back me up, I think sometimes it does. Deep brain dopaminergic systems like the basal ganglia get activated by narcotics and a great meal. And some areas of the brain, like the amygdala, attach those emotions to our memories.

The part of the research that really connects for me is how music and poems can help us retrieve other memories. Music may be able to connect those bits and pieces of other memories because our brain is able to pull that information from all types of stored spaces because we encoded it in different ways by listening, singing, reading lyrics and dancing.

Some people with Alzheimer's disease who played an instrument when they were younger can still play it, even if they can't remember other simpler things from their past. 

Visit our website at poetsonline.org

October 9, 2021

Lennon and Carroll

Today is the birthday of John Lennon. I love The Beatles' music and I love a good song lyric, but I have never really been totally comfortable with the idea that song lyrics are poetry. There is "music in poetry" but poetry read aloud to music doesn't really enhance either form for me. That is odd because in my teen years even my English teachers were using Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles lyrics as a way to get us into poetry. And it worked. I first tried writing poems then and I tried putting words to music with my newly-acquired guitar and a few chords.

I have written elsewhere about Lennon and how critics reviewing his two books of stories and drawings sometimes assumed he was influenced by James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. Joyce was not an influence but Carroll definitely was an influence starting at an early age.

His 1967 song "I am the Walrus" was inspired by Carroll's poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter." 

Carroll writes:

The time has come,' the Walrus said,

     To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

      Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

      And whether pigs have wings.'

"To me, it was a beautiful poem," Lennon has said. "It never occurred to me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with Beatles' work. Later I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy."

In Lennon's song, after the "Everybody's got one" lines at the end, you hear some spoken lines. I found the lyrics online and you can play detective identifying the sources and meaning of the "gibberish" as the song fades out.

Thou hast slain me
Villain, take my purse
If I ever
Bury my body
The letters which though find'st about me
To Edmund Earl of Gloucester
Seek him out upon the British Party
O untimely death
I know thee well
A serviceable villain, as duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire
What, is is he dead?
Sit you down, Father, rest you

The first poem we know of by Lennon is "The Land of the Lunapots." It is fourteen mostly nonsensical lines (not a sonnet) and clearly imitates Carroll's "Jabberwocky" particularly in the word inventions like "wyrtle" and "graftiens." 

"Jabberwocky" begins " 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toads..." John's poem begins:

T'was custard time and as I
Snuffed at the haggie pie pie
The noodles ran about my plunk
Which rode my wrytle uncle drunk

Bot of Lennon's books and songs such as "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" show Carroll's influence and even straightforward imitation. Here is a bit of his poem "I Wandered." t

Past grisby trees and hulky builds
Past ratters and bradder sheep...
Down hovey lanes and stoney claves
Down ricketts and stickly myth
In a fatty hebrew gurth
I wandered humply as a sock
To meet bad Bernie Smith

Back in the day, John sometimes was described as the serious Beatle, but he was really perhaps the silliest and funniest Beatle. It is so very much the bad-boy-prankster Lennon that the third part of his song "I Am the Walrus" was something he wrote after he learned that a teacher was having his students study Beatles songs for their meanings. He decided to include nonsense lines such as “elementary penguins”, “sitting on a cornflake”, and “crabalocker” and he later said, “Let them work that one out.”

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly
I'm crying

Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man, you've been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long

Mister City p'liceman sitting, pretty little p'licemen in a row
See how they fly like Lucy in the sky, see how they run

Yellow-matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess
Boy, you've been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down

He did care about his lyrics. A song like "Across the Universe" shows a more poetic rather than nonsensical approach. 

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe

Sounds of laughter shades of life are ringing
Through my open ears inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

In a 1970 interview, he said, "It's one of the best lyrics I've written. In fact, it could be the best. It's good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin' it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don't have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them." 

It is sweet that in 2008 NASA transmitted the song as part of an interstellar message to the star Polaris, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song's release, the 45th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and the 50th anniversary of NASA itself. It was the first time a song was deliberately transmitted to deep space to travel across the universe.

Visit our website at poetsonline.org

October 6, 2021

Prompt: Menu Poems

When you hear the word "menu," your first thought is probably about a restaurant's list of the dishes available. "Menu" does have other usages including almost any list or set of items, activities, etc., from which to choose. A friend might ask, "What's on the menu for the weekend?" Websites almost always have a menu of options available to a user. Screens of all sizes have menu options, such as those for Netflix and streaming services. 

The word "menu" is mid-19th century French and it meant any small, detailed list. It came from Latin minutus meaning "very small." Lists of prepared foods for customers go back much further to the Song dynasty in China. The original French menus were presented on a small chalkboard. In French, that chalkboard was "a carte" so foods chosen from that bill of fare are described as "à la carte" or literally, "according to the board." Today, à la carte items are generally specials not on the main menu.

I tried to find a menu poem to use here as a model without success. That surprises me since menu language is filled with hyphens, quotation marks, puffery, and foreign words that might appeal to poets. The majority of foreign words are French and so we have menu items such as "spring mushroom civet," "pain of rabbit," and "orange-jaggery gastrique.

The closest I found to menu poems are list poems (sometimes called catalog poems). A list poem can be a list of single words, or it could be a list of similar sentences. But a list poem should not be just a list. The best of them use items that have a relation to each other, or tell a story or perhaps offer commentary on a subject.

Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," are list poems. I found Anne Porter's "List of Praises" and James Tate's "The List of Famous Hats" but they aren't what I imagine a menu poem to be. I found "A Little Menu" by Don Mee Choi, but it is still basically a list poem.

A list poem is a good form for young and new poets since it is an easier form to follow. I found a collection for young readers, Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems by Georgia Heard. I like the poem by the editor which uses a recipe for its list.

"Recipe for Writing An Autumn Poem" by Georgia Heard

One teaspoon wild geese.
One tablespoon red kite.
One cup wind song.
One pint trembling leaves.
One quart darkening sky.
One gallon north wind. 

Another poem that takes the list form a bit further is "My Love Sent Me a List" by Olena Kalytiak Davis. It is also a "found" poem as it uses lines from Shakespeare's sonnets. It begins:

O my Love sent me a lusty list,
Did not compare me to a summer's day
Wrote not the beauty of mine eyes
But catalogued in a pretty detailed
And comprehensive way the way(s)
In which he was better than me...

Since menus usually have some explanation of each item, I thought that "Objects Used to Prop Open a Window" by Michelle Menting comes closer to the menu form I imagined. 

The poem moves from literal objects, 

Dog bone, stapler,

cribbage board, garlic press

     because this window is loose—lacks

suction, lacks grip.

to objects that can't literally prop open a window.

Velvet moss, sagebrush,

willow branch, robin's wing

     because this window, it's pane-less. It's only

a frame of air.

So what kind of menu poem are we looking for this month? You can start with a list of some kind be it names, places, actions, thoughts, or images. Since a menu is about options, that should be a consideration. The grand language of the restaurant menu can be employed. The branching sub-menus we find online are also a possible structure. Most list poems don't rhyme, but that might be something to consider. You might also use an additional form, such as it being a sonnet, found poem, etc. Again, what makes a list or menu poem more than just a list is what the poet does with the items beyond mere listing.


Visit our website at poetsonline.org

October 5, 2021

2021 National Book Award Honorees for Poetry

The 2021 Longlist for the National Book Award for Poetry has been announced.

Nine of the ten poets on the 2021 Longlist are first-time National Book Award honorees. Two of the poets have been honored by the Pulitzer Prize, and two have received Whiting Awards. Other prizes that have recognized the Longlisted poets include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the Pushcart Prize. One of the books comes from a university press and nine come from independent publishers, including Parlor Press, with its first title recognized by the National Book Awards. The list features poets in all stages of their careers, including four debut poetry collections.

  • Threa Almontaser, The Wild Fox of Yemen, Graywolf Press
  • Baba Badji, Ghost Letters, Parlor Press
  • Desiree C. Bailey, What Noise Against the Cane, Yale University Press
  • CM Burroughs, Master Suffering, Tupelo Press 
  • Andrés Cerpa, The Vault, Alice James Books 
  • Martín Espada, Floaters, W. W. Norton & Company 
  • Forrest Gander, Twice Alive, New Directions 
  • Douglas Kearney, Sho, Wave Books 
  • Hoa Nguyen, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Wave Books 
  • Jackie Wang, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void, Nightboat Books

Visit our website at poetsonline.org