|The author, racing in 'Tough Guy' 2011|
and not thinking of much at all,
never mind poetry
"Poems start in my body. More specifically, they start in my legs and lungs. That’s because I don’t write my best poems when I’m sitting at my desk, but when I’m moving; walking my dogs round the back of Oaks Farm and through the half-hearted woodland behind it, rock climbing on Stanage Edge in the summer, or, most often, when I’m out running and short of breath.
In his book ‘Musicology’, neuroscientist Oliver Sacks discusses ‘earworms’ - those snatches of music that seem to pop into our heads spontaneously and often torment us for days. For me, the genesis of a poem is a kind of earworm. As I run or walk or climb, I hear a line or phrase, almost as a kind of auditory hallucination. I usually try to ignore it at first and concentrate on whatever I’m meant to be doing (particularly when climbing – the last thing that’s going to help you with a tricky laybacking move is the opening of a sonnet). But these lines don’t go away. Worse, as I repeat them over in my head, they seem to suggest other lines – the original ‘earworm’ is extended in various, different ways, until I find other phrases that stick to it. This process continues for some time: picture me, if you will, dodging cars at the last minute as I sprint across a road, repeating a sequence of words, only remembering to check for traffic at the last minute. Who says poetry’s a safe occupation? As the poem grows, I become increasingly terrified I’ll forget it. But, inevitably, by the time I get home, the best lines have stuck and only the weaker ones, the ones that didn’t quite work, have been forgotten."
|"Well, know I've written the poem, how|
am I going to get down?"
Reading Barbara Lex's article on 'The Neurobiology of Ritual Trance' (1979) earlier this week, I started to think about what the activities of running and writing might share at a neural level. Lex is interested in how rhythmically structured activities affect the brain, inducing a kind of trance-like state. This aspect of rhythm is something that all rituals have in common, she argues. It is also an important component of poetry (certainly the kind of poetry I like to write) and, of course, physical exercise such as running.
Lex suggests that these kinds of rhythmic activity rely heavily on the right hemipshere with its more holistic, intuitive style of comprehension. Citing Ornstein (1972) she suggests that many ritual activities 'distract' the logical, comprehending left hemisphere, allowing the right to assume dominance for the duration of the ritual:
In 'The Neural Lyre', Turner makes a similar argument about the way metre and structure figure in poetry, 'distarcting' the left hemisphere. Might something similar be at work in activities like running and climbing that absorb so much attention? Might this be why I seem to hear 'earworms' when I'm out running, as if from nowhere?
Whatever the explanation (or lack thereof), any discussion of running seems a tenuous excuse to re-read Larkin's elegant 'Days':
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.