friday roundup: your brain on Shakespeare, eating your spinach, and “The room has earned its sadness.”

Billy Boy on a Hungarian postage stamp, wikimedia

Billy Boy on a Hungarian postage stamp, wikimedia

Reader, I realize it’s already cocktail hour on the East Coast (insert sigh of longing here), but I’m bound and determined to post a roundup today. Stakin’ a claim! I’ve been at my desk 20 minutes trying to start this post. Things keep happening. Bug bites. Disputes over the green marker. Paper cuts. Resistance to post-basketball showers. Requests for more food (did we not just finish lunch)? In other words, lentils. But lentils-shmentils, I’m writing a roundup. Let’s go:

your brain on Shakespeare  I’m a little late to this party, but this is really cool. I was reading an essay by David Kirby (“A Wilderness of Monkeys” from The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays in Contemporary Poetics) in which the author referred to a study of what our brains do when they’re reading Shakespeare. The study was published in 2006 by the University of Liverpool, and it found that Shakespearean language, and particularly “functional shifts” wherein one word can change the grammar of a whole sentence (such as a word that’s typically a noun functioning as a verb or vice versa), causes our brains to light up in ways that they do not when functional shifts are not employed. A quote from one of the researchers:

“The effect on the brain is a bit like a magic trick; we know what the trick means but not how it happened.  Instead of being confused by this in a negative sense, the brain is positively excited. “

Well, no wonder Shakespeare’s work has stood the test of time — it makes our brains happy! I love it when brain science and literature have things to say to one another. And methinks there’s a little craft tip in these findings as well.

eating your spinach  I confess, I’m an on again/off again subscriber to Poetry magazine. I subscribed for a few years, then let it lapse when we moved to California. I recently resumed my subscription. For me Poetry is all about eating your spinach. You know you need to read it; it’ll be good for you. Sometimes it’s delicious — fresh, crisp and drizzled with a sweet and sour bacon dressing. Other times — meh. But I’ve really enjoyed the “A Few Don’ts” series they’ve been running, in which contemporary poets follow in the wake of Ezra Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste to list their own don’ts-for-poets.

I especially appreciate this one by Reginald Dwayne Betts in the March issue:

“This ain’t about risk. Risk is living below the poverty line in the worst part of town; risk is raising a black boy in a town with laws like Stand Your Ground; … risk is what soldiers, police officers, firefighters encounter. Poetry is about language, words, about being as honest as you can on the page.”

Writers sometimes talk about “taking risks” — and it can feel risky to a writer (in a personal way) to delve into material that may be painful for her. But — aside from helping us keep things in proper perspective — what I like about this quote is the reminder that poetry is about language and words. Even those subjects that feel personally risky to the poet must make themselves useful within the tools of the trade. For me, this idea can help take some of the emotion out of drafting: Get in line, you slippery emotions, you’re in poetry school now!

“The room has earned its sadness.” In my small cracks of reading and writing time this week, I’ve been reading Alison Titus’ sum of every lost ship. I’m really enjoying it, and will write more about it soon, but for now I’ll send you to read a couple of motel poems found in the book, and originally published at Blackbird. I love that these poems are tiny but packed with emotion. I love their loneliness, their forlorn-ness. I’m so intrigued by the way they’re full-justified so that space happens randomly within the lines, and so that the unfolding of the poem is both irregular and constricted — moments of almost-freedom within a small box. Rather like the feeling of being in a motel room, no? The first one is here and the second is here, and while you’re there you won’t be disappointed if you read this poem, too.

Reader, have a wonderful weekend. Thanks, as always, for reading. And may your brain be lit up like Vegas.

2 thoughts on “friday roundup: your brain on Shakespeare, eating your spinach, and “The room has earned its sadness.”

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