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Poetry and the Brain

By Hans-Dieter Gelfert

[1]When Raoul Schrott, one of the most versatile German writers of poetry, fiction and literary theory, joins forces with Arthur Jacobs, a distinguished psychologist at the Free University of Berlin, in order to produce a book on “the brain and the poem”, one is prepared for an expedition into an uncharted territory of considerable width and depth. In 1997, Schrott caused some stir with his book Die Erfindung der Poesie (The invention of poetry), in which he presented and commented early specimens of Sumerian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Old Irish and Welsh poetry, all translated by himself. A writer of such wide-ranging familiarity with ancient poems would surely want to take the next step towards uncovering the roots of poetry by tracing them, with the help of a psychologist, in the human brain.

The book consists of nine main chapters with the titles ‘on reading’, ‘movements of thought’, ‘metaphorical speech’, ‘sound and painting’, ‘music’, ‘verse and rhyme’, ‘writing and speech’, ‘pictorial spaces’ and ‘figures of thought’. The headings of the sub-chapters, 38 altogether, reveal Schrott’s solid grounding in the classical tradition, since they abound with names of figures of speech that only well-versed students of literature, if at all, would normally know, such as metalepsis, synecdoche, metonymy, adynaton, and aposiopesis. These hard words would scare off the literary laity, if it were not for the 37 ‘boxes’ inserted into the sub-chapters, where the psychologist Jacobs pulls the literary balloon down and ties it to empirical facts in the brain.

Thus, the book actually consists of two books, one in large and one in small print. The main chapters, in large print, when read in continuous succession, form a kind of encyclopedia on the roots of human culture, with detailed information on the mental processes that underlie our responses to visual, acoustic and verbal stimuli. We learn about the subtleties of prosody in various languages, we are introduced to the complex systems of rhythms and metres in classical Greek poetry and exposed to the fundamental principles of music. Much of this information is so technical that the layman will have to rely on it without being able to verify its truth. Even if specialists should find fault with some of Schrott’s statements, he opens up vistas of what one might call the early childhood of human culture.

The same can be said about the other half of the book, the one in small print. The 37 ‘boxes’, when read continuously, form an encyclopedia of the neuro-psychological processes that govern our perception of the world and our cultural activities. However, the alternating presentation of chapters from two different ‘encyclopedias’ tends to blur rather than enlighten the reader’s insight. Since the neurological discussion does not proceed in textbook fashion, but pops up in digressions, the reader will find it increasingly difficult to relate it to the argument of the main chapters. Nevertheless, the chapters on either side of the dividing line contain enough food for thought and insight to keep the reader’s curiosity alive and motivate it by successive ‘aha’ experiences.


Raoul Schrott (photo by Tobias Falberg, released under Wikimedia Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Gerrmany license)

The real crux of the book is not its organization, but the fact that it falls short of its goal. Nearly everything that is being said about the neurological responses to visual, musical or verbal stimuli in poetry applies to such stimuli in general, irrespective of their aesthetic quality. Most of what Schrott points out in poems could as well be found in prose or unpoetic mechanical versification. In fact, quite a few of the examples he refers to are trivial or nonsense verses with no claim to poetic value. A book on ‘the brain and the poem’, however, should aim at raising, if not answering, the one question that the title makes the reader wait for: What goes on in our brains, when we respond to a poem that elates us by its poetic quality? It may well be that this is beyond the scope of neurological research, but then the book cannot deliver what its title promises. The reader would feel less disappointed if he had bought the book under its subtitle ‘How we construct our realities’, since this is what it is about. One gets the impression that poetry is only a teaser to lure the reader into the neurosciences, especially so, when Schrott begins every main chapter with a short quotation from Voltaire’s Candide, whose connection with the main line of argument is, at best, rather strained. Even inside the chapters one often wants to cry out with Hamlet: “More matter with less art!”

In quite a few cases, especially when interpreting poems, Schrott lets himself get carried away by his intellectual enthusiasm.  Then he tends to go over the top and sometimes gets dangerously close to the ridiculous. Here is a random example: when commenting on a poem by Salvatore Quasimodo he comes across the line traffito da un raggio di sole (‘pierced by a ray of sunshine’) which serves him as an example to demonstrate how precisely a poem represents reality. ‘Piercing’, he argues, means a frontal penetration of the body at a right angle, and that is only possible at 3 p.m. Literary interpretations abound in such wild speculations, and creative minds like Schrott are especially susceptible to such lapses from the heights of poetic intuition to the sandy plains of oversophisticated mush.

The two authors should have made up their minds more resolutely about which way to go: either focussing closely on poetry in particular or concentrating on the neurological processes at the root of cultural activities in general. If focussing on poetry was their aim, they should have raised the question: Why do certain texts arouse aesthetic pleasure and what happens in the brain, when we feel the urge to read a poem again and again? Without this target in view, poetry can only be studied as one of many forms of texts, either spoken or written, which the brain has to decode and translate into meaning.


Salvatore Quasimodo (photo: Nobel Foundation, source: Wikimedia Commons, Swedish copyright expired)

The subject of pleasure is touched upon only briefly in the very short sub-chapter on ‘verse-length and stanza combination’, and even here the only thing the reader learns is that the brain reinforces successful perception by producing endorphins that cause a feeling of pleasure. But there is no model to explain how verse, rhyme or any other form of poetic order stimulates the production of these chemicals. In the final box, number 37, which is by far the largest and serves as a summary, the aspect of pleasure is again mentioned in passing. From a psychologist one would have expected at least a reference to studies in empirical aesthetics such as those by D. E. Berlyne, who was among the first to focus on aesthetic arousal. But Berlyne is mentioned only in passing in a short chapter that deals, among others, with authors of thrillers like John Grisham.

By the end of the book the reader has learnt a lot about the frontline of contemporary neurology, but not enough about the specific impact of poetry on the brain. In the preface to the book there is a brief reference to the American mathematician Birkhoff who, a hundred years ago, had suggested a formula for quantifying the aesthetic pleasure a work of art can yield. Many years later, Max Bense and Rul Gunzenhäuser followed his lead and refined the formula on the basis of information theory. When finding Birkhoff’s name in the preface, this reviewer felt alerted and hoped for a replacement of the information theory model by a neuro-psychological one, which in his eyes would be more adequate. But throughout the book, the idea of aesthetic pleasure is conspicuously absent. One gets the impression that Schrott, with his vast knowledge of poems of many languages and his insight into poetry from a practicing poet’s point of view, digs so deep into the ground to lay the anthropological foundations of art in general that, by sheer quantity, he smothers the flame which he tries to rekindle again and again by beginning each new chapter with a quotation from Candide.

Reading poetry is inevitably linked with value judgments. We simply cannot read a single line without feeling that it is either a good or not-so-good one. Occasionally, Schrott passes judgments inadvertently. For instance, when he quotes a frequently anthologized poem by Jakob van Hoddis, he finds some fault with it, whereas other poems which never made it into anthologies seem to be more to his liking. Quite a few of his examples, by the way, are translations from foreign languages, which means that they are already divested of their best-fitting poetic attire. Poetry depends entirely on the perfection of its form, and form is more than putting together elements from a poetic inventory. It is the fusion of these elements into a mysterious unity, which brings about the poeticity of resulting text. This mystery escapes the neurologist’s analysis as much as it escapes Schrott’s subtle highlighting of the rhetorical figures of speech in the poems he refers to.

After so much criticism of the shortcomings of the book it is time to return to its virtues. There are few books on the neurological responses to art and reality that equal this one in stimulating power. Schrott, a true poeta doctus and an allround scholar into the bargain, manages to stir up settled beliefs and assumptions in a reader’s mind and makes him think of poetry in statu nascendi. This impact outweighs the frustration the reviewer felt in front of this copious buffet where only the main dish is missing. One other thing, however, is missing, too, and in this case most readers will agree, namely a register of names and subjects. Without such a directory the book is more like a succession of Powerpoint lectures in print than a textbook to be studied and consulted forwards and backwards, as one would normally do with a book so full of scholarly and scientific information.

Raoul Schrott & Arthur Jacobs: Gehirn und Gedicht. Wie wir unsere Wirklichkeiten konstruieren.
(The Brain and the Poem. How We Construct our Realities)
Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 2011.
ISBN-13: 978-3-446-23656-1
Hardcover, 528 pp., EUR 29.90

Hans-Dieter Gelfert was Professor of English Literature and Culture at the Free University of Berlin and, since his retirement in 2000, has been a freelance author and reviewer. He is the author of 24 books, including most recently a biography of Charles Dickens (Charles Dickens: Der Unnachahmliche, C.H. Beck, Munich 2011). In 2011, he received the George F. Kennan Commentary Award for an article on ‘The contradictory USA. Between religion and enlightenment, between Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street: Why Americans are as they are’.

(c) 2013 by The Berlin Review of Books.