I can’t stop wondering about the relationships between words, sounds, and physical response. This broad interest evolved from recent, specific observations in my daily life. For instance: I have a friend who mumbles to herself when she reads. The man I sat next to in a coffee shop today drummed his fingers on the table incessantly as he read his New Yorker. Some people prefer hair twirling or beard stroking or a classic frown-and-fist-clench while reading, and one’s reaction clearly depends upon the topic he or she is absorbed in.
Personally, I’ve noticed that when I read, or write by hand, I often tilt my head dramatically to the right. Sometimes, I place my palm on the back of my neck. Most often, these physical responses are manifestations of intense concentration, which I deeply enjoy (which probably accounts for the fact that I rarely move my hand or un-tilt my head, preferring to bask in my oddness rather than fight it). I don’t think that my hand has ever cramped quite in the way it does when I’m taking a timed pop quiz on the night’s reading, frantically trying to prove that I have scraped off an A-worthy tip of the iceberg.
I’m far from the only one musing about how our brains work. I know that there are entire academic fields devoted solely to the relationship between reading and behavior. People write articles, dissertations, and even book-length studies detailing the connection between brains and bodies. And cognitive scientists have proved that reading stimulates certain areas of the brain that engage our emotional and intellectual abilities.
So who am I to try and figure out these relationships out in a mere blog post? I can certainly lay out how they play out in my own life—I’m thinking about poetry specifically. For example, while I am reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” words and rhythms combine to stimulate my mind in ways that I think are unique to poetry. For example, the “shantih shantih shantih” at the end of the poem almost appears like a gong in my brain. These words moved me before I even knew what they meant. Does this impact derive from the words themselves, or is there some deeper undercurrent in the poem that sweeps me up?
I’ve had a similar hypnotic experience at poetry readings. A few weeks ago, I went to a public reading where Isabella Martin, a fellow Shenandoah intern, read a few of her poems. This reading was the first time I had encountered Isabella’s poems, but in the few minutes that she read, some combination of her voice and the words caught my attention and held it. While she read, rather than manifesting my brain’s frantic attempt to understand her poem in some bizarre pose, I was stilled completely. I think that the mark of a good poem is its ability to still someone in this way—like Eliot’s shantihs, Isabella’s poem, while I hadn’t had the time to sit down, read, and digest it, had a natural impact.
Around the same time as Isabella’s reading, Professor John Melillo from the University of Arizona came to visit my modern American poetry class. He presented us with a recording of the final section of “The Waste Land” without spoken words. Melillo removed Eliot’s rumbling growl and left solely the intonations of Eliot’s voice. Straight sound. There was a decent bit of static overlay, but the whistling whisper pendulum for each “shantih” was enough to make me widen my eyes and grin. I felt the static shantih move through me.
I don’t know why I froze during Isabella’s reading or why I smiled during Eliot’s sound waves. But I guess that’s the point of this post. There is some instinct inside us that seeks out the purity of these words and sounds and latches onto them. Despite metaphorical and literal static, there is a deep, powerful current beneath poetic words that might be just as important as the words themselves. And that’s a power that I don’t need to fully understand to appreciate. For now, I’m just glad that it exists.