I am so proud. My middle-school aged daughter asked me the other night if I’d like to read her poem. Of course, was my immediate response and she produced the delightful, “A is Teal.” A couple of years ago, I bought her the young adult novel, A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass. I picked the book up on one of my business trips simply because the title sounded interesting. Little did I know that it would move my daughter so much. In short, the book is about a synesthete. What’s that? you may ask…as I did when my daughter explained that synesthesia would be the topic of her school project. Turns out synesthesia is a neurological disorder which leads to an individual having cross sensory experiences. For example, numbers may have sounds. Letters may be a certain color. A musical note may have a smell along with its sound. How a synesthete experiences the world varies — she may smell the color green or see colorful musical notes while simultaneously hearing them. In “A is Teal” my daughter shows how a synesthete experiences the letter A, its color being that of teal. I think this is a very appropriate color for the letter A, but I cannot tell you why. It’s solely intuitive (and of course there’s the issue of proud parent bias… ;.). But let’s not forget that we will also find synesthesia in any good lit handbook. Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature describes synaethesia as “the concurrent response of two or more of the senses to the stimulation of one” and give examples such as “blue note,” and “loud shirt” (509). In “A is Teal,” my daughter writes about the letter A, “It’s sounds I smell, “ It’s shape I taste.” And there is also the example of Keat’s “sunburnt mirth” from “Ode to a Nightingale.”
What I find most interesting about this “disorder” is that many synesthetes just assume that everyone experiences the world the same way they do, until they have some experience that alerts them otherwise. While I’m no synesthete, I can certainly recall more than one experience that made me realize the way I see the world is not the way my neighbor always does, or my co-worker, or my friend…this can be both rewarding and, at times, painful. I think most writers, especially poets, experience or observe the world a little differently than the non-writer/poet. This ability to view the world through a different lens helps us write, ironically, with both a sense of the unique and of the universal.