Are You Alive or Dead, Right or Left?

Want to tackle big issues, such as Death, and laugh at the same time?  Then read Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates (Cathcart and Klein, 2009).  This delightful book spans a realm of philosophical thought on Death, from Plato to Nietzsche, Jung and to Tillich (just to name a few).  There’s one particular passage I want to talk about in relation to poetry, and it is an experience of a Harvard neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor.  In short, Taylor suffered a massive stroke and, being the scientist she is, she watched with a certain vein of fascination as the left side of her brain shut down.  She reported that the right side of her brain (our creative hemisphere) “thinks in pictures, taking all of the sights and sounds and smells occurring for us right now and putting them together in a whole” (26).  On the other side, the side failing Taylor, is the left hemisphere, which is “linear and methodical” and thinking in language, not pictures –the left side says “I am” (27).  Descartes would agree with this left way of thinking, and as I reflected on this experience I thought of two separate poems and from which side of the brain they were theoretically written.  Take, for instance, William Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” which we all are familiar with but in case not, I’ve pasted it below:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This poem, it can be argued, was written totally from the right side of the brain.  There are only images here, and the reader does not “think” this poem through.  Instead, she visualizes it.  Being pretty balanced in my hemispheres (but a little heavier on the left), my left brain kicks in and wants to know more when I read this poem.  What depends on this wheelbarrow?  Why?  What is Williams saying to us?  If you are not sure which hemisphere is dominant for you, you can take this short test.

Because I lean to the left (in more ways than one), I have to admit I like the narrative more than solely imagistic or image driven poems.  Same for language poetry.  I like having fun with words, but I need something to grab onto and follow through with – I don’t want just a lot of fun sounds – another reason I’m a lover of stories and the narrative, which will never go away.  Think, for instance, of Frost’s “Mending Wall.”  While full of great images, they are images that fit the poem, and the poem itself is a mix of narrative and lyric.  Narrative because Frost is telling us a story about the wall between his property and his neighbor’s, but lyric because we are in the poet’s head, listening to his left brain try to work out what is the wall “walling or walling out.” 

So the point of my musings here?  I’m going to look at my poems with a new lens – from which side of the brain am I writing?  Do I have enough images?  If anything, my early drafts tend to lean to the left, waxing philosophical with words, as opposed to images.  I have to let my left brain quiet down and take a nap so that my right brain can “see” the appropriate images needed for my poems.  In Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates one of the theories about those of us who write is that we do so in the desire to guarantee eternal life…as artists we hope that our works outlive us…I have no such unrealistic hopes, I just know I have to write to get through life, and I’ll figure out Death when I get there.  ;.)  Happy writing.


2 thoughts on “Are You Alive or Dead, Right or Left?

  1. Thanks, Rosemary, for an essay that begins with a supposition, follows through with information, and ends with a laugh and a smile.


  2. Only recently have I realized that imaging is not the strong suit of some people. Like you, I enjoy narrative and some of my favs are Robert Frost’s poems – The Hired Man, for instance. But I like imagery in poetry and used in narrative as well.
    But a poem that is total imagery looses me, I’m afraid.


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