Can neuroscience help us understand what makes a good poem?

We’re fans of Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010)—not only because it offers a fascinating analysis of, and a clear warning about, our increasingly divided brains, but also because it contains lots of poetry. The best description of the book comes from the author himself, who says on his website ( that “this book argues that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values.” The right brain, McGilchrist goes on to say, is responsible for our ability to see things in their totality, to make metaphorical connections, to fuse ideas and disciplines (science and poetry, for example). The left brain, by contrast, enables us to arrange and organize given information. It sorts and counts, it manipulates and controls. The title of McGilchrist’s book implies a clear hierarchy, but he is quick to point out that both sides of the brain, operating in tandem, are necessary to living a full human existence. However, over the past five hundred years or so the left brain, or the “emissary,” has been gaining control over the right brain, which for our happiness—and perhaps for our very survival—must be the “master.” The Master and His Emissary is a compelling, disturbing book, and we thought it would be a good idea to have a poet, one who knows her way around the scientific material, to engage McGilchrist’s ideas specifically from the angle of poetry. The result is the exchange below. —The editors

ANGE MLINKO: I very much enjoyed reading The Master and His Emissary. I write short essay-reviews on language books for the Nation, so I am familiar with the popular work of linguists, neuroscientists, and psychologists who by definition were scientifically trained; that’s where their education began and ended. You’re different. You pursued a degree in medicine and psychiatry after teaching English literature at Oxford. If anybody has delved deeply into two different kinds of knowing, it’s you. The Master and His Emissary does more than acknowledge the difference and outright conflict between scientific method and humanistic tradition; it advocates for the embattled latter, by warning us that we are on a slippery slope toward an atomized, utilitarian culture in which intuition and feeling are suppressed, while the quantitative is valorized.

Or, if intuition and feeling cannot be suppressed, they are effectively isolated, not permitted to contribute to the public discourse. That is what I think has happened to poets (at least in the US), some of whom quietly resign themselves to their labeled bin, and some of whom are scrambling right now to reinvent poetry as a discourse as relevant to modern culture as Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde. But the fact remains: poets can’t be considered possessors or transmitters of “knowledge” because we as a society have decided that knowledge is quantifiable—but art is not. Art is precisely the experiment that can’t be reproduced under identical conditions.

In The Master and His Emissary, you give poets a shot in the arm: you argue, for instance, for the primacy of metaphor to our thinking, and you couch your entire argument in the title metaphor, borrowed from Nietzsche. Let me ask the obvious question: Did you have poets in mind as a potential audience for this book? Do you think poets have knowledge and should fight more vigorously for a place at the intellectual/cultural table?

And as a corollary, did you ever think of incorporating contemporary poets’ work on epistemology into your research? Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, which asks what the role of the senses has been in the creation and reception of poetry through history; Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost, which explores metaphors for value, economy, gain and loss in poetry; or Allen Grossman’s essays on the founding stories of poetry (Caedmon, Orpheus, Philomel). These are poets with profound things to say to the contemporary intellectual community and the culture at large, but they are ghettoized. What has to change?

IAIN MCGILCHRIST: I have to admit that I probably didn’t have poets in mind, partly because they already know that metaphor is the only way of understanding anything. Clearly, however, many people don’t. Some reviewers have assumed that when I speak of the division of the hemispheres as having both literal and metaphoric truth, the metaphoric being probably the more important, it means I don’t really believe what I am saying at the scientific level. Rather a waste of time, then, my backing the neuroscience argument with all that carefully documented research.

Of course I agree that poets have a form of knowledge that is hugely important, but, as you suggest, knowledge can never be inserted into other people in the way that data can be into a computer. If it’s knowledge, not information, that we want, we’ll have to keep struggling for it, and that means that those who purvey it have to wait to be heard. It is tempting to want to make poets more powerful, and give them voices at the table, but even if that could be achieved, which seems to me doubtful, I fear it would have the paradoxical effect of making them no longer poets. The debate round that table is explicit and conducted in prose; it is in the nature of poetry to be hidden—as perhaps is all truth. Both Heidegger and Heraclitus certainly thought so, and both were cryptic, content to acknowledge that their audience would be limited, and each of them, in the end, wrote a kind of poetry. We live in a society where the indirect, the difficult, the implicit are not valued. But is the answer to abandon them in favor of their opposites, in order to get a hearing? That seems to defeat the purpose. I can’t help thinking of Auden’s response to Shelly: “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” are not the poets, but the secret police.

I hope you won’t think that a rather defeatist position. I don’t see it as that at all. Subtlety and depth require tact, time, and sheer hard work, not likely to find favor in a culture that demands instant gratification, prefers the loud and the blatant over the quiet and tentative, and is impatient of the idea that nothing good is achieved without a battle. That’s not propitious for poetry, and it’s that we should hope to be able to change.

AM: I don’t at all think you’re being defeatist. I agree that it is in the nature of poetry to be hidden. It simply follows, for me, that if social conditions are less propitious for intuitive thinking, as your book argues, then they are correlatively less propitious for poetry.

I’d like to bracket that thought and ask you more about metaphor. You say that poets “already know that metaphor is the only way of understanding anything,” but in American poetry metaphor has actually become somewhat unfashionable. For example, there is a wicked moment at the end of August Kleinzahler’s poem, “The Old Poet, Dying.” A poet in his hospital bed asks the narrator about a certain “big shot”:

—You know that poem of his?
Everyone knows that poem
where he’s sitting indoors by the fire
and it’s snowing outside
and he suddenly feels a snowflake
on his wrist?
—That’s not going to be just any old snowflake,
now, is it?

This probably sums up the general attitude: metaphor is obvious, or precious, or merely ornamental. I’m also thinking of the avant-garde poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop, who recently made a distinction between poets of metaphor and poets of metonymy, metonymy being the more progressive. I thought I might run a couple of widely anthologized poems by you, one metaphorical and one metonymic. I know you like Philip Larkin, so I’m guessing you already know this poem, “The Trees”:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

This to me is a metaphorical poem rooted firmly in the English tradition; I loved it when I first read it many years ago. Now here is another poem I love, John Ashbery’s “Some Trees”:

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

Here you can see the effect depends more on contiguity than simple one-to-one correspondence between vehicle and tenor.

So, as I say, recent American poetry is more indebted to the latter poem than the former. And I have to admit, I think the latter poem makes more demands on capacities you associate with right-hemisphere activity: it demands more frame shifts and readiness for new experience (from line to line, only the rhymes set up and fulfill expectation; the sense is never anticipated). Our assumptions are continually revised. On the other hand, the poem is largely decontextualized and impersonal, so you might see it as appealing to a more left-brained Modernist?

The Larkin poem, it seems to me, depends on capacities you determined are left-brain. It is unswervingly focused on its metaphor. It sticks to a metrical grid. It is logically sequenced and it basically reiterates ancient wisdom equating spring with resurrection. We’ve seen this message before, in other words.

I’m not denying that the poem is masterful, and pleasurable, any more than I would deny that the Ashbery poem is more difficult, precarious, and less “sticky.” But within the framework of right and left brain, which you established, the Modernist poem seems to stay a couple steps ahead of us, teasing us with intuitive possibility, whereas the traditional metaphoric poem paraphrases information we already have.

I suppose I wonder what conclusions you, a critic of Modernism, might draw from this. I wonder also if the conventional wisdom—that poets have not kept up with science—is precisely backwards, and it is science that has not kept up with poets. That is, I don’t think neuroimaging can tell us as much about our genius for elasticity, for associations, as “Some Trees.”

I’m interested to hear your opinion because I was genuinely shocked at your critique of Modernist painting—even Matisse, whom I think of as so joyful, is rebuked for the flattened perspective. I admit, your argument made me examine my own fetishization of this era, and wonder if it’s a symptom of my capitulation to the “disenchanted world.”

IM: It was the Enlightenment that first thought metaphor “obvious, or precious, or merely ornamental”—and, as I say in my book, I believe that is an inevitable consequence of the left hemisphere’s view of language. Kleinzahler’s poem is terrific, and very funny, but the derided image only succeeded in reminding me of that devastating scene at the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which uses just such a metaphor with enormous power: Kris returns to his father’s dacha and, unseen by the old man, looks in from the rain through the window, only to see the old man stooping over a table on which he is sorting photographs, smoking raindrops inexplicably falling, too, on the back of his father’s jacket.

The right hemisphere is not just better at understanding metaphor in the strictest sense, but at making unusual connections, and therefore at any non-literal use of language. I don’t think we need to get hung up on that: metonymy is also going to be a right-hemisphere function—indeed my thesis is that poetry is nothing if not a recruitment of the right hemisphere. So the “metaphor versus metonymy” debate may be interesting in itself, but does not impinge on the hemisphere question. Incidentally, why does there have to be an either/or—shades of the left hemisphere!—to it? Can’t we go with both?

About the two poems, both excellent in their way, I’d disagree. You have chosen a particularly simple poem of Larkin’s, possibly his simplest. Another famous poem about spring uses metaphor in a more oblique and, I think, if possible, still more powerful way:

On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon—
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing

But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.
      —From “Coming”

Here the intimations of recovery and forgiveness, coming out of suffering and desolation, and also of a deep bareness out of which something unimaginably rich is to come—for a while—are subtle and complex. But “The Trees” is itself far richer and more subversive than you make it seem. In fact it inverts what we thought we knew. It does not reiterate “ancient wisdom equating spring with resurrection,” but introduces the opposite, setting up a fatal counterpoint of permanence with impermanence, of renewal with decay. Trees in spring, it turns out, speak to us of aging and death, and “their greenness is a kind of grief,” a line so wonderfully right, once it is said, that one scarcely notices its reversal of received truth. They only “seem to say” that we can begin afresh: theirs is a “yearly trick,” since, though enacting renewal, they are actually dying, like us. Incidentally, the closeness of spring to grief is a deep perception: the peak of suicide is not in the winter, as one might expect, but in the spring.

In any case a metaphor does not have to be new: in fact the best ones never can be. They are like the language of love, as old as the hills and yet fresh with every new lover. The trick of the poet is to make what seemed feeble, old, dead come back to life. True metaphor is a union like love; perhaps, to use another old metaphor:

                        a durable fire
    In the mind ever burning;
Never sick, never old, never dead,
    From itself never turning.
           —From “ Pilgrim to Pilgrim,” by Sir Walter Ralegh

And I could not agree less that having a clear metrical pattern and rhyme scheme is limiting, or tends to suggest the left hemisphere’s attitude to language. They are the condition of all music and dance, the right hemisphere’s domain, and when we decide to dispense with them, we take a knowing risk. Here the resigned simplicity of the regular meter emphasizes the inevitability of its subject. Compare Housman’s:

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
    Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
    And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
    If they are mine or no.
           —From Last Poems

Or Johnson’s:

Condemn’d to Hope’s delusive mine,
    As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blast or slow decline
    Our social comforts drop away.
                     —From “On the Death of Mr. Robert Levet, a Practiser in Physic”

The Ashbery is a great poem, too, but just because it takes more working out exactly what is being said, it seems to me the less powerful of the two. The last line, “these accents seem their own defense,” although suggestively self-referring, is so far from transparent that it makes us scratch our heads at the very moment when the poet needs to carry us with him. There is a tension between what has to engage our conscious debating minds and what must carry us into a realm beyond any such ratiocination. An excessive fear of being direct, and the worship of the difficult, endemic in Modernism, threaten at times to undermine the direction that poetry inevitably takes, away from what we have to “work out” for ourselves toward what we thought we knew already, but in fact never understood. In poetry, being simple takes more skill than being difficult. It comes back to a fundamental distinction between newness and novelty which I make repeatedly in The Master and His Emissary: poetry need not seek novelty, because true poetry makes what had seemed familiar new.

As to my critique of Modernism, I hoped I had made it clear that I consider poetry, along with film and jazz, to be one of its great triumphs. And I too enjoy Matisse, but introduced him to make the point about the deeper meaning of the loss of perspective—not just the old chestnut about there being no privileged point of view any more, but the way loss of perspective destroys depth, and therefore to a large extent our felt connectedness with what it is we are viewing.

AM: The problem here, Iain, is that I make a terrible spokesperson for the idea that metaphor is passé. Of course I don’t believe we have to choose between metaphor and metonymy; of course Larkin’s poem actually inverts the cliches of spring within that disarmingly simple song structure. But Waldrop’s distinction certainly holds true for American poets in search of the poetry of the future. And if Larkin’s poem successfully deploys a metaphor to hold two opposing ideas aloft, I see American poets trying to find a way to hold a multitude of indeterminacies aloft. Certainly these poets seek a freedom that includes the freedom to fail (which remains a possibility whether one accepts or rejects tradition!).

Carol Swensen’s introduction to American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry quotes Paul Auster’s observation that “most twentieth-century American poets took their cue either from the British poetic tradition or from the French.” If Swensen’s anthology is the new mainstream, then Rimbaud’s “We must be absolutely modern” and his “willful derangement of the senses” has prevailed over the poets that created continuity with the British tradition, like Frost (who, like Emily Dickinson, saw metaphor-making as a primary task). A typical poem in the anthology might elicit the same skepticism that prompted you to say of Ashbery’s poem, “There is a tension between what has to engage our conscious debating minds and what must carry us into a realm beyond any such ratiocination.” It’s tempting therefore to suggest that French-inflected American poetry needs more ratiocination, not less. But also, if this is the period style, it must say something about the period: perhaps that the disenchanted world provokes an over-aphasic poetry in reaction.

Regarding meter: I wasn’t suggesting that “having a clear metrical pattern and rhyme scheme is limiting”—I was merely referring to your book, since on page seventy-four you say, “discriminating rhythm patterns activates broadly distributed networks in temporal, inferior parietal and prefrontal cortex almost exclusively in the right hemisphere. However, some basic, metrical rhythms are mediated by the left hemisphere, particularly by Broca’s area.” (The italics are mine.) I interpreted this to mean that the anchoring effect of meter gives a kind of pragmatic left-brain armature to a poem. This is not, by my lights, a bad thing. On the other hand, I agree it would be overdetermining things to go down a list of poetic devices and assign them a right-brain or a left-brain value.

I know that certain writers—Ian McEwan and Richard Powers come to mind—incorporate science into their work and find it liberating that brain research gives us useful empirical knowledge about literary devices and their efficacy. Other writers, like Marilyn Robinson, inveigh against scientism for undermining the authority that individuals have over their own experience, let alone the authority that artists have over their own art. You caution your readers that neuroimaging is “not as precise a science as it may appear,” explaining for instance that current FMRI methods can’t distinguish inhibitory from activating events in the brain. Or that, in fact, less brain activity registers in areas where we have the most expertise: “For example, people with higher IQs have lower cerebral metabolic rates during mentally active conditions.” So given the fact that we’re absorbing these things secondhand, and from unreliable sources, what indeed is the stance poets should take toward research reported in the press? To evoke your own term, what disposition should we have toward a discipline that seems to confirm some intuitions we have, but perhaps not others? I love that you argue that, Saussure notwithstanding, not all musical and linguistic associations are arbitrary and conventional. The minor key really is sad; there is a biological underpinning to syntax. But by accepting closure on such debates, does the poet risk becoming a mere emissary to the scientific masters? And by doing so, aren’t we giving up that “freedom to fail” which gives the artist a sense of her own autonomy, not to mention the thrill of risk-taking?

IM: That’s a really interesting point. I am not impressed by the trend towards neuroscience in the modern novel—it seems to me bound up with a sense of inferiority, as though, despite the bravado, we accept that our realities are only playacting, while the scientists know what’s really going on. It reminds me a bit of colonial subjects in the bad old days, dressing like the Brits in order to be taken seriously. How it messed up the study of literature, all those university departments that had to prove they were doing something difficult and serious, a form of science! We badly need an antidote to this culture: we should not be concerned with proving ourselves clever, but rejoicing in doing something science could never do on its own, understanding and celebrating experience—otherwise known as life. Poets and all artists take the inside view: as I say in the book, the brain is just the view from the outside. It’s not more real.

But that is different from denying the way in which we are to a large extent determined by things outside our consciousness and outside our control. It starts with being alive at all, and ends with the inevitability of death, and covers most of what goes on between. We are obsessed with self-determination, but freedom is, of course, paradoxical. I love, like you, the fact that there are givens, that we can’t make the world any way we want. How lonely that would be—in fact it would be precisely the left hemisphere’s world, one entirely made by ourselves, shiny, clean, without friction or contradiction. It is the postmodern predicament: nothing really exists because we made it all up ourselves.

For me, though, everything depends on the reciprocal relationship between our minds and the relatively independent world beyond them. The solidifying of spirit into matter, the business of incarnation, provides the necessary resistance without which nothing could move, or change, or have any meaning. I was thinking of that absolutely extraordinary and puzzling moment toward the end of Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” where he describes the “halcyon,” the kingfisher—do you have them in America?—little bright blue and orange birds, very shy and immensely fast, which live in the river banks; and he says:

So when the shadows laid asleep
From underneath these banks do creep,
And on the river as it flows
With eben shuts begin to close;
The modest halcyon comes in sight,
Flying betwixt the day and night;
And such an horror calm and dumb,
Admiring Nature does benumb.

The viscous air, wheres’e’er she fly,
Follows and sucks her azure dye;
The jellying stream compacts below,
If it might fix her shadow so;
The stupid fishes hang, as plain
As flies in crystal overta’en;
And men the silent scene assist,
Charmed with the sapphire-wingèd mist.

The strange idea (intensified by the talk of “horror calm and dumb”) that the world becomes thickened, resistant, gloopy, and fixed, contrasting with this little swiftly darting flash of brilliance speaks of the nature of incarnate life, and I wonder if Lawrence had it in mind when he wrote those wonderful lines about the primeval forests:

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast succulent stems.
              —From “Humming-Bird”

Actually, I think Lawrence’s lines are even greater. The movement of those last two lines is itself the best expression of what it describes, the tension between life and the resistance to life that makes creation possible, and I often mutter them to myself for the sheer pleasure of it, especially if I am lucky enough to see a bird flashing through the gunnera—like soul and body, each as awe-inspiring as the other.

AM: Thank you, Iain. Just one more question: given your passion and knowledge of the field, have you considered writing a book on poetry? (I think there should be more books about poetry that take “the inside view,” as you put it.) In any case, knowing that there are readers of poetry like you out in the world raises the bar for this poet.

IM: Well, Ange, that is a lovely thing to say. Certainly I am passionate about poetry, but I never really know whether I have anything to say about it. I did once try—in a book called Against Criticism, which nonetheless was a book of criticism—my belief being that talking about poetry can work only by sleight of hand, in a paradoxical fashion, almost working “against” itself (hence the title). It has to avail itself of the right hemisphere’s understanding of the paramount importance of the oblique and the implicit. Perhaps to revisit Auden’s remark about Shelley, critics should be more like secret agents, even if poets should not be like the secret police. And if they have to smuggle their perceptions into our minds, are they really very different from poets, who also have to smuggle in their jewels by distracting the officers of the left hemisphere, our busy everyday minds? Here’s to subversion, and here’s to poetry!

— © Ange Mlinko & Iain McGilchrist, Poetry Magazine, October 1st, 2010
Ange Mlinko is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010), a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award; Starred Wire (2005), which was a National Poetry Series winner in 2004 and a finalist for the James Laughlin Award; and Matinees (1999). Her poems are about urban life, about language and its failings, about the things we see and do not see.

Iain McGilchrist is a Quondam Fell of All Souls College, Oxford, where he researched and taught English literature, and a former consultant psychiatrist and clinical director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudley Hospital, London.