• Judith Bishop

Lyric poetry is an affective art: it engages with emotional experience, and seeks to communicate an experience to others, through the deft use of all the technical means available to the poet. The peculiar agency of the lyric poem has been formulated in myriad ways over time by poets and philosophers alike. This essay proposes that recent philosophical, neuroscientific and psychotherapeutic research into the nature and experience of resonance and attunement provides a way of understanding the specifically emotional effects of a lyric poem on a reader.

Keywords: Poetry – Lyric – Music – Neurobiology – Neurophenomenology – Neuroscience – Affective – Emotion – Psychotherapy – Philosophy – Resonance – Attunement

Lyric poetry is an affective art: it engages with emotional experience, and seeks to communicate an experience to others, through the deft use of all the technical means available to the poet. The peculiar agency of the lyric poem has been formulated in myriad ways over time by poets and philosophers alike. John Hollander cites Pseudo-Longinus on this effect: ‘by the blending of its own manifold tones it brings into the hearts of the bystanders the speaker’s actual emotion…’ (Hollander 1985: 7). The New Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics (1993: 713) defines the lyric poem as one in which musical elements, perceptions and the intent to communicate emotion and thought are brought together indivisibly in the fabric of the poem:

[t]he musical element is intrinsic to the work intellectually as well as aesthetically: it becomes the focal point for the poet’s perceptions as they are given a verbalized form to convey emotional and rational values.

This essay proposes that recent philosophical, neuroscientific and psychotherapeutic research into the nature and experience of resonance and attunement provides a way of understanding the specifically emotional effects of a lyric poem on a reader. The phenomena of resonance and attunement, newly understood, have also begun to clarify the interpersonal nature of the space such poetry inhabits.

Resonance and attunement are, essentially, sonic metaphors for harmonisation at a distance: effects produced by one body and received by another. That these metaphors are widely applied to emotions, and our relation to other minds, cannot go without remark, for even neuroscience has recourse to these tropes in describing its findings. As I will suggest, these two sonic metaphors tell us something about our inner, embodied experience of meeting each other through the medium of language.

Significant attention has been paid in recent times to how the elements of music may translate into emotional effects on a listener (see, e.g. Gomez and Danuser, 2007; and Young, 2012, for a summary of relevant work by Stephen Davies and Peter Kivy). Certain of these elements have analogues in poetry. A stanza in poetry may be coherent in its meaning in a similar way to a section in music. Transitions between stanzas and sections (in and out) may elicit an emotional response from the listener or reader. The notion of accent – a sharper emphasis given to a note, often marked in musical notation – has a strong correlate in linguistic and metrical stress. An example is the emphasis that is felt on a word placed in line-initial position when the word carries stress, especially when that stress immediately follows another. Listen, for example, to the word ‘Human’ in the opening of WH Auden’s ‘Lullaby’. The stress on ‘love’ is immediately followed by another on ‘Human’. These two adjacent stresses violate the expectations set by the trochaic metre established in the first line, if we discount (as I do) the silent beat that may be heard after ‘love’:

   /                /           /                /   

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

    /                      /            /
Human on my faithless arm;

As I will suggest when I come to discuss particular poems, other musical notions, such as dynamics (changes in intensity), timbre and phrasing may also have correlates in the structures of poetry. Such correlates can, and do, have emotional resonance, in poems as in music.

Recent neuroscience has brought about a revolution in our understanding of resonance, attunement and their relationship to the perceptual work of mirror neurons. Research conducted by the literary theorist Paul Armstrong is helpful in understanding some of the relevant applications of these neuroscientific developments to literature. Armstrong’s book How literature plays with the brain (2013) is a key text in this area – authoritative in its presentation of evidence from neuroscience about the mechanisms of reading and interpretation and aesthetic responses to harmony and dissonance, yet clear-sighted and delicate in its handling of the ambiguities that remain.

Another relevant strand of research, conducted by the neuroscientist and psychotherapist Daniel Siegel, relates to our internal experience of emotion and attunement. Daniel Siegel refers to the perception of our own inner states as ‘interoception’ (2007: 42; 2010: 112). The poet, in writing, chooses – or is chosen by – multiple dimensions of language – auditory, visual and kinaesthetic – in trying to reproduce the percepts she holds in her mind and body. The reader – bringing to the task her memory, experience, perceptual and emotional sensitivities – hears, sees and feels these elements of the poem. Using her own interoception, she perceives the internal signs of her emotion in response to what she reads.

Understanding her own response as a partial reflection or echo (re-sonance) of the inward perceptions of the poet, the reader may begin to feel attuned to the poet. The process of emotional and perceptual attunement is described by Siegel in the context of non-textual relationships (Siegel 2010: 60-63). A key thesis of this essay, explored further below, is that this concept naturally extends to the relationship that develops between the reader and the writer of a poem. The reader’s sense of attunement both realises and reinforces the relationship that resonance has created between their bodies: the verbal trace of one body, the poet’s, and the reader’s own, harmonised for the time of the reading and beyond. This attunement remains for however long the memory of reading and re-reading the poem lasts – even for a lifetime, it may be.

Resonance and attunement in philosophy: action at a distance
The philosopher Timothy Morton opens his book Realist magic: objects, ontology, causation (2013) with a song. It is a hip-hop song from the early 1990s, PM Dawn’s ‘Set adrift on memory bliss’. He remembers hearing it on constant replay, emanating from his brother’s room as schizophrenia took over his brother’s mind. A patchwork of sources, the song is, for Morton, an anthem to the experience of loss and trace. Art, he writes, is ‘a tuning’ to traces produced by actions and interactions. The song, with its charged effects on the listener, is also a paradigm of ‘action at a distance’: ‘no object truly contacts another one. They really only share what [Graham] Harman calls their ‘notes’.’ (Morton 2013: 23). Songs, poems and all other things in existence ‘interact in a sensual ether that is (at least to some extent) nonlocal and nontemporal.’ (Morton 2013: 20; original emphasis) In other words, what we receive from other objects, other existences, is only their phenomenal trace (the ding an sich exists, says Morton, but exists beyond our ken). Yet these ‘aesthetic’ traces, as Morton calls them, act powerfully on us. Art, including poetry, matters because it explores the complex web of causality (creation of traces), and attunement to traces, that constitutes reality (Morton 2013: 20, 22).

Morton finds support for his vision in a citation from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘As kingfishers catch fire’, in which Hopkins describes the way that each object sings out, thus projecting what it is. Hidden in the wings of this vision is the receiver of the song – the one who, in listening, attunes to the being of the singer(s). In the lines below, bell, string, stone and poet all sing of their existence (Morton 2013: 26):

like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells …

Morton’s primary concern is to elucidate an ontology that uncouples human existence from its historic centrality in discussions of the nature of being. As a human art, poetry primarily addresses the kinds of object traces we, as human beings, apprehend. And yet, as the metaphors of resonance and attunement imply – and the Hopkins poem that Morton cites – it is possible for us to feel, imaginatively, something of what it is like to exist as a bell, or a stone, colliding with the sides of a well on its way down to the water: ‘As tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring’ (Morton 2013: 26).

Morton refers in passing to mirror neurons as exemplifying the reality of the ‘action at a distance’ performed by these traces (Morton 2013: 21). The fact that we, and other creatures, can perceive an intended action as such, even when the action is not fully observed (and reflect in ourselves the full, intended action), gave rise to the study of this class of neurons and their relationship to empathy (Siegel 2010: 59). The initial focus of these studies was human intentional acts. But the mirroring effect, as Morton conveys very clearly in his book, does not stop with human, nor intentional, action. When a stone tumbles, it has no intention, yet something in me echoes, and traces, the movement of that stone. Not only that, but I feel this same reflection of its motion when I read the line above. My brain, and its nerve extensions in my body, respond to the idea of tumbling not only visually but viscerally, with something of the same intensity of ‘feeling-with’ that they bring to perceiving the actual falling of the stone. More attenuated yet, but present in my perception, is what it feels like in my body when I, myself, fall.

Reading in the mode of ‘as if’
Drawing on the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Paul Armstrong describes the ‘“as if” dimension’ of the emotions excited by a work of literature in this manner: ‘The pretense of the ‘as if’ ... distinguish[es] re-enacted emotion from the real thing, but the ‘as if’ of aesthetic emotions also draws on lived, embodied experience and re-creates it.’ (Armstrong 2013: 17; see also 125) The relationship established by neuroscience between the emotions elicited by a work, and the creator’s ‘embodied experience’, is most relevant here. In the original, the embodied experience is the artist’s, or writer’s; but it can also be reflected in the reader’s experience, in the mode of ‘as if’.

The brain’s response to formal structure is also important. The reader, reading in the mode of ‘as if’, encounters structures in the text that were composed by the writer. Intentional changes in structure, set against a backdrop of established expectations, can have a real emotional impact. Armstrong cites image processing research that shows ‘the most information in an image is in its discontinuities’ (Armstrong 2013: 66). The principle is a general one, Armstrong demonstrates, relating to the brain’s processing of pattern and information. The brain, as a synthesising system, is optimised for taking in perceptual information from multiple, unstable sources, and producing the coherent experience we know as consciousness. This means, nonetheless, that transitions and disjunctions in structure and pattern tend to attract our attention and interest (Armstrong 2013: 86-87). They demand, in a sense, that we reckon with them, as the brain tries and tries again to integrate its world.

There are many ways that such breaks can occur in the short space of a lyric poem. They can carry emotional weight, as well as perceptual weight, keying in, as they do, to the way the brain makes sense of the world. We saw one instance – a resonant break in metre – in the Auden poem above. Surprise, as Jane Hirshfield has written, is ‘the emotion by which we register shifted knowledge, in a poem, in a life.’ (Hirshfield 2015, ch 7, loc 2196). Surprise is, essentially, new information that does not fit with what the brain has known to date, and with which it has to grapple (Armstrong 2013: 86). The impact of surprise comes from the deep roots of the brain, as neuroscientists describe them, in pattern and exception – roots which are anchored in the brain stem and amygdala’s base emotional responses, because once they were intrinsic to survival (imagine the joy of finding honey in a tree, the fear of being taken unawares by a lion) (Armstrong, 2013: 120-121).

Propagating, as it were, from experience’s roots to the tips of its leaves, the fine-grained pleasure and surprise of the turn of a line, the reversal of a metrical foot, a change in emotional key from one stanza to the next, or even, the simple ending of a sentence that has continued over several lines till now, and suddenly, is done – these structural breaks are experienced first by the poet, and may again resonate for the reader, whose brain comes to them anew, as discontinuities that may trouble, delight, or just be visible as such.

Resonance and attunement as interoceptive metaphors
The neurobiological understanding of visceral emotion as a kind of information passed between the brain and body is deeply illuminating and relevant here. Siegel’s notion of interoception opens a way to understand many of our daily metaphors relating to experiences of emotion:

We have these parallel processors ... in our intestines and also around our heart. So the heartfelt feelings that we have are not just poetic metaphors of the ‘gut instinct’ and ‘heartfelt feelings’ but instead are really sophisticated processors ... [I]t is a very important way in which our whole being is processing information … The information processors of the internal organs, called viscera, process information and send signals from the body [to the brain] (Siegel: 2016).

Such metaphors abound, of course. Siegel singles out ‘heartfelt feelings’ and ‘gut instinct’ as two that represent key areas of visceral processing in the body, in the regions of the heart and intestine. But there are so many of these tropes. When we say we feel ‘gutted’, ‘hollow’, ‘empty’, ‘heartbroken’, or conversely, as though our heart ‘might burst’ or ‘overflow’ with joy, we are conveying the sensations of internal pain and tension, or excitation and release, that interoception gives to our consciousness. In a cyclical movement, emotion is conveyed, through the visceral organs, to our conscious awareness; we then interpret these sensations in our bodies as emotion, creating a feedback loop that may intensify experiences of pleasure or pain (Siegel: 2016).

Not only those mentioned, but other tropes, too, may be understood in this way. Take the figures of speech ‘it struck a chord’ and ‘it resonated with me’. Surely there is a very delicate feeling we associate with resonance (which is also, here, a consonance or sounding-with). It is a feeling akin to strings singing together, as if harmonics were amplified in our bodies by meeting with a similar sound. It may be that the sensation of resonance is correlated with many, many neurons – as a complex sound is many, many frequencies – responding to an experience by releasing their infinitesimal bursts of electric energy in concert.

Recent fMRI evidence indicates that brain wave re-harmonisation and consonance (a situation where the frequencies of the brain’s electrical waves reinforce and amplify, rather than interfere with, or cancel out, each other) occur in healthy brains following disruption by a momentary stimulus (Lloyd 2013: 334). It is not difficult to imagine such brain consonance being heightened in situations that are consciously experienced as resonant, particularly those in which attunement reinforces resonance. Conversely, in schizophrenic brains, the waves are markedly more dissonant, irrespective of the presence or absence of a stimulus. (Lloyd 2013: 334-5) (It may be that Morton’s brother, in replaying that track, was trying in some manner to bring his brain back into concert, and consonance, with itself.) Speculative as this is, it seems to me that we have, somehow, attuned to this micro-sensation of physical resonance in our brains and bodies, and coined these metaphors to express, and keep expressing, it through time.

Resonance and attunement as empathic awareness
Daniel Siegel’s interpersonal neurobiology, cited above, elaborates the implications of attunement for human interactions, in psychotherapy and daily life (Siegel 2007 and 2010). Empathy, he proposes, is deeply connected with the capacity for interoception, this inner perception that includes the visceral signals of emotion:

The mirror neuron system and related regions’ creation of emotional resonance shifts the limbic and bodily states so that the prefrontal region can reflect on those changes and create compassionate (feeling with another) and empathic (understanding another) responses. When we sense that resonance, when we become aware of being attuned, there may be the eighth sense ... in which we feel the state of our relational resonance. (Siegel, 2007: 169)

The work of mirror neurons and other brain structures means that we, as readers, may, however imperfectly, reflect within ourselves another’s way of thinking and feeling, their situation and response. The lyric poem becomes a medium for empathic awareness, helping to explore and extend our own sensations and emotions through the mode of perceiving ‘as if’ we were the poet. At the same time, the reader is aware of another person whose body has written these words: whose body the words have moved, and moved through. Feeling the words ‘as if’ she was their author, while knowing that the author is, or was, another being, the reader may experience the state of ‘relational resonance’ Siegel describes with such acuity and concision (2007: 169). She has a sense of attunement to the poet’s feeling.

Reading poetry in action
These insights can be used to illuminate the wild and lovely agency of poems. Because our subject is the embodied nature of the interpersonal space that poems inhabit, it is only by reading poems that we can grasp – through our bodies – the subtle effects of resonance and attunement as they operate in this art. Therefore in the second half of this essay I will take as examples poems that I, as a poet and personally, find strongly resonant – while acknowledging that they will not be so for all readers. Variable aesthetic responses are part of our human situation, arising from our different histories of experience and inheritance; histories with their basis in, among other things, ‘the contingent, variable interactions of the brain with its environment of significant others,       starting with parents but extending to the far reaches of culture and society’. (Armstrong, 2013: 131) Seen in another way, this variability means that ‘One [poem] … can be attended to, attuned to, in different ways that bring out strange hidden properties of that [poem].’ (to modify Morton 2013: 23, who uses the word ‘object’ where I have substituted ‘poem’).

Here, then, is the opening of a well-known poem:

A card comes to tell you
you should report
to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire
and the only tears, which soon dried,
fell in the chapel. 
                     (Peter Porter, ‘Non Piangere, Liù’)

An intricate structure of time and emotion is built in the space of six lines. There is an ordinary event (‘A card comes to tell you’) juxtaposed with an extraordinary one (‘your eyes melted in the fire’). The disjunction between the two is emotionally disturbing. Structurally, each of the events occupies the visual space of a stanza. Each is a coherent triad of lines with its own brief beginning, middle and end. A short period of time is described in brutal terms: ‘the only tears, which soon dried, / fell in the chapel’. No tears came later, says the poem, and those at the funeral, ‘soon dried’. This opening, with its powerful concision and abruptness, elicits a mix of feelings I recognise as shock and fear. Mild versions, to be sure, but strong enough to linger – strong enough, even, to alter my mood, and to make me reflect on the way I would wish to be remembered and mourned by those I will leave behind. Here the poem acts ‘at a distance’ on my emotions.

Each of the four further stanzas of this poem is a self-contained moment in the unfolding of this drama, and each of the stanzas has its own emotional tenor. As if stepping from stone to stone, the reader moves, jerkily, in time with the poet, from emotion to emotion. First, to a bitter assessment of the poor returns for a ‘life spent / in the service of reality’ (in a stanza that notably breaks with the previous triads: bloated with realia, it fills five lines). Next, to the poet’s recognition that not ‘one drop / of succour’ will be given by the deceased; then, to a delusional attempt at self-comfort: ‘the whole thing is a comedy / and comedies end happily’. Finally, the poet faces the future directly in a forceful couplet, whose structure of opening event and closing response firmly shuts the poem down: ‘The fire will come out of the sun / and I shall look in the heart of it’.

Speaking of actions represented on the page, Armstrong writes: ‘Because the action embedded in language resonates with our motor capacities, it … sets in motion in the reader a stimulating response as if these actions were original.’ (2013: 155). The reader of this poem, having passed through phases of bitterness, recognition and delusion, herself feels the poet’s final strength and resolve: she herself looks ‘in the heart of [the fire]’.

As a nonhuman agent, to use Morton’s words, this poem affects me deeply – I am not the same for having read it. The poem remains in my mind, coming up whenever it is triggered by a thought or event. Maximilian de Gaynesford, writing about the nexus of poetry and philosophy, says: ‘it is … plausible to think that the deed corresponding to the action named in the verse is done, not once in the spatio-temporal location of its initial production, but on as many occasions and in as many locations as there are repetitions of the utterance.’ This is a consideration ‘that poets may seek to build into the reception of their poetry.’ (Gaynesford 2017: 104-5)

A very different poem, though touching on the same subject, is Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s ‘Starlight Express’. The final half of the poem reads:

… thin bright stars
                             in their savage beauty
whisper secretly
                              ‘You must die.
You know that.
                             You have to die.’
I know it, I riposte
but please do not let them
                             burn my body.
A moment of pure silence
                             grips all nature
like the scepticism
                             of angels.

The split lineation, maintained throughout the poem, is richly ambiguous, echoing the ‘swash and drag / of immemorial surf’ from earlier in the poem, the tick-tock of the ‘clock all bustle’ and/or the repartee of dialogue – this urgent and frank exchange between stars and man that breaks out all of a sudden, as if it cannot be contained. When ‘reality’s near edge’ is lifted, death is what appears, as if reality was all that papered over death’s presence – and imperfectly at that, as the poem makes clear.

The disposition of these lines on the page speaks, in a richly abstract way, of repetition, division and response. At a similar level of abstraction, certain musical structures build in temporal dividedness and overlap: the phasing of a piano’s bass and treble clefs, say, or the layering of musical phrases in orchestration, analogous to voices heard speaking together, in harmony, opposition, or simply in concert.

The response to Wallace-Crabbe’s riposte is a silence that ‘grips all nature’. There are certain words, like ‘grip’, that enact a kind of haptic onomatopoeia. Locked between the closure of a ‘g’ sound produced at the back of the tongue and the closure of a ‘p’ sound produced at the lips, with the rasp of the ‘r’ sliding into the close vowel ‘i’, this sequence of sounds seems almost to enact a gesture that clenches on itself. Neuroscience has shown that ‘while listening to other people talk, listeners mirror the speaker with their tongues’ (Armstrong, 2013: 152, citing neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni (2008, 104)). When we read or think silently, just as when we hear others, neural circuits are active for the sounds we do not make. We feel the sounds in silence.

Consider further the sonic and semantic precision and acuity of ‘grip’. We can imagine substituting, say, the word ‘clasp’. Both in sound and in our mouth, ‘clasp’ doesn’t have the textural sensation introduced by the ‘r’ of ‘grip’. What in music would be called the timbre of the sonic gesture isn’t right with ‘clasp’: the less turbulent sound of the liquid ‘l’, the longer duration of the vowel ‘a’, make this word too smooth. Semantically, also, though a gesture of taking hold is present in both words, only ‘grip’ speaks of tightness and tension. And the element of tension is essential to the emotion that the word ‘grip’ communicates to my body.

Related to its onomatopoeic dimension, ‘grip’, like other words referring to bodily actions, triggers in us a neurological re-enactment of the physical act. In reading such a word, both the articulatory and acoustic areas of the brain corresponding to the sounds’ production, and the proprioceptive areas corresponding to the hand’s motion are activated, as Armstrong explains, citing Marco Iacoboni (Iacoboni, 2008: 104, cited in Armstrong, 2013: 152-3). It is ‘as if’ my body were speaking the word, and ‘as if’ it were making the gesture (even though it is the silence that grips: we feel with the silence, as we felt with Hopkins’ stone). The integrative power of a single word can be glimpsed in such an example: here we have emotion, gesture and sound in a richly complex fabric, one element in a dense and elaborate verbal structure containing many others of comparable richness. This is the sonic and gestural compression to which lyric poems aspire.

Finally, I note that Wallace-Crabbe does not write – as he might have done, given these sensations – ‘grips me’. No – he writes ‘grips all nature’. The compass of this feeling is extended to the farthest reaches of the phenomenal world. Even though it is experienced ‘as if’ by one person – the reader (and originally, I would suggest, Wallace-Crabbe) – what we might call the amplitude of the gesture is turned up to its highest notch. Being alive, the poem says, means the world to us: we whose consciousness cannot help but be the centre of our own projected world. No smaller extent of the gesture would capture the grave totality of the loss of embodied existence, as it appears to the poet’s emotions. Emily Dickinson enacted a similar amplification when she wrote the famous lines: ‘Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell.’ (‘My life closed twice before its close’)

Another poem confronting death is Maggie Smith’s ‘Let’s not begin’. These lines are from the middle of the poem:

Worry and console, worry
and console: it’s how I stay

in shape. See, I’m sweating.
Some nights my daughter cries,

I don’t want to be in the dirt,
and this is what I call a workout.

My heart’s galloping hell
and gone from the paddock –

I don’t want to be in the dirt
because I’ll miss you –

and there’s no stopping me.

The physical metaphor of the workout is threaded through the poem as a way of giving voice to the physiological effects of severe maternal anxiety – whose adrenaline-pumping toll on the body is familiar enough to make reading this poem itself a visceral experience. The metaphor merges at one point with a spooked horse. This merger is made possible and seamless through a point of convergence in the embodied effects of panic – the racing heart and urge to escape that the horse and the speaker of the poem both feel (the ‘flight’ in the so-called ‘fight or flight’ adrenal response) – and the reader, too, in her ‘as if’ mode of experience.

Beyond the images, there is something else at work here, technically: what in music theory would be called the dynamics. The lines cited here begin at mezzo-forte in emotional terms – strong, but not very. They quickly progress to forte from ‘Some nights my daughter cries’ and careen into fortissimo in ‘My heart’s galloping hell’ and remain so for the four lines that follow, ‘because I’ll miss you’ turning up the mother’s emotional stress and intensity to maximum volume. Research has shown a correlation between the intensity of a sound, and high-arousal emotions, such as anger or fear (Gomez and Danuser, 2007: 382). Conversely, varying the intensity of high-arousal emotions can be an element of poetic composition with its analogue in sound.

The phrasing, too, changes in this poem: the section starts with phrases that vary from one to three lines in duration. But the sentence beginning ‘My heart’ spans five lines, and the syntax, the hyphens, and italicised citation in these five lines echo the swerving motion of a panicked lack of containment: a panic I experience, in the mode of ‘as if’, in my reading of the poem.

My final example comes from Jane Hirshfield, a poet whose deep empathy with other beings is evident throughout her body of work. The poem, ‘Love amid owl cries’ is small, and quiet. Here it is in full:

It is not

the altar that matters,
not that,
nor the shape
that is found there.
The ghostly ideas
come and go, one after another.
But the place endures.
The fact that there is a door.

The movement of the phrases is thoughtful, hesitant. The short lines make the poem seem full of subtle pauses, one coinciding with the end of each line – arriving, in the last two lines, at a firmness that contrasts with the manner of the approach. I feel the poet’s mind thinking as though it were my own – the way it takes up each idea, and lets it go, in a gentle debate with itself (‘not that’). It is the structure of the lines, their musical phrasing, and the movement between phrases, that I feel and reflect through my interoception as I read the poem.

In the end, it is the last line that arrests me. The earlier lines prepare the way for it, laying down a pattern of similar syllables (matters; there; another) that transforms to endures, and finally, to door (thereby cuing the conclusion, as harmonic cadence does in music). Door is the image that takes the poem’s weight. When I read the word door, I see a door – a somewhat shadowy door, since we are, it seems, in a church; though the way I see the door, I am outside looking in. But beyond the visual image, I feel the meaning of the door. A door opens and closes – I feel the door opening in my body. There is release in that, and freedom. A door allows us passage from one place to another. It is a threshold, a place of transformation. Emotion and motion come together in this word. It resonates in me; I reflect what I feel to be Hirshfield’s own perception of the door in this place, and its emotional force.

The ‘mirroring’ we feel may, but will not always, correspond to an experience of the other. We believe we are attuned – but may read the signals wrong. Nonetheless, in this instance, I am moved by Hirshfield’s recognition of what a door can be: by the fact that it matters ‘that there is a door’. I feel attuned to Hirshfield through the resonance of the door, a resonance that each of us has felt in some manner through this poem.

At the heart of my experience of reading and writing lyric poetry, there are the structures of the brain and their visceral extensions in the body. As Armstrong observes:

canonical neurons respond to the traces of agency embedded in objects and engage us with other agents in a web of intersubjective relations … Because of the workings of canonical neurons, we may experience indirect but nevertheless bodily resonance with others through a whole range of artifacts, from tools to works of art (including books). (2013: 150)

The ‘traces of agency embedded in objects’ – including poem-objects – and the ‘web of intersubjective relations’ they create – bring us full circle to Morton’s world of causal traces and ontology of connection, which makes of these traces all that we can know of other beings and their modes of existence.

Lyric poets communicate traces of an inner experience of perception and emotion through all the means provided by language, with an accent on the means that are closest to music: the sound and look of words; the progressions and dependencies of syntax and phrasing, including lineation; rhythm and tempo, with their intimate relation to tension and release; emotional dynamics, including verbal analogues of crescendo, diminuendo, accent and attack; the quality and timing of structural transitions; and the visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and other sensory modalities of image. Lyric poems seek to elicit a resonant response in the reader’s own brain and body, which encounters the poem, and is acted on by it, across all the distances of time and space. If we are fortunate, that resonance brings about the further joy of feeling attuned, the attunement of one being – brain and body, mind and muscle – with another.


Works cited: 

Armstrong, P 2013 How literature plays with the brain, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Auden, W 2010 ‘Lullaby’ in Selected poems, London: Faber & Faber

Dickinson, E 1999 ‘My life closed twice before its close’, in The poems of Emily Dickinson, Cambridge: Harvard University Press

de Gaynesford, M 2017 The rift in the lute: attuning poetry and philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gomez, P and Danuser, B 2007 ‘Relationships between musical structure and psychophysiological measures of emotion’, Emotion 7: 2, 377-387

Hirshfield, J 2015 Ten windows: How great poems transform the world, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition

Hirshfield, J 2006 ‘Love amid owl cries’ in Each happiness ringed by lions, Eastburn: Bloodaxe

Hollander, J 1985 Vision and resonance: Two senses of poetic form, 2nd edition, New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Iacoboni, M 2008 Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Lloyd, D 2013 ‘The music of consciousness: Can musical form harmonize phenomenology and the brain?’, Constructivist Foundations, 8: 3, 324-331

Morton, T 2013 Realist magic: Objects, ontology, causation, Ann Arbor: Open University Press

Morton, T 2012 ‘An object-oriented defense of poetry’, in New Literary History, 43: 2, 205-224

Johnson, J 1993 ‘Lyric’ in A Preminger and T Brogan (eds) The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics, 3rd edition, 713-727

Porter, P 2010 ‘Non piangere, liù’, in The rest on the flight: Selected poems, London: Picador

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