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Ten Bucks at Least

So what is a blog? Isn't it the place where a writer tries to convince a reader that the writer's two cents are actually worth a buck and a half, a place where the writer can sprinkle his or her minutiae with glitter, a place to say things that one wouldn't dare say to a person face to face? Although I've never, until now, written a blog, I am sure I would be no different. Should I relate the incredible narrative about how I brush my teeth? Left, right, up, down — surely it mimics how the moon affects the movement of tides. Is this where I tell the story of how 60 years of hitting a space bar with my thumb — both on a typewriter and a computer — has led to arthritis, which is only one more example of how I suffer for my art?

It seems that human progress has advanced only to provide Coleridge's sailor with one more venue to tell the wedding guest about that damn albatross. Fire wasn't discovered to provide warmth and cooked meals to flea-scratching savages but to give them the opportunity to sit in a circle and complain.Fire wasn't discovered to provide warmth and cooked meals to flea-scratching savages but to give them the opportunity to sit in a circle and complain. The wheel came about in order to widen one's audience for grievance. The greatest invention of the early 19th century was the telegraph, which could spread one's grousing over the world like margarine over a slice of toast. Other means of scattering complaint quickly followed: hence the blog.

But I was writing yesterday about metaphor, which enables a person to say one boring thing in a hundred different ways. We are indeed fortunate to have two separate brains — left and right — to increase our manufacture of minutiae. The left brain is one hundred percent literal. It cannot hypothesize; it has no sense of possibility; it can neither tell nor understand jokes. (A horse enters a bar and the bartender says, "Why the long face?" Left brain response: Phooey, they don't let horses into bars.) The left brain's reasoning process is confined to the syllogism: 1. All men have beards. 2. Socrates is a man. 3. Socrates has a beard. Can you imagine being trapped in an elevator with such a humorist? The left brain is, however, a master of syntax and structure — useful tools for any writer.

The right brain says what the left brain says but it says it with metaphors, similes, images, symbols. Left brain: Preparation before action. Right brain: Strike when the iron is hot. Left brain: Don't spend your money until it's in the bank. Right brain: Don't count your chickens until they're hatched. The left and right brain working together allow one to triangulate the precision of one's thought just as the large and asymmetrical ears of the great gray owl enable it to triangulate the position of a mouse running beneath the snow, as I've recently learned. Of course, many proverbs eventually become clichés, but W. S. Merwin's Asian Figure "Don't curse your wife / at bedtime" still offers up a volume of advice about marital relationships, as do such Asian Figures as "Wait till he's falling / then push"; "Cheeks slapped downtown / good and angry / uptown"; "Sardine threatens / who knows it?"; "The hissing starts / in the free seats."

Such sayings present a bookcase full of information in a nanosecond. One moment we don't understand, the next moment we do: "Life / candle flame / wind coming." This is nondiscursive thought as opposed to the discursive thought of the syllogism. It is the province of the right brain, which is also the province of the imagination, the possible, and the hypothetical. Nondiscursive thought is immediate; discursive thought is sequential: if this and this and this, then that.

Poetry is the greatest fund of the nondiscursive. In fact, all art, since art functions as metaphor, is nondiscursive, though some forms are more effective than others. Nondiscursive thought is the white cane that lets us tap our way through the dark; discursive thought is the pair of shoes that supports our steps. One is not better than the other; both are necessary.

English public schools made their young victims learn Latin and Greek not so they could converse in Latin and Greek, but because the structure of those languages were great tools to teach students how to think. This was also the point of making students memorize large amounts of poetry: discursive, nondiscursive. It is now believed that if Latin, Greek, and the arts are removed from the curriculum, they will create more room for math and the sciences, which are thought to be more important. But inventiveness derives from the right brain. Cut out the arts and those young mathematicians can memorize, but they can't hypothesize. I am not presenting some arcane view. Many volumes of neurological, psychological, and linguistic evidence support this. They show why schools that throw out the arts as frills produce such high percentages of ignorant, not to say stupid, students.

I'm sorry. I've let my blog spin out of control. But the subject fills me with concern. Remove nondiscursive areas of study that exercise the imagination and you decrease a person's ability to empathize, which is the art of feeling what another person feels and which is a huge act of imagination. The philosopher Susanne Langer argued that the ability of art to increase one's ability to imagine and so feel what another person feels allows us to live in a society. It socializes us. Sociopaths are not poetry readers.

Mystery novels, thrillers, straight novels all work to create suspense, to make us worry about the future and lead us to imagine fearsome possibilities. Suspense depends on nondiscursive thought. With only discursive thought, the mind must amuse itself with the here and now. The mind satisfies itself with causes and doesn't concern itself with effects. How dull. We need history and the arts in schools just to become good readers and thinkers.

So I should confess that no matter how much I love writing fiction — and I love it mightily — I love writing poetry more. I can easily work on a poem for several years, though much of the end-work is fiddling. But I have poems that I wrote 50 years ago in which I am still trying to fix a problematic line or find a more exact word.I have poems that I wrote 50 years ago in which I am still trying to fix a problematic line or find a more exact word.

It must seem foolish to spend thousands of hours on something that brings in little money and that, for the most part, remains unread and is quick to vanish. There are also, I think, more poets than fiction writers, and most divide themselves into schools, groups, cadres, coffee klatches, disciplines, coteries, congregations, and factions whose purpose first of all is to attack the work of other schools, groups, etc. Sometimes this is done in essays and reviews; sometimes it's done in experimental verse designed to show that my non sequiturs are better than your non sequiturs. And what happens to the non-poet reader during these spats? Not much, I'm afraid, and that's the problem.

Now I've spent quite a few paragraphs trying to convince you that my two cents are worth substantially more than two and a half bucks. They're worth ten bucks at least. But this is just one more metaphor, which maybe I can clarify tomorrow.

÷ ÷ ÷

Stephen Dobyns is the author of more than 30 novels and poetry collections, including The Church of the Dead Girls, Cold Dog Soup, and Cemetery Nights. Among his many honors and awards are a Melville Cane Award, Pushcart Prizes, National Poetry Series Prize, and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Burn Palace Used Hardcover $9.50
  2. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner... Used Trade Paper $1.50
  3. East Window: The Asian Translations Used Trade Paper $8.95

Stephen Dobyns is the author of The Burn Palace

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