Monday, November 23, 2009

In the forest of symbols

Are poets synesthesiacs? I do know that “To taste the wine of speech” (as one poet put it) helps to describe our world in a way that illustrates the gray areas of experience—a memory is often collage. It’s a rinse cycle in the mind of every available sensory detail regarding a person, event, or period in time.

Hey, you’re doing it, like I didn’t tell you
to, my sinking laundry boat, point of departure,
my white pomegranate, my swizzle stick.
We’re leaving again of our own volition
for bogus patterned plains streaked by canals,
maybe. Amorous ghosts will pursue us
for a time, but sometimes they get, you know, confused and
forget to stop when we do, as they continue to populate this
fertile land with their own bizarre self-imaginings.

—John Ashbery, “Mottled Tuesday”

The Sufi poet Attar to describe Rumi said …"There goes a river dragging an ocean behind it." So, poets are used to using figurative language to describe and bring new life and interest to the mundane. And poets have been writing of memory throughout the ages. As Ana Akhmatova wrote in her poem “Lot’s Wife.”

There are three periods of memory.
The first of them is like a yesterday,
The soul basks in the blessings of their vault,
The body takes its glory in their shade.
Laughter has not yet passed away, tears gush,
The blot is not yet bleached out of the desk,
The kiss, like a heart's seal, is terminal,
Is singular and unforgettable...
But this does not last long before the vault
Has vanished overhead. And in some backwoods
Neighborhood, in a solitary house
Where summers leave the winters' chill warmed over,
Where spiders weave, where all things are in dust,
Where lovestruck letters lead a crumbling half-life,
Sly portraits change into their different selves.

And Emily Dickinson wrote “Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine.” I guess it’s always been this reorganization of the senses that interests me most about poetry.

Anne Salz, a Dutch musician and visual artist, perceives sound as swatches of color that she incorporates into her paintings. "The painting represents the opening of the concerto for four violins. I listen to the music while I paint. First, the music gives me an optimistic, happy feeling and I perceive red, yellow, and orange colors in a great variety with little contrast. It looks like a field of these colors. I perceive the color field as a musical chord. You can compare it with the colors of a blanket or cover made of autumn leaves." Her painting "Vivaldi" was a result of what she "saw" while listening to Vivaldi's music.

Neurologist Richard Cytowic identified synesthesia as meeting some of the following criteria:

1. Synesthesia is involuntary and automatic.
2. Synesthetic perceptions are spatially extended, meaning they often have a sense of "location." For example, synesthetes speak of "looking at" or "going to" a particular place to attend to the experience.
3. Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).
4. Synesthesia is highly memorable.
5. Synesthesia is laden with affect.

Some artists who also happened to be synesthetes include Duke Ellington, David Hockney, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Liszt, Wassily Kandinsky and the guitarist John Mayer. This claim might be a little more obvious as it relates to Kandinsky’s painting versus, say, John Mayer’s guitar playing, but the topic is intrinsically interesting. It may have been Charles Baudelaire, (first as he was in many things), to have first written in a modern way about the effects of synesthesia in his poem “Correspondences.”

Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let escape sometimes confused words;
Man traverses it through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.

Like long echoes that intermingle from afar
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and like the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds respond.

There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant

That have the expanse of infinite things,
Like ambergris, musk, balsam and incense,
Which sing the ecstasies of the mind and senses.

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