(Copyright © 2009)

Emily Dickinson gets my vote for poet laureate of introspectionists. She excels at conveying her world of inner experience through the medium of metaphor. But she is not unusual in being a poet of such inward landscapes. Poetry is the language of consciousness, not of the material world or any of its inhabitants. Long before neuroscientists took on the brain, poets were inwardly probing its most intimate folds and relationships. There, they were close to the origin of words, and so understood them in a personal rather than a social sense. Prose is social and grammatical, poetry personal and idiosyncratic. To understand the poem, you must understand the experience of the poet who, in conveying it, invents her own special language.

It strikes me that if we study rats and victims of trauma to learn about the brain, we ought now and then to study artworks that spring directly from individual brains to gain a sense of what they make possible through the medium of personal consciousness. Any model of the workings of the brain must account for poetry, long in existence in every culture well before neuroscience was invented.

Dickinson’s resume is captured in the following four poems, which I offer here without comment. The essence of poetry is in working with what your are given of the poet’s world and weaving coherent sense from the richness of detail. Please help yourself.



The Brain, within its Groove

Runs evenly—and true—

But let a Splinter swerve—

Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back—

When Floods have slit the Hills—

And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—

And trodden out the Mills—



The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—



The Heart is the Capital of the Mind—

The Mind is a single State—

The Heart and the Mind together make

A single Continent—

One—is the Population—

Numerous enough—

This ecstatic Nation

Seek—it is Yourself.



The Mind lives on the Heart

Like any Parasite—

If that is full of Meat

The Mind is fat.

But if the Heart omit

Emaciate the Wit—

The Aliment of it

So absolute.



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