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Poetry As Right-Hemispheric Language

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The human brain is divided into two hemispheres, right and left, that are joined by a thick ‘cable’ of neural fibres called the corpus callosum. It has long been observed that injury to the left hemisphere in the average adult damages speech, speech comprehension, and reading, and causes paralysis on the right side of the body. Injury to the right hemisphere, on the other hand, seems to leave linguistic capabilities intact, but causes paralysis on the left side of the body. These observations have given rise to the twin concepts of contralaterality of hemispheric control (i.e., that each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body) and cognitive specialization of hemispheric function. As far back as the nineteenth century, it was recognized that the left hemisphere’s specialty was language. Pioneering British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson asserted in 1868 that the left hemisphere was the ‘leading side’ in most people, responsible for the control of speech and will. In the decade of the 1940s, French neurologist Henry Hecaen and British psychologist Oliver Zangwill demonstrated that the right hemisphere, far from being passive, controlled visuospatial processing (Benton, 1991).

Particularly in the decade of the 1970s, mass market publications popularized the notion of the left brain as the processor of language and rational thought and the right brain as the processor of visuospatial images and holistic or intuitive awareness. Hippies and artists were believed to be ‘right brain’ in orientation, while engineers and businessmen were believed to be ‘left’. Indeed, the rather overly enthusiastic adoption of early laterality findings by western popular culture (exemplified by brain dominance quizzes on newspaper feature pages and the advertising of Saab automobiles as ‘a car for both sides of your brain’) made the whole subject seem rather oversimplified and absurd, and no doubt helped to blind the general public to an awareness of the implications of later research findings in the field of cerebral laterality.

Today it is known that, in about 97 per cent of all right-handed adults, the left hemisphere is dominant for language (Pinker, 1994). Even among the left- handed population, the great majority, 69 per cent, process language in their left hemispheres, like right-handers (Pinker, 1994). Moreover, the sharply increased rates of neurological deficits such as mental retardation, autism, stuttering, dyslexia, and epilepsy among left-handed individuals (Iaccino, 1993) would make it seem even more apparent that left-hemispheric language is the ‘norm’ and right-hemispheric language a deviation from that norm. The isolated left hemisphere scores in the normal range on standardized tests of verbal intelligence (Gazzaniga and LeDoux, 1978). Only the left hemisphere possesses the complete lexicon and rules of syntax (Zaidel, 1983). Right- but not left-hemisphere-damaged patients, one group of researchers remarked, ‘seldom have difficulties with phonology, syntax, or semantics, and will carry on a conversation which at first glance seems normal’ (Benowitz et al., 1990). It would seem that the evidence for the left hemisphere as the ‘seat of language’ is indisputable. Or is it?

Not at all. Because, over time, evidence has been mounting to show that the right hemisphere controls, or is capable of controlling on its own, a number of very subtle but intriguing ‘linguistic’ functions (Van Lancker, 1997) which, this paper will attempt to argue, are virtually synonymous with ‘poetry’ or ‘poetic’ speech. Indeed, one could assert that the degree of right-hemispheric involvement in language is what differentiates ‘poetic’ or ‘literary’ from ‘referential’ or ‘technical’ speech and texts.

In the following pages, each of the major literary devices characteristic of ‘poetry’ will be shown to be either dependent upon the right hemisphere for comprehension/production, or capable of being processed by the right hemisphere as well as by the left. Definitions of the linguistic features characterizing ‘poetry’ and examples of their usage in actual poems will be drawn from John Frederick Nims’ lucid introduction to the subject for college students, Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (2000), now in its fourth edition, supplemented where appropriate by Alex PremingeRAnd T.V.F. Brogan’s more technical New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993). Following the presentation of neurological evidence for poetry as ‘right- hemispheric language’, the question of why poets, in particular, produce language so rich in right-hemispheric content will be addressed and possible answers proposed.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Language and Communication, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, LA 71497, USA. ., Email: [email protected]

Publication date: January 1, 2004

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