3.3. Of Poetry and Music



WHY HAS so much of the textual material we have used as evidence in earlier chapters been poetry? And why, particularly in times of stress, have a huge proportion of the readers of this page written poems? What unseen light leads us to such dark practice? And why does poetry flash with recognitions of thoughts we did not know we had, finding its unsure way to something in us that knows and has known all the time, something, I think, older than the present organization of our nature?

To charter a discussion down this optional and deserted topic at this point in what has hitherto been a fairly linear argument may seem an unwarranted indirection. But the chapters of Book III, in contrast to the previous two books, are not a consecutive procession. They are rather a selection of divergent trajectories out of our bicameral past into present times. And I think it will become obvious that the earlier argument, particularly as relating to the Greek epics, needs to be rounded out with the present chapter.

I shall state my thesis plain. The first poets were gods. Poetry began with the bicameral mind. The god-side of our ancient mentality, at least in a certain period of history, usually or perhaps always spoke in verse. This means that most men at one time, throughout the day, were hearing poetry (of a sort) composed and spoken within their own minds. 

The evidence is, of course, only inferential. It is that all of those individuals who remained bicameral into the conscious age, when speaking of or from the divine side of their minds, spoke in poetry. The great epics of Greece were of course heard and spoken by the aoidoi as poetry. The ancient writings of Mesopotamia and Egypt are darkened with our ignorance of how such languages were pronounced; but with such assurances in transliteration as we can muster, such writings when spoken were also poetry. In India, the oldest literature is the Veda, which were dictated by gods to the rishi or prophets; these too were poetry. Oracles spoke poetry. From time to time, their utterances from Delphi and elsewhere were written down, and every one of them that survives as more than a simple phrase is in dactylic hexameter, just as were the epics. The Hebrew prophets also, when relaying the hallucinated utterance of Yahweh, were often poets, though their scribes did not in every case preserve such speech in verse.

As the bicameral mind recedes further into history, and the oracles reach their fifth term, there are exceptions. Poetic utterance by the oracles breaks down here and there. The oracle at Delphi, for example, in the first century A.D. evidently spoke in both verse and prose, the latter to be put into verse by poets in the service of the temples.1 But the very impulse to transpose oracular prose back into dactylic hexameters is, I suggest, a part of the nostalgia for the divine in this late period; it demonstrates again that metered verse had been the rule previously. Even later, some oracles still spoke exclusively in dactylic hexameters. Tacitus, for example, visited the oracle of Apollo at Claros about A.D. 100 and described how the entranced priest listened to his decision-seeking petitioners; he then

. . . swallows a draught of water from a mysterious spring and ? though ignorant generally of writing and of meters ? delivers his response in set verses.2 

Poetry then was divine knowledge. And after the breakdown of the bicameral mind, poetry was the sound and tenor of authorization. Poetry commanded where prose could only ask. It felt good. In the wanderings of the Hebrews after the exodus from Egypt, it was the sacred shrine that was carried before the multitude and followed by the people, but it was the poetry of Moses that determined when they would start and when stop, where they would go and where stay.3 

The association of rhythmical or repetitively patterned utterance with supernatural knowledge endures well into the later conscious period. Among the early Arabic peoples the word for poet was sha’ir, ‘the knower’, or a person endowed with knowledge by the spirits; his metered speech in recitation was the mark of its divine origin. The poet and divine seer have a long tradition of association in the ancient world, and several Indo-European languages have a common term for them. Rhyme and alliteration too were always the linguistic province of the gods and their prophets.4 In at least some instances of spontaneous possession, the demonic utterances are in meter.5 Even glossolalia today, as we have seen in III.2, wherever it is practiced, tends to fall into metrical patterns, particularly dactyls.

Poetry then was the language of gods.

Poetry and Song

All the above discussion is mere literary tradition and sounds more plea than proof. We should, therefore, ask if there is another way of approaching the matter to show the relationship of poetry to the bicameral mind more scientifically. There is, I think, if we look at the relation of poetry to music.

First of all, early poetry was song. The difference between song and speech is a matter of discontinuities of pitch. In ordinary speech, we are constantly changing pitch, even in the pronunciation of a single syllable. But in song, the change of pitch is discrete and discontinuous. Speech reels around all over a certain portion of an octave (in relaxed speech about a fifth). Song steps from note to note on strict and delimited feet over a more extended range.

Modern poetry is a hybrid. It has the metrical feet of song with the pitch glissandos of speech. But ancient poetry is much closer to song. Accents were not by intensity stress as in our ordinary speech, but by pitch.6 In ancient Greece, this pitch is thought to have been precisely the interval of a fifth above the ground note of the poem, so that on the notes of our scale, dactyls would go GCC, GCC, with no extra emphasis on the G. Moreover, the three extra accents, acute, circumflex, and grave, were, as their notations $B!- (B,?,` imply, a rising pitch within the syllable, a rising and falling on the same syllable, and a falling pitch respectively. The result was a poetry sung like plainsong with various auditory ornamentation that gave it beautiful variety.

Now how does all this relate to the bicameral mind? Speech, as has long been known, is a function primarily of the left cerebral hemisphere. But song, as we are presently discovering, is primarily a function of the right cerebral hemisphere. The evidence is various but consistent: 

  • It is common medical knowledge that many elderly patients who have suffered cerebral hemorrhages on the left hemisphere such that they cannot speak can still sing.
  • The so-called Wada Test is sometimes performed in hospitals to find out a person $B!G (Bs cerebral dominance. Sodium amytal is injected into the carotid artery on one side, putting the corresponding hemisphere under heavy sedation but leaving the other awake and alert. When the injection is made on the left side so that the left hemisphere is sedated and only the right hemisphere is active, the person is unable to speak, but can still sing. When the injection is on the right so that only the left hemisphere is active, the person can speak but cannot sing.7
  •  Patients in whom the entire left hemisphere has been removed because of glioma can only manage a few words, if any, postoperatively. But at least some can sing.8 One such patient with only a speechless right hemisphere to his name “was able to sing ‘America’ and ‘Home on the Range,’ rarely missing a word and with nearly perfect enunciation.”9
  • Electrical stimulation on the right hemisphere in regions adjacent to the posterior temporal lobe, particularly the anterior temporal lobe, often produces hallucinations of singing and music. I have already described some of these patients in 1.5. And this in general is the area, corresponding to Wernicke’s area on the left hemisphere, which I have hypothesized was where the auditory hallucinations of the bicameral mind were organized.

Singing and melody then are primarily right hemisphere activities. And since poetry in antiquity was sung rather than spoken, it was perhaps largely a right hemisphere function, as the theory of the bicameral mind in I.5 would predict. More specifically, ancient poetry involved the posterior part of the right temporal lobe, which I have suggested was responsible for organizing divine hallucinations, together with adjacent areas which even today are involved in music.

For those who are still skeptical, I have devised an experiment where they may even feel for themselves right now the truth of these matters. First, think of two topics, anything, personal or general, on which you would like to talk for a couple of paragraphs. Now, imagining you are with a friend, speak out loud on one of the topics. Next, imagining you are with a friend, sing out loud on the other topic. Do each for one full minute, demanding of yourself that you keep going. Compare introspectively. Why is the second so much more difficult? Why does the singing crumble into cliches? Or the melody erode into recitative? Why does the topic desert you in midmelody? What is the nature of your efforts to get your song back on the topic? Or rather ? and I think this is more the feeling ? to get your topic back to the song? 

The answer is that your topic is ‘in’ Wernicke’s area on your left hemisphere, while your song is ‘in’ what corresponds to Wernicke’s area on your right hemisphere. Let me hasten to add that such a statement is an approximation neurologically. And by ‘topic’ and ‘song’ I am meaning their neural substrates. But such an approximation is true enough to make my point. It is as if volitional speech is jealous of the right hemisphere and wants you to itself, just as your song is jealous of the left hemisphere and wants you to leave your left hemisphere topic behind. To accomplish the improvised singing of a pre-decided topic feels as if we were jumping back and forth between hemispheres. And so in a sense ‘we’ are, deciding on the words in the left and then trying to get back to song with them on the right before some other words have got there first. And usually the latter happens, the words are not on the topic, careering off on their own, or not consecutively coherent or not there at all, and so we stop singing.

Of course we can learn to sing our verbal thoughts to a certain extent and musicians often do. And women, since they are less lateralized, may find it easier. If you practice it as an exercise twice a day for a month or a year or a lifetime, sincerely avoiding cliche and memorized material on the lyric side, and mere recitative on the melody side, I expect you will be more proficient at it. If you are ten years old, such learning will probably be much easier and might even make a poet out of you. And if you should be unlucky enough to have some left hemisphere accident at some future time, your thought-singing might come in handy. What is learned here is very probably a new relationship between the hemispheres, not entirely different from some of the learned phenomena in the previous chapter.

The Nature of Music

I wish to expand a little upon the role of instrumental music in all this. For we also hear and appreciate music with our right hemispheres. 

Such lateralization of music can be seen even in very young infants. Six-month-old babies can be given EEG’s while being held in the laps of their mothers. If the recording electrodes are placed directly over Wernicke’s area on the left hemisphere and over what corresponds to Wernicke’s area on the right, then when tape recordings of speech are played, the left hemisphere will show the greatest activity. But when a tape of a music box is played or of someone singing, the activity will be greater over the right hemisphere. In the experiment I am describing, not only did the children who were fidgeting or crying stop doing so at the sound of music, but also they smiled and looked straight ahead, turning away from the mother $B!G (Bs gaze,10 even acting as we do when we are trying to avoid distraction. This finding has an immense significance for the possibility that the brain is organized at birth to ‘obey’ stimulation in what corresponds to Wernicke’s area on the right hemisphere, namely the music, and not be distracted from it, even as earlier I have said that bicameral men neurologically had to obey hallucinations from the same area. It also points to the great significance of lullabies in development, perhaps influencing a child’s later creativity.

Or you can prove this laterality of music yourself. Try hearing different musics on two earphones at the same intensity. You will perceive and remember the music on the left earphone better.11 This is because the left ear has greater neural representation on the right hemisphere. The specific location here is probably the right anterior temporal lobe, for patients in which it has been removed from the right hemisphere find it very difficult to distinguish one melody from another. And, conversely, with left temporal lobectomies, patients postoperatively have no trouble with such tests.12 

Now we know neurologically that there can be a spread of excitation from one point of the cortex to adjacent points. Thus it becomes likely that a buildup of excitation in those areas on the right hemisphere serving instrumental music should spread to those adjacent serving divine auditory hallucinations ? or vice versa. And hence this close relationship between instrumental music and poetry, and both with the voices of gods. I am suggesting here that the invention of music may have been as a neural excitant to the hallucinations of gods for decision-making in the absence of consciousness. 

It is thus no idle happenstance of history that the very name of music comes from the sacred goddesses called Muses. For music too begins in the bicameral mind.

We thus have some ground for saying that the use of the lyre among early poets was to spread excitation to the divine speech area, the posterior part of the right temporal lobe, from immediately adjacent areas. So also the function of flutes that accompanied the lyric and elegiac poets of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. And when such musical accompaniment is no longer used, as it is not in later Greek poetry, it is, I suggest, because the poem is no longer being sung from the right hemisphere where such spreading excitation would help. It is instead being recited from left hemispheric memory alone, rather than being recreated in the true prophetic trance. 

This change in musical accompaniment is also reflected in the way poetry is referred to, although a large amount of historical overlap makes the case not quite so clear. But more early poetry is referred to as song (as in the Iliad and the Theogony, for example), while later poetry is often referred to as spoken or told. This change perhaps corresponds roughly to the change from the aoidoi with their lyres to the rhapsodes with their rhapdoi (light sticks, perhaps to beat the meter) that took place perhaps in the eighth or seventh centuries B.C. And behind these particulars is the more profound psychological change from bicameral composition to conscious recitation, and from oral to written remembering. In much later poetry, however, the poet as singer and his poem as song are brought back metaphorically as a conscious archaism, yielding its own authorization to the now conscious poet.13

Poesy and Possession

A third way to examine this transformation of poetry during the rise and spread of consciousness is to look at the poet himself and his mentality. Specifically, were the relations of poets to the Muses the same as the relationship of the oracles to the greater gods?

For Plato at least, the matter was quite clear. Poetry was a divine madness. It was katokoche or possession by the Muses;  

. . . all good poets, epic as well as lyric, composed their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed . . . there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses and the mind is no longer in him.14

Poets then, around 400 B.C., were comparable in mentality to the oracles of the same period, and went through similar psychological transformation when they performed.

Now we might be tempted to think with Plato that such possession characterized poetry all the way back into the epic tradition. But the evidence does not warrant such a generalization. In the Iliad itself, so many centuries before the existence of katokoche is ever mentioned or observed, a good argument could be made that the primitive aoidos was not “out of his senses and the mind no  longer in him. $B!I (B For in several places, the poem breaks off as the poet gets stuck and has to beg the Muses to go on (2:483, 11:218,14:508,16:112).

Let it be stressed parenthetically here that the Muses were not figments of anyone $B!G (Bs imagination. I would ask the reader to peruse the first pages of Hesiod $B!G (Bs Theogony and realize that all of it was probably seen and heard in hallucination, just as can happen today in schizophrenia or under certain drugs. Bicameral men did not imagine; they experienced. The beautiful Muses with their unison “lily-like” voice, dancing out of the thick mists of evening, thumping on soft and vigorous feet about the lonely enraptured shepherd, these arrogances of delicacy were the hallucinatory sources of memory in late bicameral men, men who did not live in a frame of past happenings, who did not have ‘lifetimes’ in our sense, and who could not reminisce because they were not fully conscious. Indeed, this is put into mythology by their chosen medium, the shepherd of Helicon himself: the Muses who, he tells us, always sing together with the same phrenes15 and in “unwearying flows” of song, this special group of divinities who, instead of telling men what to do, specialized in telling certain men what had been done, are the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Titaness whose name later comes to mean memory ? the first word with that meaning in the world.

Such appeals to the Muses then are identical in function with our appeals to memory, like tip-of-the-tongue struggles with recollection. They do not sound like a man out of his senses who doesn’t know what he is doing. In one instance in the Iliad, the poet begins to have difficulty and so begs the Muses, 

Say now to me, Muses, having Olympian homes, for you are goddesses, and are present and know all; but we hear report  alone, neither do we know anything: tell me who were the leaders and rulers of the Greeks? (2:483-487)

and then goes on to plead in his own person that he, the poet, cannot name them, though he had “ten tongues and ten mouths and an unbreakable voice,” unless the Muses start singing the material to him. I have italicized a phrase in the quotation to underline their actuality to the poet. 

Nor does possession seem to be occurring in Hesiod in his first meeting with them on the holy flanks of Mount Helicon while he was keeping watch over his sheep. He describes how the Muses 

. . . breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime; and they begged me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.16 

Again, I think this should be believed literally as someone $B!G (Bs experience in exactly the same way that we believe in the experience of Hesiod’s contemporary, Amos, in his meeting with Yahweh in the meadows of Tekoa while he too was keeping watch over his flock.17 Nor does it seem possession when the Muses $B!G (B Theogony stops (line 104) and Hesiod cries out again in his own voice, praising the Muses and pleading with them again to go on with the poem: $B!H (BTell me these things from the beginning, you Muses, $B!I (B having just given a long list of the topics which the poet wants the poem to be about (line 114).

Nor does the stately and careful description of Demodocus in the Odyssey permit an interpretation of the poet as possessed. Evidently Demodocus, if he was real, may have gone through some kind of cerebral accident which left him blind, but with the power to hear the Muses sing such enchanting poetry as could make an Odysseus drape his head and moan with tears (8:63- 92). Indeed Odysseus himself understands that Demodocus of the disabled vision, who could not have witnessed the Trojan War, could sing about it only because the Muse, or Apollo, was actually telling it to him. His chant was hormetheis theou, constantly given by the god himself (81499).

The evidence, therefore, suggests that up to the eighth and probably the seventh century B.C., the poet was not out of his mind as he was later in Plato $B!G (Bs day. Rather, his creativity was perhaps much closer to what we have come to call bicameral. The fact that such poets were $B!H (Bwretched things of shame, mere bellies, $B!I (B as the Muses scornfully mocked their human adoring mediums,18 unskilled roughs who came from the more primitive and lonely levels of the social structure, such as shepherds, is in accord with such a suggestion. Mere bellies out in the fields had less opportunity to be changed by the new mentality. And loneliness can lead to hallucination.

But by the time of Solon in the sixth century B.C., something different is happening. The poet is no longer simply given his gifts j he has to have $B!H (Blearning in the gift of the Muses $B!I (B (Fragment 13:51). And then, in the fifth century B.C., we hear the very first hint of poets $B!G (B being peculiar with poetic ecstasy. What a contrast to the calm and stately manner of the earlier aoidoi, Demodocus, for example! It is Democritus who insists that no one can be a great poet without being frenzied up into a state of fury (Fragment 18). And then in the fourth century B.C., the mad possessed poet $B!H (Bout of his senses $B!I (B that Plato and I have already described. Just as the oracles had changed from the prophet who heard his hallucinations to the possessed person in a wild trance, so also had the poet. 

Was this dramatic change because the collective cognitive imperative had made the Muses less believable as real external entities? Or was it because the neurological reorganization of hemispheric relations brought on by developing consciousness prohibited such givenness; so that consciousness had to be out of the way to let poetry happen? Or was it Wernicke’s area on the right hemisphere using Broca’s area on the left, thus shortcircuiting (as it were) normal consciousness? Or are these three hypotheses the same (as of course I presently think they are) ?

For whatever reasons, decline continues decline in the ensuing centuries. Just as the oracles sputtered out through their latter terms until possession was partial and erratic, so, I suggest, poets slowly changed until the fury and possession by the Muses was also partial and erratic. And then the Muses hush and freeze into myths. Nymphs and shepherds, dance no more. Consciousness is a witch beneath whose charms pure inspiration gasps and dies into invention. The oral becomes written by the poet himself, and written, it should be added, by his right hand, worked by his left hemisphere. The Muses have become imaginary and invoked in their silence as a part of man’s nostalgia for the bicameral mind.

In summary, then, the theory of poetry I am trying to state in this scraggly collation of passages is similar to the theory I presented for oracles. Poetry begins as the divine speech of the bicameral mind. Then, as the bicameral mind breaks down, there remain prophets. Some become institutionalized as oracles making decisions for the future. While others become specialized into poets, relating from the gods statements about the past. Then, as the bicameral mind shrinks back from its impulsiveness, and as perhaps a certain reticence falls upon the right hemisphere, poets who are to obtain this same state must learn to do it. As this becomes more difficult, the state becomes a fury, and then ecstatic possession, just as happened in the oracles. And then indeed toward the end of the first millennium B.C., just as the oracles began to become prosaic and their statements versified consciously, so poetry also. Its givenness by the unison Muses has vanished. And conscious men now wrote and crossed out and careted and rewrote their compositions in laborious mimesis of the older divine utterances.

Why as the gods retreated even further into their silent heavens or, in another linguistic mode, as auditory hallucinations shrank back from access by left hemisphere monitoring mechanisms, why did not the dialect of the gods simply disappear? Why did not poets simply cease their rhapsodic practices as did the priests and priestesses of the great oracles? The answer is very clear. The continuance of poetry, its change from a divine given to a human craft is part of that nostalgia for the absolute. The search for the relationship with the lost otherness of divine directives would not allow it to lapse. And hence the frequency even today with which poems are apostrophes to often unbelievedin entities, prayers to unknown imaginings. And hence the opening paragraph of this treatise. The forms are still there, to be worked with now by the analog ‘I’ of a conscious poet. His task now is an imitation or mimesis19 of the former type of poetic utterance and the reality which it expressed. Mimesis in the bicameral sense of mimicking what was heard in hallucination has moved through the mimesis of Plato as representation of reality to mimesis as imitation with invention in its sullen service.

There have been some latter-day poets who have been very specific about actual auditory hallucinations. Milton referred to his “Celestial Patroness, who . . . unimplor’d . . . dictates to me my unpremeditated Verse,” even as he, in his blindness, dictated it to his daughters.20 And Blake’s extraordinary visions and auditory hallucinations ? sometimes going on for days and sometimes against his will ? as the source of his painting and poetry are well known. And Rilke is said to have feverishly copied down a long sonnet sequence that he heard in hallucination.

But most of us are more ordinary, more with and of our time. We no longer hear our poems directly in hallucination. It is instead the feeling of something being given and then nourished into being, of the poem happening to the poet, as well and as much as being created by him. Snatches of lines would $B!H (Bbubble up $B!I (B for Housman after a beer and a walk $B!H (Bwith sudden and unaccountable emotions $B!I (B which then $B!H (Bhad to be taken in hand and completed by the brain. $B!I (B $B!H (BThe songs made me, not I them, $B!I (B said Goethe. $B!H (BIt is not I who think, $B!I (B said Lamartine, $B!H (Bit is my ideas that think for me. $B!I (B And dear Shelley said it plain: 

A man cannot say, $B!H (BI will compose poetry. $B!I (B The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness . . . and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.21  

Is the fading coal the left hemisphere and the inconstant wind the right, mapping vestigially the ancient relationship of men to gods?

Of course there is no universal rule in this matter. The nervous systems of poets come like shoes, in all types and sizes, though with a certain irreducible topology. We know that the relations of the hemispheres are not the same in everyone. Indeed, poetry can be written without even a nervous system. A vocabulary, some syntax, and a few rules of lexical fit and measure can be punched into a computer, which can then proceed to write quite inspired $B!G (B if surrealist verse. But that is simply a copy of what we, with two cerebral hemispheres and nervous systems, already do. Computers or men can indeed write poetry without any vestigial bicameral inspiration. But when they do, they are imitating an older and a truer poesy out there in history. Poetry, once started in mankind, needs not the same means for its production. It began as the divine speech of the bicameral mind. And even today, through its infinite mimeses, great poetry to the listener, however it is made, still retains that quality of the wholly other, of a diction and a message, a consolation and an inspiration, that was once our relationship to gods.

A Homily on Thamyris

I would like to end these rather clumsy suggestions on the biology of poetry with some homiletic sentiments on the true tragedy of Thamyris. He was a poet in the Iliad (2:594-600) who boasted he would conquer and control the Muses in his poetry. Gods, as they die away in the transition to consciousness, are jealous gods, as I have said earlier. And the Sacred Nine are no exception. They were enraged at the beautiful ambition of Thamyris. They crippled him (probably a paralysis on his left side), and deprived him forever of poetic expression, and made him forget his ability at harping. 

Of course, we do not know if there even was a Thamyris, or exactly what reality is being pointed at by this story. But I suggest it was among the later accretions to the Iliad, and that its insertion may point to the difficulties in hemisphere cooperation in artistic expression at the breakdown of the bicameral mind. The parable of Thamyris may be narratizing what is to us the feeling of losing consciousness in our inspiration and then losing that inspiration in our consciousness of that loss. Consciousness imitates the gods and is a jealous consciousness and will have no other executives of action before it.

I remember when I was younger, at least through my twenties, while walking in woods or along a beach, or climbing hills or almost anything lonely, I would quite often suddenly become conscious that I was hearing in my head improvised symphonies of unambiguous beauty. But at the very moment of my becoming conscious of the fact, not loitering even for a measure! the music vanished. I would strain to call it back. But there would be nothing there. Nothing but a deepening silence. Since the music was undoubtedly being composed in my right hemisphere and heard somehow as a semi-hallucination, and since my analog ‘I’ with its verbalizations was probably, at that moment at least, a more left hemispheric function, I suggest that this opposition was very loosely like what is behind the story of Thamyris. ‘I’ strained too much. I have no left hemiplegia. But I do not hear my music anymore. I do not expect ever to hear it again.

The modern poet is in a similar quandary. Once, literary languages and archaic speech came somehow to his bold assistance in that otherness and grandeur of which true poetry is meant to speak. But the grinding tides of irreversible naturalism have swept the Muses even farther out into the night of the right hemisphere. Yet somehow, even helplessly in our search for authorization, we remain “the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration.” And inspiration flees in attempted apprehension, until perhaps it was never there at all. We do not believe enough. The cognitive imperative dissolves. History lays her finger carefully on the lips of the Muses. The bicameral mind, silent. And since 

The god approached dissolves into the air,
Imagine then, by miracle, with me,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)
What could not possibly be there,
And learn a style from a despair.