Poetry on the Brain

Most nights at 7:00 p.m. find us watching The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on our local public television channel. On New Year’s Eve, Jeffrey Brown interviewed John Ashbery, a prodigious and prize winning current American poet. What particularly interested me was that apparently there are a large number of people who consider Ashbery’s poetry rather difficult to read and understand. Indeed, when some of his poetry was being read aloud, it seemed a bit incomprehensible to me, although in looking over printed versions I found his poetry easier to understand with the words in front of me.

Later that evening at serendip, I came upon a poem about the brain by Emily Dickinson, an American poet from the 1800s. Her poem, short and simple, inspired me to do a search for ‘poems about the brain’.

One of the first items that turned up was Verse broadens the mind, the scientists find, according to the article of the same name at the April 2005 Scotsman.com site. Essentially, reading poetry requires more eye movement, and greater eye movement relates to deeper thought. Apparently, trying to decipher the meaning of poetry, for instance, reading lines several times over to make meaning, turns out to be healthy exercise for our cortical muscle. From my experience with Ashbery’s poetry, reading was the crucial factor in my understanding. Listening without written words to follow only led me to confusion. The researchers interviewed for the article also commented on the use of rhyme as an aid for memory, as well as children’s innate love of rhyme that seems to get squashed by the time the children become young adults.

Of course, my search also led me to Neuroscience for Kids – Writing Projects, where, of the 28 enertaining suggestions for writing related to the brain, the first project is brain limericks.

And so I share with you Emily Dickinson’s poem, taken from 42opus, ‘an online magazine of the literary arts’, and then leave you to your own poetic ponderings.

The Brain–is wider than the Sky–
by Emily Dickinson

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–


7 thoughts on “Poetry on the Brain

  1. synapsesensations Post author

    Heidi, Thank you for sharing your poem, Master Organ, as a comment on one of my blog posts. Your poem bears rereading, each time causing a different vision of the brain to form in my mind. Are you familiar with Jane McGonigal’s Super Better? She is a game designer who suffered a concussion and created the game to help her recuperate. Her game is a way for people with injuries to try and take some control over their recovery process.

    Cheers, Laurie

  2. Heidi Lerner

    Master Organ
    Heidi Lerner (c)
    Gray Matters

    Infinite mind,
    Intelligible cortex,
    Neural networking,
    All parts of the brain,
    Meshed into the whole.
    Yet simple system.

    Encased in a rough, bony skull,
    Protected and covered
    By three membranes,
    From the outside in:
    Wrapping – a heavy plastic sheet,
    Cob-webbing over the wrinkles and folds,
    Tender molding in the crevices,
    Gelatinous mind.

    Internal landscape,
    Nurtured by vessels,
    Flowing from the heart,
    Circulating into the subconscious,
    Delicate nerve tissue.

    A good portion is hollowed out.
    Fluid circulates,
    Reservoirs of plenty,
    Cerebro-spinal current,
    Pulsing at it’s own rhythm,
    Flowing down the vertebral falls.

    Wrinkles & crevices,
    Distinguished into hemispheres,
    In a dichotomized world –
    Corpus Callosum,
    Bridges the differences.

    The right side of the machine
    Neurologically connects
    To the left side of the body.
    – Left to right,
    Impulses neurotransmit,
    Leaping the gaps.

    Lobes fenced off,
    Accomplishing distinct functions,
    Frontal, Temporal, Parietal, Occipital
    Working together to get it all done.

    In this rushed world,
    Cerebellum triggers movement,
    Stem rooted into the chord of the spine.

    Bundles of nerves,
    Wiring together all our different parts,
    Conducting the symphony of ourselves.

    Intellectual, Emotional, Functional,
    Physical, Psychological, Social,

    Sensory, Intuitive,
    Holistic, Multimodal,


    It’s all in our head.

  3. synapsesensations Post author

    Thank you for shedding more light on Emily Dickinson and her poem. Am smiling, as this poem seemed “simple” to me because I could understand it both in written format but also when read aloud. Perhaps “simple” is the wrong adjective, though, and maybe “decipherable” would be a better choice.

    Thank for you also for introducing me to Gerald Edelman, who I have added to my list of authors to check out.

  4. ET


    Like many Dickinson poems, this one is short. But I
    would definitely not characterize it as “simple”, especially
    the implications of the last stanza. She is cognitively
    very intricate, very complex.

  5. ET

    The first line of this remarkable poem provides the title for a
    2004 book by Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman –
    “Wider then the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness”,
    as well as the epigraph for the book, in which the author
    explains his theory of how brain function produces
    consciousness. He comments on how Dickinson’s insight
    in this poem is “impressive”, especially as it predated
    the development of modern brain science.

    Dickinson was a student of Consciousness, and was conversant in the philosophical/theological/scientific
    debates of her time, when Darwinian science was
    challenging the entire Puritan world view in which
    Dickinson had been raised.

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