January 25, 2008KR BlogReading

This Is the World’s “Longest Lasting Lightbulb.”

It was first installed in 1901 and is located at the fire station in Livermore, California. According to the bulb’s website, “You can visit the bulb depending on the availability of the Firemen on hand. Go to the rear of the station and ring the bell. If they are in someone will answer the door. Otherwise you can see the bulb if you look through the window up on the top of the wall to your left.”

Only three hundred and nine miles away lies the city of Eureka, named by optimistic miners during the Gold Rush. If you keep reading, you’ll discover what all of this has to do with poetry.

I just came across (via Poetry Hut) this piece on a recent scientific explanation for our eureka moments. According to the researchers, there are four stages to problem-solving:

(i) mental impasse, followed by (ii) restructuring of the problem representation, which leads to (iii) a deeper understanding of the problem, and finally culminates in (iv) an “Aha!” feeling of suddenness and obviousness of the solution.

In the study, subjects were asked to solve compound word puzzles. For example:

What word can be joined with back, clip, and wall?

If you’ve read the Newsweek blog, you already know the answer. If you haven’t, I’ll include it at the end of this post. (Don’t want to spoil the fun.)

But what if you get stuck? What’s happening in your brain? As Sharon Begley puts it:

[M]ental impasse was characterized by excessive gamma waves. This brain rhythm is enhanced with focused attention; simply put, the would-be problem solvers were thinking too hard about one specific thing.

But those who successfully solved the puzzles, sometimes after the scientists gave them a hint, seemed to let their thoughts run free, rather than overthinking either the problem or their own thought processes. That suggests that success depends on an unconscious restructuring of information, as volunteers let their brains reshuffle words almost randomly until they came up with the answer.

My John Ashbery mental impasse lasted for years. Like the subjects in this study, I was “mentally stuck on an unsuitable construct of the problem and fail[ed] to progress further.” I was absolutely determined to make normative, narrative sense of his poems. Something was going on, dammit, and I wanted to know what it was. I read “Self-Portait in a Convex Mirror” over and over, increasingly frustrated with myself and the poet.

According to the researchers, “the mental impasse may be a force directing problem solving efforts and providing resistance to finding new interpretations of the problem that must be overcome or it may merely be a temporal blockage of information retrieval needed for reaching the goal.” [Emphasis added]

So how did I get from impasse to restructuring, deeper understanding and “Eureka!”? The answer has a lot to do with Dara Wier. In April 2006, UMass held its annual Juniper Festival, this time celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ashbery’s first(ish) book, Some Trees. So in preparation for the festival, Dara arranged for a group of people to meet once a month and talk about each of his first five books, with Flow Chart thrown in for good measure. That was the first step.

But I still had to do the reading. I still had to set my brain to “the problem.” And as delightful as it is to imagine, you can’t consciously decide to turn down your gamma waves and up the theta. So to put it into consciousness-friendly symbols, here’s more from Begley:

the first thing to do is relax, mentally. Stop pursuing the same old dead ends. Let your thoughts wander. Let your attention flit between seemingly irrelevant memories and thoughts.

Compare that with this selection from “The New Spirit,” the first piece in Three Poems:

It is not easy at first. There are dark vacancies the light of the hunter’s moon does little to attenuate. Ever thought about the moon, how well it fits what it has to light? And those lacquer blobs and rivers of daylight, shaken out of a canister–so unmanageable, so indigestible . . . Well, isn’t that the point? No, but there comes a time when what is to be revealed actually conceals itself in casting off the mask of its identity, when the identity itself is revealed as another mask, and a lesser one, antecedent to that we had come to know and accept. You think of clean legends, of this waking as penetrating a solid block of day. But day is there to assure you that you can’t have this in another way, as you could with the films and shadows of night, to tell you that your mutually amused half-acceptance is not the wrong way to start, at any rate, that any breathing is to be breathing into each other, and imperfect, like all apprehended things.

I will not attempt to paraphrase this, but only tell you how completely relieved I was (and am) by Ashbery’s reassurances in the midst of his puzzlings. I shouldn’t say in the midst–this comes so early on in the poem that it serves as a kind of welcome, a way for Ashbery to say “Come in. There doesn’t seem to be much in here, but you have as much right to it as I do.” Not paraphrasing! Projecting!

So I had to relax. Ashbery was telling me to relax. I try to do as I am told. And then I read on into “The System,” where I found this:

Gradually one grew less aware of the idea of not turning back imposed as a condition for progress, as one imbibed the magic present that drew everything–the old and the new–along in the net of its infectious charm.

Ashbery knows minds will wander. Progress does not necessarily require a future destination. Even as I read forward through the sentence, caught in that charming net, my thoughts go simultaneously elsewhere. And that’s fine. Ashbery is not so needy that he demands my company all the way through, though he is always affable when I/my mind do(es) show up.

My mind wandered so far with this post that I spent half an hour looking at pictures of people and lightbulbs, trying to find one that seemed like more than an illustration of a person having an idea. And then once I found out about Livermore’s treasure, it was a short trip to Eureka and onward. And back to Ashbery, whom I am always (now) happy to see.

Speaking of seeing people, I’ll be at AWP soon, working at the jubilat table. Come by and and hello if you feel inclined.

And the answer to the puzzle (though you’ve already figured this out) is “paper.”

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.