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Thursday, April 25, 2013

In Praise of Broadmann Area 47 (and Galoshes)

I've been listening to a podcast about the science of sound, as explained for the lay audience, by scientist Daniel Levitin and musician Rosanne Cash, hosted by the Science & the City (the podcast of New York Academy of Sciences). At one point, Levitin is describing the part of the brain that is responsible for organizing sound, called Broadmann Area 47 (the red-highlighed area below), and Cash laughs and says with irony, "What a poetic name," or something akin to that.

File:Brodmann area 47 animation small.gif
from BodyParts3D, copyrighted by The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.1 Japan
Which I take exception to. Why is the name "Broadmann Area 47" not considered poetic?   Because it has a technical sound to it, a scientific sound? Because it's so specific? Because it has a number in it? To all these ideas, I take exception. To me, nothing is more poetic than a very specific reference that works as an image. I LOVE the name Broadmann Area 47. I would use it in a poem; in fact, now it will be a mission of mine to do so. (Not that this is necessarily a meaningful mission--I recall once reading a poem before which the poet explained that having been told there could be no poem about galoshes, she had written one; I just googled 'galoshes poem' to try and find it for this post, and couldn't, but I did discover that there are an abundance of poems about galoshes now.)

There are no poetic words, and no non-poetic words. It's the way, the manner, and in the context in which words are used that render them poetic. The ugliest-meaning word can be poetic when used to effect. The ugliest-sounding word also has its place, due in part to the reaction created by the harsh sounds. The words with the most banal meanings can be exquisite when used outside of a banal context. Broadmann Area 47 just by itself sounds lovely to me (put a number on anything and you've got my attention) but it could be made meaningful and poetic to a general audience when used by a good poet.

Which is to say that words need be neither mellifluous nor with unequivocally positive associations to be in a poem, but they need to be evocative.

These days traditionally "poetic" words--light and dark and longing and absence (all of which are topics of mine)--are banal themselves, rendered unpoetic through overuse. Fresh language and new imagery, that's where the poetry is--right there in Broadmann Area 47, which is not only responsible for organizing sound, but also for the processing of syntax in language. So ironically, if you want poetry, Broadmann Area 47 is not only among the right words to use, it's one of the places in your brain that you'll be using them. Bring your galoshes.

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