Richard Kenney: “Be Still My Heart: A Closer Look at Biology in Relation to Metrical Forms”

15595972190_7594aa56c4_b[Editor’s note: Mr. Kenney’s essay originally appeared as a comment in response to Derek Mong’s confidently declarative (if under-researched) critique: “Iambic Pentameter Has Nothing to Do with Your Heart” (Kenyon Review, April 16, 2016). We thought Mr. Kenney’s reply deserved a wider audience.]

The conversation is interesting, and full of credentialed expertise. So it’s with friendly diffidence that I discover myself convinced not so much between the principals as orthogonal to both. To the degree that Dr. Mong aims to rescue us from a seductive sentimentality, I nod my head; to the degree that he implicitly wags a finger at Anglophone presumption, I demur. To the degree that Dr. Finch defends intuition and common parlance, I nod my head; to the degree that she takes my pulse for my iambs, I’m with Dr. Mong. I don’t think we have iambic meters because we have a duple cardiac rhythm; neither do I think for a moment that they have nothing to do with each other. I think Dr. Mong protests too much when he calls their congruence a “coincidence.” Moreover, I think the discussion of “biology” goes a little astray, here. Our susceptibility to metrical pattern of all kinds—to pattern of all kinds—must be in some important sense “biological,” insofar as biology sets the conditions and limits for possible cultural variation. All this has me thinking about correlations, both with-and-without-causation. I suspect that, pushed far enough, this inquiry implodes at philosophical altitudes where my stubby wings lose purchase. Keeping low:

Kilts, grass-skirts and breech-clouts don’t obviate the relation between bipedalism and two-leggedness in trousers. Still, bipedalism causes that two-leggedness, never mind that sartorial traditions vary across cultures. Biology shapes, here, but doesn’t mandate. Imagine the Arabic Professor requesting the members of his audience to splay their hands in their laps, and then try to deny his contention that base-ten was “inevitable.” That the Babylonians in the back of the lecture hall happen to reckon by the dozen doesn’t obviate the biological relation between decimals and digits. I don’t think these are particularly good examples, except insofar as they note the point: to note that it isn’t necessarily so isn’t to say it isn’t so.

Do zebras, tigers, bankers, cartoon jailbirds, and the Duomo in Florence have “anything to do with each other?” They all look good. Why doesn’t everything have stripes?

What if I say: we’re vertical creatures. Lakoff and Johnson have shown just how ubiquitously aloft and alow those metaphors stretch and stoop. My milliner proposes over coffee that hats just must go high. Fitted to our apex, they extrude it skyward. My milliner points to threatened animals “making themselves bigger”; he mentions shakos, plumes, war bonnets. He says it’s just natural. Will the beret and the mobcap deny it? I don’t think they can. Some hats are all about our verticality. Are trees about verticality? Are we tall and thin so we can pass among them? Neurologists have demonstrated that certain cells in the visual cortex are dedicated to the perception of vertical lines and horizontal movements. Is a topper negatively geotropic?

I’ve read that in the Renaissance, ounce for ounce, cochineal beetles were the most valuable cargo a treasure-ship could carry. Why do we like red? Our lecturer might ask her audience to prick their fingers, in answer. Do we like red because our blood is red? Is it just a coincidence? Do we like blue because the sky is blue, or green because the earth is green? Well, yes and no! All humans are born with photoreceptors for those three wavelengths; I suspect all humans have an involuntary emotional response to a blood-slick; painting traditions vary.

Biology equips us for many kinds of pleasure; cultural variation has been able to discover a good many of them. Steven Pinker would call meter a “pleasure-inducing technology.” Whether it, or art generally, is “adaptive” in any evolutionary sense is an unsettled prickly issue, and for poetical purposes beside the point. That some milliners capitalize on our emotional response to verticality, or some painters to our response to red, or some drummers and poets to the entrancing properties of alternating pulse—it’s not coincidence, it’s sense.

This reminds me a little of the tired wisdom that “meter is an aid to memory,” as though that were its origin-story. That may explain why Tamerlane rhymed his military commands, or Don Draper his subliminal ones, but it doesn’t explain literature. We don’t do things to please their biological roots, evolutionary cognates, or adventitious effects, we do them because we’re inclined to. If music of a certain sort is playing, we tap our feet involuntarily. Drums magnetize attention everywhere; the hypnotist’s watch goes tick-tock. What does any of this have to do with the heart? If we eat when we’re hungry and drink when we’re dry, it’s not so much because we require glucose and hydration as because we’re hungry and thirsty. Tequila and burritos, whiskey and haggis, it happens everywhere, albeit in varying cultural inflection, and to say it’s not unrelated to digestion isn’t to say it’s explained by it. All cultures dance. All cultures deploy pulse or pattern in song; some carry those methods over to their written poetry. What does that have to do with the heart?

Neonatal medicine has cunningly deduced that stressed infants calm more quickly on their mother’s breast than they do in Plexiglass tubs. Edgar Poe stares white-eyed at the midnight ceiling, listening to the beat, and so do we all. Who can say quite why? The simplest alternation, propagated over space or time, produces pattern; it’s a biological commonplace that humans are attracted to and tractable by these symmetries, and the many more complicated ones that may be compounded from them. Whether ones-and-zeroes, parquet floors, plain-weave textiles, zebras, neonatal lub-dubs, pogo-sticks in the upstairs apartment, black and white stripes on the Duomo, ding-dong trolley-alarms, Nazi oratory rising and falling to the up-down slashing of a riding crop, or recurrence of lilacs in the nose in the spring, the simplest duple patterns have neurological consequence. If that’s a bizarre Venn diagram, what’s the overlap?—that is, what do these things have to do with one another? It’s a likeness relation, not a causal one, and it ramifies in biology, thumpingly.

So, stated simply and unobjectionably: the iamb’s u / is like the heart’s lub-dub. Why should this metaphor so often be taken too literally?

How did the banker get his pinstripes? We can imagine a good just-so story that wouldn’t involve tigers. Why do trouser-legs resemble human legs? We grant the causal connection. Why might the meter/heartbeat metaphor feel closer to the second condition, even without a causal connection? I’m sure the answer lies in the lexicon. If the word “digit” goes from hands to math and back, “heart” goes from cardiology through courage to implicate the whole spectrum of human feeling: few words are so capacious in a metaphorical sense. Important in this conversation to recall that, notwithstanding jokes about dactylic pulses, “heart” is more than a poetical cliché covering certain emotional conditions (I heart NY)— it’s in each of us our most palpable register of actual emotional arousal.* Emotions are first instantiated in the body, and only secondarily noted there by the mind. Though there are no more iambs in the chest than butterflies in the stomach, we grant the metaphor in the first case, and tend to lose it in the second. Why? I’d say it has to do with the fact that butterflies aren’t widely imagined to precipitate stomach-flutter, whereas meter in its character as devolved music seems biologically manipulative—that is, it precipitates measurable excitatory resonance in the chest.

If I imagine a metaphorical spectrum with legs on trews and digits for decimals at the “inevitable” end, running through butterflies in the stomach and bats in the belfry, all the way to fish for bicycles at the “coincidental” end, I’m reminded that hardly anything is good to its word, anyway, and an iambic plectrum to the heartstrings doesn’t feel so far a fetch.

Last thought: I was surprised that neither Dr. Mong nor any of his respondents have explicitly mentioned Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel’s work, reported in their essay titled “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time,” first published in Poetry some decades ago, and included in Turner’s book Natural Classicism. It makes serious claims concerning the physiology of meter—claims too closely argued to be dismissed with a wave of the hand, I’d say, whatever their truth may ultimately come to—and seems at any rate germane to this conversation.


* Nice paragraphs by Darwin, from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals:

“The vaso-motor system, which regulates the diameter of the small arteries, is directly acted on by the sensorium…. When a man or horse starts, his heart beats wildly against his ribs, and here it may be truly said we have an organ which has never been under the control of the will, partaking in the general reflex movements of the body.

The heart, which goes on uninterruptedly beating night and day in so wonderful a manner, is extremely sensitive to external stimulants. The great physiologist, Claude Bernard, has shown how the least excitement of a sensitive nerve reacts on the heart; even when a nerve is touched so slightly that no pain can possibly be felt by the animal under experiment. Hence when the mind is strongly excited, we might expect that it would instantly affect in a direct manner the heart; and this is universally acknowledged and felt to be the case. Claude Bernard also repeatedly insists, and this deserves especial notice, that when the heart is affected it reacts on the brain; and the state of the brain again reacts through the pneumo-gastric nerve on the heart; so that under any excitement there will be much mutual action and reaction between these, the two most important organs of the body.

Müller remarks (‘Elements of Physiology,’ Eng. translat. vol. ii. p. 934) that when the feelings are very intense, ‘all the spinal nerves become affected to the extent of imperfect paralysis, or the excitement of trembling of the whole body.’”

Richard Kenney’s most recent book is The One-Strand River (Knopf, 2008). He teaches at the University of Washington.

photo credit: Herzschlag (license)