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Quotes on Brains of Poets – Updated Aug 12, 2011

This post contains fascinating quotes from artists, writers and commentators and is getting looonger all the time – more than 150 so far. And of course, it’s about brains of poets, or, poets’ brains. And, look up to the left, under Home, for Quote of the Month, updated August 12, 2011. You might consider visiting the Journal of Consciousness Studies on the web and getting put on their listserve of multi-disciplinary commentary on the brain. Also fascinating, though sometimes very complex for a general reader – costs nothing to try.

1. Margaret Atwood

A summary of her thoughts: She uses different parts of her brain to write fiction and poetry. The fiction brain was the one that plans things in life, writes lists and the poetry brain was more connected to math and music i.e. symbols, and that it required a lot of space around it in order to create. Fiction writing, she said, was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration whereas writing poems required the reverse. She can pound at fiction every day, but not poetry. She needs to walk for poetry.

2a. Arthur Rimbaud – A Season in Hell

This is a good quote on Synaesthesia: I invented the colours of the vowels’ I made rules for the form and movement of each consonant, and, with instinctive rhythms, I flattered myself that I had created a poetic language which would one day be accessible to all the senses.

Comment: I will deal with synaesthesia in the book and how it is important to metaphor. Note that Seasons in Hell is also marked by its endless cycling between manic ups and depressive downs, even in one page.

2b. Arthur Rimbaud

I ended up regarding my mental disorder as sacred.

Comment: this is a very common feeling among artists, that the mood disturbances are where the art comes from, and because many artists consider themselves their work, they consider their mood disturbances ‘sacred’ and refuse the help of others, not to mention being reluctant to take medicines for them.

3. Carl Jung

[A poet] ‘is objective and impersonal ‘ even inhuman ‘ for as an artist he is his work, and not a human being… [sacrificing] happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being.’

Comment: a sobering thought; however, mistaking one’s work for oneself, leads to a lifetime of not being happy with one’s self, which need not be the necessary outcome. The book will deal in more depth with this issue as part of the personality and mood disturbances of the artist/writer.


4. Robin Skelton


[at 17 in 1942, regarding writing The Grail, it is] an instance of inspiration for I remember distinctly how the words seemed dictated to me entirely by some inner voice. Indeed I only understand what I had been writing about after I had finished the poem and read it as I would the work of any unknown poet’ [as in automatic writing, Robin’s term]

Comment: this seemingly innocuous statement has crucial concerns for the subject of where, in the brain, art is generated. The scientific community, even in 2007, does not believe that art can come from anywhere other than the conscious creative part of the right frontal cortex. (They have pointed out that certain specific abilities lie elsewhere, of course, and accept the conventional wisdom that art is from ineffable sources and that the subconscious mind (my term) plays an important role).


5. Jason W. Brown

It is natural to think that objects are offered up to consciousness with the self the spectator of a passing show, while in truth, consciousness and the self are deposited in the course of perception. The self is a residue of constructs within a perception left behind as the object moves outward.

Comment: As counterintuitive as the quote may sound, it is the current scientific conception. This means that we are in a period of radical reconstruction of the view of the human mind.

6. Ralph Ellis

Art teaches us to get beyond this [drawing instead what we conceptualize that we ought to be seeing] almost complete dominance of habitual categories, and to see things more freshly, both in the perceptual and in the emotive sphere. Rather than reinforcing our preconceptions, it forces us to see how they affect our view of reality.

Comment: this is because perception is active rather than passive, and begins with activity in the subconscious emotional brain areas, that we have connection to, but cannot directly perceive.

7. Robin Skelton

All art is juxtaposition, placing images beside each other in such a way as to suggest previously unnoticed or unimagined relationships. In making collages I attempt to discover relationships… The exact meaning is something I do not think about; I am only concerned that the final combination of images should hint at possible interpretations so that any one collage may have a slightly different significance for each observer. My titles are suggestions rather than assertions and I rather dislike the necessity of providing such lablels.

Comment: Another view on artistic creation and the role of the viewer in the creation of his/her own art through observation and interpretation.

8. ee cummings

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.

Comment: all writers/artists know this one. As in: sure you can be an artist, but get a real job first.

9. J.A. Goguen (JCS, V7, 2000)

The method of science calls for precise repeatable measurements, and for an objectivity that excludes all subjective factors on the part of the experimenter. This is very different from the method of art – indeed, it is nearly the opposite. That artists directly engage their subjectivity in their work is one of the few assertions that is very widely held among the highly diverse plethora of contemporary artistic movements. Moreover, repetition (at the time of creation) is anathema to most artists…

Comment: Goguen’s paper is the introduction to the second volume on art and the brain. He does an excellent job of bringing together the major theories of art that have emerged since the time of Aristotle, including ones from non-western traditions, and that, for at least the last century, artists have left the scientists, philosophers, psychologists and critics well behind. If you want to understand the context of the current debate on ‘what is art’ this is a good ten page summary.

10. Edvard Munch [The Scream, for example]

They [his mental troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and [to get rid of his mental troubles] would destroy my art. I want to keep these sufferings.

Comment: As it turns out, far from being incompatible with artistic achievement mental pathologies are often integrated by artists within the fabric of their lives. Munch’s view is typical. In other words art comprises such a large component of personal structure and self-esteem that many artists refuse treatment for serious mental illness for fear of losing art and hence themselves.

11. Roberta Tucker (JCS 11, p8)

…where science and philosophy describe, literature evokes, provokes, makes us feel, experience things. Literature’s approach is an experiential, not a logical, one. It seems to work more closely to the way we are discovering certain functions in the brain seem to work vs. the way logic (or the scientific method) works.

Comment: This is an interesting question because current science is revealing that the third of a second required between seeing and acting is mediated by the subconscious ’emotional’ brain (not the unconscious mind), and that all perception is an active process started by the subconscious brain. This implies that all science (a repeatable, measurement process) and logic are started by the subconscious brain where we have no consciousness.

12. Roberta Tucker (JCS V11, p7)

Literature also admits it is fiction and yet claims profundity and value. How can one take it seriously? Because we understand that the brain functions by means of fictions. Everything is a translation, transposition. Chemical and electrical changes in the brain are the the flower one sees and smells. What is memory but constant reconstruction? What is the unconscious? Every abstraction is a fiction. It’s why we need logic and the scientific method – to get around these tendencies. And then we take it seriously because humans engage in it, even scientists and philosophers.

Comment: the other thing to remember is that one early step in a baby’s development is recognizing that an object it sees from one angle is the same one seen when the baby moves and sees it from a different angle. The process of learning this and making a representation, is fundamental to human thought. It is the first step in making an abstraction, and, more importantly, is in itself a metaphor, meaning that metaphor is fundamental to human thinking.

13. (Dec 21) Robert Lowell

It’s terrible… to think that all I’ve suffered and all the suffering I’ve caused might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.

Comment: Lithium. In the same column of the Atomic Table as sodium. Imagine that

14. (D 21) Dylan Thomas

I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s a record.

Comment: Booze is the writer’s drug. According to Wikepedia (assuming we can trust Wikepedia), this often quoted quote isn’t true, or so the publican in New York who served Dylan up the drams has said.

15. (D21) Hugo Wolf

I would like to hang myself on the nearest branch of the cherry trees standing now in full bloom.

Comment: a not uncommon obsessive compulsion of the highly creative.

16. (D 21) Virginia Woolf

Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again… I can’t fight any longer.

Comment: and so saying, then filled her pockets with stones and walked deeply into the river.

17. (D 21) Vincent Van Gogh

The root of the evil lies in the constitution itself, in the fatal weakening of families from generation to generationi… the root of the evil certainly lies there. And there’s no cure for it.

Comment: Manic depression and other affective disorders are genetically disposed, but the life of the person also is important. Lithium compounds, carbamazepine for example, were not available in van Gogh’s time.

18. (D 21)Leo Tolstoy

The thought of suicide came to me as naturally then as the thought of improving life had come to me before… And I quit going hunting with a gun, so that I would not be too easily tempted to rid myself of life.

Comment: Good thing. Ain’t no guns in my life.

19. Julia Kindy (JCS 6)

Painting and sculpture must be experienced in their actual form and not in reproduction. One can never understand the all-encompassing, radiant atmosphere of a Mark Rothko painting, for example, unless standing in front of it. The scale alone of a Rothko canvas is meant to relate directly to the body, so that the painting can be ‘absorbed’ by more than the eyes. It is a direct physical experience. Looking at a reproduction is meaningless.

Comment: This speaks to the active nature, and multi-sensory theory of perception. Similar words could describe the experience of reading a poem.

20. E. Myin (JCS, 7)

The visual system, rather than being a source of rigid constraints, becomes itself an exploratory tool, directed towards the goals the artist sets for herself…. In the end, the self-conscsious perception and creation of the artist appear as ever more flexible capacities to modify lower level capacities.

Comment: This is even more obvious when the art in question is literature – poetry or prose, some steps removed from sight.

21. Paul Cezanne (Gasquet, 1927/91)

An art which does not have emotion as its principle is not an art… Emotion is the principle, the beginning and the end; the craft… the execution is the middle…

Comment: This means that the artist needs to pay attention to the sub-conscious as that is where emotions reside, a place where we have no consciousness.

22. Johnathan I. – Nuclear Sunrise

[The painter, after becoming profoundly colour blind, could only see black and white, realized] I felt if I couldn’t go on painting, I didn’t want to go on at all.

Comment: again, the intimate relationship between identity and the art of the individual. Happily, he went on painting – all in black and white.

23. Paul Cezanne (Rewald 1995)

…nature… is the necessary basis for all artistic conception… the knowledge of expressing our emotion is no less essential, and is only to be acquired through very long experience.

Comment: Hear, hear.

24. R.L. Solso (JCS, V7, 8/9, etc)

Experts from a wide range of areas, such as mathematics, music, photography, poetry, architecture… may exhibit specialized patterns of cerebral activity [as measured by fMRI] related to their expertise. Such studies… will answer some important questions about experts, ‘gifted’ people, and the origin of talent.

Comment: So we can use an MRI to show in images how a poet’s/writer’s thoughts differ from those of a non-poet/writer. We have the technology.

25. Jackson Pollock (Solso)

Painting is self discovery. Every good painter paints what he is… I am nature.

Comment: he also maintained that the source of all his imagery was the subconscious. His method of creativity was, as they say, psychic automatism. This means that he intended to work without any conscious control on what he was doing – in the drip paintings, for instance.

26. Shakespeare

The lunatic, the poet, and the lover are of imagination all compact… Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.

Comment: Most writers will know that in Shakespeare’s time love was considered a disease, a fever. And, of course, the quote is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This quote speaks to the creativity/madness issue, as in, to be great you must be mad.

27. Socrates

The demon

Comment: a divine gift granted to a few individuals (poets, philosophers, priests) so they can speak with the gods. An early view that tends to associate creativity, madness and religion. Little wonder that we, 2700 years later, have this view: it is our history, our myth.

28. Aristotle (Problemata XXX)

Homo melancholichus

Comment: a person (poet, artist, politician) gifted with sublime capacities and inextricably prone to madness. This means that the madness is the liability or the price the artist has to pay to do the art. Note the quotes of Rimbaud, Munch, etc. that many artists are quite willing to pay that price.

29. Sylvia Plath

When you are insane you are busy being insane – all the time…. When I was crazy that was all I was.

Comment: Plath was manic-depressive. And this shows she recognized that once off the deep end into psychosis, there was no creativity. We all know that she committed suicide, because of Ted, but no doubt because of the MD thing, too.

30. Graham Greene (1981)

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can mange to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear [sic] which is inherent in the human condition.


31. Patrick Lane

…and my poems, the broken ones that will never / be seen. These I keep for myself. They are / the other silence, the one that sings to me / when my friends are gone and the night / moves with great slowness in my hands.

Comment: This is what you do for the poems that cannot live on their own.

32. Paul Klee

[I want to] …be able to improvise freely on the keyboard of colours: the rows of watercolours in my paint box.

Comment: While the association of mathematics and music is obvious, the association of music and painting should also be. How many bad movies have been saved by a good score? Possibly a synaesthetic mechanism; a sub-conscious mood.

33. Vassily Klandinsky

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

Comment: a close friend of Klee. Both were musicians as well as visual artists.

34. Richard E. Cytowic (Ione)

Both synaesthesia and the artistic experience are ineffable, and both indescribable by language.

Comment: Perhaps

35. Richard E. Cytowic

[Furthermore] …when we say that art speaks to the depths of our souls – it speaks to that greater formless part of ourselves of which we have no awareness.

Comment: Precisely. The sub-conscious. Whether we have anything as grand as a soul is another question.

36. Kandinsky

[When listening to Wagner in1896] I saw all my colours in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.

Comment: Synaesthesia. Note the similarity with the Rimbaud quote way above.

37. Amy Ione discussing Michael Marmor’s Degas Through His Own Eye, 2002

…despite Degas’ assertion that inner vision determined the nature of an artist’s work, his decreasing visual acuity resulted in precisely the kind of crudeness in composition clinically associated with retinopathy. This is particularly evident when we compare the flawless rendering of his early work with the grotesque figures he painted at the end of his life.
Comment: This is a spectacularly serendipitous expression of mature artistic belief and subsequent counter analysis. After all, Degas would be well aware that his late, for example, Madame Alexis Rouart and Her Children, faces were ugly in comparison with his own paintings done earlier in life. In the face of this obvious discrepancy, he still maintained that inner vision determines the work.

38. Michelangelo

The greatest artists have no thoughts to show that / Which the marble in its superfluous shell does not contain / To break the marbel spell is all that the hand / That serves the brain can do.

Comment: The art is in the stone, the artist just releases it – a frequent description of the artistic process. I am surprised that Zeki, a very bright fellow indeed, sees this as saying the form of the art is in the sculptor and he/she carves this into the stone. (p88, JCS, V6, 1999).

39. Ralph Ellis

…the eyes continually dance, with thousands of micro-movements per second [saccades], and that without this active, self-generated movement, the eye could not see.

Comment: This means that we are constantly looking out to the world, not waiting for it to come at us. This is active perception, mediated by the subconscious. This is fundamental to human consciousness.

40. bill bissett

I am devoted to the tactile sense of language. When I look at letters, I see pictures. Some poets are more devoted to the meaning as representational, but that’s not my objective.

Comment: Synaesthesia. A different sense of the word representational from the one used in the science world. From our favourite Canadian poet from a different planet. “Raging, excellent, lightning, magic rainbows.”

Comment: Synaesthesia. A different sense of …whatever.

41. Alison Abbott

Where long term memories for tunes are stored is… less clear, but they are remarkably resilient: once we have learnt a melody we rarely forget it.

Comment: This supports my contention, that will be a footnote in The Brains of Poets, that the tremendous memory potential we contain can be simply seen in the huge amount of trivial info we have, as in: each of us knows 5,000 pop songs.

42. Elvis Presley

I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.

Comment: Thank you, thank you very much.

43. (Mar, 08) Elias Canetti (Crowds and Power)

The most marked trend in paranoia is that towards a complete seizing of the world through words.

Comments: He wasn’t intending to align paranoia with poets, but see how it fits, it fits.

44. Chinue Achebe

Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.

Comment: Art is about meaning, fundamental meaning.

45. Lorna Crozier

There is a kind of logic that sound creates’that rhythm creates and that metaphor creates’which is the essential logic that lies at the heart of a good poem. It’s a kind of thinking, of proposing, of reasoning that can teach us the most because it’s done at a level beyond thought.

Comment: yes, exactly.

46. Rainier Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

Beauty is nothing but the beginning of a terror we are just able to endure.

Comment: If beauty is the beginning of terror, or loss, then it is connected to deeper parts of the brain than the pleasure centre, not that that is a bad place, but that there is more, much more to art.

47. Mark Changizi,

Animals who move or are in a world that moves around them – as long as there are things moving somehow relative to you – will be selected to have perceptions that are true. We have about a tenth of a second delay between the time light hits the retina and the time of resultant perception, which is considerable given that you move 10 centimeters in that amount of time even if you’re only walking one metre per second. That means that if you didn’t compensate for this neural delay, anything you perceive to be within 10 cm of passing… would have just passed you by the time you perceive it. You’d always be seeing the world as it was a tenth of as second earlier and seeing what the world looks like 10 cm behind where you in fact are – if you hadn’t run into whatever it is you’re looking for.

Comment: so we are more and more in the past the faster we go? Like riding in a plane or rocket. And what does the word ‘true’ mean?

48. Amy Ione, JCS, 10, 2, 2003

… [his] Timeaus was particularly successful in spreading Platos teleology and his rejection of sensation and observation in favour of reason… the approach he outlined is still employed to ask and answer questions about the mind, sensory experience, perception and the relationship between empirical knowledge and what is oftern designated as ‘true knowledge’.

Comment: There are two issues here: how great an effect Plato has had in shaping what the western world does and thinks about the mind for more than two millennia; and, the fallacy that I call: even bright people make dumb mistakes. What Amy Ione means is that, it’s dangerous to accept received knowledge, as in Plato, as ‘true’ and then use his ideals to prove theories about the empirical world.

49 Wallace Stevens

Reality is the product of the most august imagination.

Comment: quite the reversal from the present neurobiological, and not to mention common sense, model that reality is what comes at us. Imagination is where the conscious and the subconscious are their most creative.

50. William James

The systematic denial on science’s part of personality as a condition of events, this rigorous belief that in its own essential and innermost nature our world is a strictly impersonal world, may, conceivably, as the whirligig of time goes round, prove to be the very defect that our descendants will be most surprised at in our own boasted science, the omission that to their eyes will most tend to make it look perspectiveless and short.


51. Henry David Thoreau

The poet writes the history of his own body.

Comment: The idea here is that man is his body and the mind is part of the body. No Cartesian duality here, at least in this quote.

52. Walt Whitman

This is the female form;

A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot;
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction!
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a
Helpless vapour ‘ all falls aside but myself and it;

Comment: Whitman believed that the body and soul were the same, and that the body not only was the soul, but that the body was all, and so one looked to what the body felt to feel what the soul felt. Today, I would draw your attention to the sense of smell, in this quote from, I Sing The Body Electric, as in the electricity of the nerves, and that smell is what attracts, pheromones, and so on – the one sense that the nerves pass directly to the subconscious.

53. Marya Fiamengo

“All art,” the French poet Mallarme writes, “aspires to the condition of music.” Poetry is the music of language.

Comment: Music as primal, a hearing thing. And poetry, yes… What matters to Fiamengo, who taught for 31 years at UBC, is that poetry “affirms the validity, integrity and sanctity of the human spirit.” Marya, born in 1926, wrote this comment in 2008, the kind of vision that a person comes to in advanced years.

54. Jonah Lehrer

Nottebohm, in a series of remarkably beautiful studies on bird brains, showed that neurogenesis was required for bird song. To sing their complex melodies, male birds needed new brain cells. In fact, up to 1 percent of the neurons in the bird’s song centre were made fresh every day.

Comment: Furthermore, it only works in free birds in nature. Animals in cages do not grow new brain cells. In other words, every three months, the entire bird song centre is new.

55. Jonah Lehrer

The hippocampus … modulates learning and memory, is continually supplied with new neurons, which help us to learn and remember ideas and behaviors. Other scientists have discovered that antidepressants work by stimulating neurogenesis … implying that depression is ultimatel ycaused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons, and not by a lack of serotonin.

Comment: there are antidepressants being developed that target production of new brain cells, something that has the potential to change humanity, because everyone will want to take them. Talk about soma for Pfizer.

56. George Eliot

Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience.

Comment: Chaos theory stresses the indeterminantcy of life, even DNA, even our brains from day to day. We are neither free nor determined. And art suggests various solutions in its various possible explanations, which is a mark of great poetry. One could argue that the brain is a great poem, because it is linguistic indeterminantcy (to coin a word).

57. Thomas Kuhn

Until the scientist has learned to see nature in a different way, the new fact is not quite a scientific fact at all.

Comment: Ah, but the difficulty is apprehending that the new fact is a material new fact, that is, one that will result in a paradigm shift in science, or simply a pretender to such grand changes of heart by scientists. Also of interest here is that nature has not changed, it is simply the scientists point of view that has changed. Most readers will realize that this is essentially a zen point of view.

58. Jonah Lehrer

A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.

Comment: This unsettling truth was discovered by Joseph LeDoux, in 2000. He showed that giving a rat a chemical injection that blocks the process of remembering a memory – fear after a noise, similar to the Pavlov dog thing – that the original memory also disappeared. This means that memories are not settled, or ‘things’ sitting on a shelf in a pigeon hole waiting to be retrieved – the way we think of memory. In fact when you remember something, you are beyond the true memory of the actual that affected you, for example the taste of cinnamon is not the same thing as a memory of it, and as you remember remembering it, you actually change your memory and do so every time you remember something , because the act of remembering is laying down a new memory.

59. Emile Zola

The novelist must become a scientist, “employing the experimental method in their study of man…” in an effort to, “describe man as he really is… ” and the writer must “disappear, and simply show what he has seen. The tender intervention of the writer weakens a novel and introduces a strange element into the facts which destroys their scientific value.”

Comment: Thank goodness this was said more than 100 years ago in the late 1800s, rather than now when it would have been used to discredit a lot of other writing from a scientific perspective that believed in the reductionist perspective that art is describable totally by neurobiology and the rules of physics. On the other hand, though, the pushing of the novelist out of sight with the intent of presenting what the artist has seen, has that ring of modernism going post.

60. Immanuel Kant

The imagination is a necessary ingredient of perception itself.

Comment: This assertion predates current science that says light in the eye is split to V1 in the visual cortex concerned with edges/lines, and that that goes to the right frontal area to immediately focus the data and eye on form.’ We see what we want to or expect to see. The line in a nonfinito painting by Cezanne, Mount Sainte-Victoire, for example, that suggests the presence of a mountain is interpreted as such by the mind, even though there is only a quick line on a canvas and a lot of white space.

61. Arnold Schoenberg (composer)

If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.

Comment: This is an illustration of a common sentiment by artists (this one in 1908). But, note, that it is from the time after when there became a middle class that could read and had some money to buy things, and thus after the time when the rift between art and society occurred.

I should add that Schoenberg, and then Stravinsky were the guys who invented dissonance and where the 20th century love affair with atonal music came from. Interesting to think that cubism arose not that much later, which many might think dissonance in visual art.

62. Igor Stravinsky

[Daring is] …the motive force of the finest and greatest artist. I approve of daring: I set no limits to it.

Comment: This is an expression of the ache an artist feels in order to create, the agitation, the necessity to go beyond one’s limits, and creation is seen as endlessly new art, rather than repeating the art of the past. Quite the opposite of science which is all about repeatability – (and interestingly, that Ludwig points out that the artist and the scientist have the most similar personalities of all the other kinds of professions out there). And Stravinsky prised reinventing himself continually through his career. This is the equivalent, in poetry, of trying to write to a completely new aesthetic every time, perhaps every book, the poet writes.

63. Jonah Lehrer

We are built to abhor the uncertainty of newness. How do we escape this neurological trap? By paying attention to art. The artist is engaged in a perpetual struggle against the positive-feedback loop of the brain, desperate to create an experience that no one has had before. And while the poet must struggle to invent a new metaphor and the novelist a new story, the composer must discover the undiscovered pattern, for the originality is the source of the emotion. If art feels difficult, it is only because our neurons are stretching to understand it.

Comment: While several possible comments come to mind, I will make only this: think of the time before art and society separated, the time when art was paid for by kings and queens and the church.’ By being paid for, the artist was using his vision in service of he who paid the bill for thousands of years. Now, after a literate middle class has arisen with income and time to spend, art severed the connection, in the past couple of hundred years. It is only in this recent past that artists have been able to get on with the ongoing restless always changing task of taking humanity where the mind should go.

64. Charles Darwin

Language is an instinctive tendency to acquire an art.

Comment: ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.’

65. Gertrude Stein

There is only one language.

Comment: this scientist, doctor, writer wrote a fancy sort of gibberish about the rules of language a century ago. But she recognized what Chomsky did 50 years later: there is universal grammar; the minds of all have the instinct, or deep structure, if you wish, for language.’ Even the deaf children from Nicaragua developed sign-language grammar when brought together in the first deaf school in the 1980s. In her Tender Buttons, for instance, it made clear that the reader only becomes aware of the grammar/structure of language if language was subverted.

66. Gertrude Stein

I found out there is no such thing as putting them [words] together without sense. It is impossible to put them together without sense. I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible. Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.

Comment: In other words language has a deep structure and universal grammar. It also means that this deconstruction of language does not have to be done again.

67. Virginia Woolf

The mind receives a myriad of impressions. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday… Let us [novelists] record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.

Comment: This is a 20th century concern, the self, the consciousness of the human mind, in this case the fragments are brought together and constitute that flowing thing we call the self, and, of course, the style of her and Joyce and Faulkner was stream of consciousness, Ulysses for the former, and The Sound And The Fury (yes, yes, Absalom, Absalom, too) for the latter.

68. T.S. Eliot

The poet is not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality.

Comment: objectification, removing from the poet the desire to express a unified soul, on the grounds that we don’t have one, just bits and pieces of current thought.

69. Steven Pinker

Human intelligence, with its capacity to think an unlimited number of abstract thoughts, evolved out of primate circuitry for coping with the physical and social world, augmented by a capacity to extend these circuits to new domains by metaphorical abstraction.

Comment: This is the linguistic version of the story of metaphor development. Pinker goes on to say that most metaphors are ‘deader than a doornail’.’ That’s true, but there are lots of other ways that metaphors get developed: by the representation process in the first year of our lives; by synaesthesia; by the association of different categories of thought, and so on. Do read the metaphor chapter in The Stuff of Thought. It shows that our usual talking is riddled with thousands of cliche metaphors, that we have forgotten were cliches to those who coined them and to the millions of people who have used them over the years. There are many amusing, ho-hum metaphors in the chapter.

70. George Lakoff

Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

Comment:’ So, everybody thinks and speaks metaphorically. But poets do so extraordinarily or novel-ee a basic component of creativity.

71. Steven Pinker

The view from language shows us the cave we inhabit, and also the best way out of it. With the use of metaphor and combination, we can entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. We can do this even as our minds flicker with the agonists and antagonists, the points and lines and slabs, the activities and accomplishments, the gods and sex and effluvia, and the sympathy and deference and fairness that make up the stuff of thought.

Comment: See my book review on: The Stuff Of Thought

72. Steven Pinker

[our ideas, feelings and attachments] and our ability to combine them into bigger assemblies and to extend them to new domains by metaphorical leaps goes a long way toward explaining what makes us smart.

Comments: What we poets knew all along.

73. Plato

He has a short bull-neck, a pug nose, black skin and bloodshot eyes; companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears – deaf as a post – and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.

Comment: Plato got the old rational emotional mind thing going with his metaphor of the mind being a chariot pulled by two horses and being controlled by the rational mind. One horse is good, the above one is bad. And man, the charioteer, must struggle to keep reason ascendant over emotion.

And there is a long list of other philosophers who are also from Christian religion Europe, like Descarte, Kant and so on, all believed in reason over emotion and the separation of body and mind. Current science still has adherents to this old fallacy – Ramachandran, Zeki and so on.

74. Plato

If the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then we can lead a life here in happiness and harmony, masters of ourselves.

Comment: and so, Plato laid the ground work for our western tradition, some 2,400 years ago, and even today of rational mind over irrational emotion. Of course, the mind is now seen not so much in these opposite poles but in in a collection of drives moving toward the ways we go and the decisions we make. As a person with a degree in philosophy, I am always stunned to find how much wasted thought there has been from a philosophic point of view. At the time, I was being steeped in British Empiricism, that thought the rest of the world simply substandard. I read on my own: Wittgenstein (one of their own, ignored!), Sartre, Kierkegaarde, Heidigger, Husserl, Confucius, The Upanishads, Kant and etc. holed up in my frozen hall of residence, sitting in a sleeping bag and reading by the yard.

75. Freud

The events of human history are only the reflections of the dynamic conflicts among the id [irrational, bad, emotion, the pleasure principle] and ego [rationality, reason, strength to fight the id], which psychoanalysis studies in the individual – the same events on a wider stage.

Comment: Same old, same old.

76. Goya

The sleep of reason produces monsters.

Comment: reason alone produces monsters.

77. Jonah Lehrer

Over time, Freudian psychology lost its scientific credibility. Discussion of the id, ego and Oedipus complex were replaced by references to specific areas in the brain; Viennese theory gave way to increasingly exact anatomical maps of the cortex. The metaphor of the Platonic chariot seemed woefully obsolete.

Comment: The slow shift of paradigms by thoughts acting in time. Leaves in their lives.

78. David Hume

[Reason is] the slave of passions.

Comment: and you thought he was the square Presbyterian who concluded the sequence of Locke and Barkley (sp) that set British philosophy much more rationally above the rest of the philo-world. And showed primarily that what we experience of the world has nothing to do with the world only with sense data in our heads and bodies.

And you thought his weighty tome, A Treatise On Human Nature, had its only purpose to be combined with The Alexandria Quartet and the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy and used to keep your door open on a stiflingly hot day. Hmm.

79. Joseph Ledoux

…consciousness is a small part of what the brain does, and it’s a slave to everything that works beneath it.

Comment: remember the subconscious? When we say we are thinking, say of choosing a pretty mate, we are feeling what we want, driven by our emotions, the limbic system with all its lust and violence, and blood and the death of the bull in the dusty ring.

80. Salvador Dali

The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.

Comment: Dali with his wilted watch and slow, bored appreciation of time, was right. Great artists are not mad, at least not when they are producing art. They may well be mad at other times, Robert Schumann’s highs and lows correspond exactly with his output of art; highs produce huge output of music; lows correspond to zero music. But these bi-polar extremes are both useful to the artist.

81. Read Montague

You’re probably 99.9 percent unaware of dopamine release, but you’re probably 99.9 percent driven by the information and the emotions it conveys to other parts of the brain.

Comment: dopamine is the pleasure/attention chemical released from brain cells in the anterior cingulate cortex. It is instantaneously transmitted all over the brain by spindle cells that connect the entire brain together. So a tiny beginning can have a huge immediate consequence in what we feel and what we do.

Most importantly, the spindle cells that instantly transmit the feeling to all areas of the brain are present only higher primates. And humans have 40 times more of these long, slender cells. This is one proof that tiny fluctuations in our emotions have huge effects on what we do.

82. Sting

Music is a mystery, it doesn’t end.

Comment: Poetry is about possibility, and perhaps this makes it close to melody, but then, what would a visual artist say? I think the emotion thing is the connection. One interesting thing about Sting in the documentary: The Musical Brain, is that the corpus callosum lit up in an MRI of his brain doing music. That part of the subconscious mind is about moving information from the left and right hemisphere back and forth, integrating melody with words. And this is something that distinguishes a good musician from someone who just plays, the CC does not light up.

Sting found looking at his brain with the lit up parts rather creepy. It was scary, ugly, Martian to him, perhaps an early notion, but his comment was that knowing how it works may make it that he can’t do it. So, he would not pay attention to it.

83. Jonah Lehrer

The activity of our dopamine neurons demonstrates that feelings aren’t simply reflection of hard-wired animal instinct… human emotions are rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells, which are constantly adjusting their connections to reflect reality. Everytime you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Our emotions are deeply empirical

Comment: What this means is that the almost three millennium-long western penchant for reason over emotion, Plato, Kant, Descartes, Judeo-Christian religion, isn’t even in the ballpark for telling us what the brain actually does.

84. Jonah Lehrer – How We Decide

When you compare a modern human cortex to [sic] any other primate, or even to some of our hominid ancestors’, the most obvious anatomical difference is this swelling at the fore. The Neanderthal, for example, had a slightly larger brain than Homo sapiens. But he still had the prefrontal cortex of a chimp. As a result, Neanderthals were missing one of the most important talents of the human brain: rational thought.

Comment: This is right above your right eyebrow, just behind the skull bone. This is the spot where we conceive of rationality, consider. And this is what Antonio Egas Moniz, with two little slits in the skull, cut off from the rest of the brain and won the Nobel Prize for in 1949. He had performed the first frontal lobotomy (1935), a thoroughly disgusting thought as it is of the same magnitude as capital punishment, or the general in Vietnam who held the pistol to the skull and killed the wincing ‘gook’ on television sets all over the world.

85. Aristotle

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to become angry withthe right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.

Comment: A lot of thought is required to do this, as well as the strong emotion mediated by the amygdyla, that all feel. The other side comes with a lot of experience. Think of the shaping part of making art. Doesn’t Aristotle’s thought sound a great deal like a seasoned artist – not in the burst of creation – but in for example, the Manet (?) squiggles that just represent the mountain that he came to later in life.

86. Mavis Gallant

I never thought I would be unsuccessful [but] I don’t want to turn what I have done and who I am into my work. They are two separate things. Because [writing] comes out of another part of you, your brain, your system.

Comment: Gallant was turning aside praise in an interview and saying that writing was not about herself. And one who is on that same pedastel as Tolstoy, Munro and Trevor – as prose writers. And not interested in herself being the subject of biography, though she is editing a juicy tale for publication after she’s dead. A good plan, for memoirs have a way of being flat when those you know and love are, or you, alive.

87. Mavis Gallant

I didn’t want that life. I wouldn’t have been able to write.

Comment: she is talking about not having had a lasting marriage and children. The passion of an artist, that other things don’t get in the way.

88. Antonio Damasio

When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.

Comment: This is in the 2005 preface to Damasio’s classic book regarding the role of emotion in conscious thinking, Descartes Error, 1994. This surprising conclusion that helped turn our reason over emotion paradigm from the past three millennia, means just what it says: emotion is a normal part of our conscious, and unconscious, reaching of conclusions. If not involved, lack of emotion leads to such strong negative outcomes that a person can be completely unable to function in their lives.

89. Antonio Damasio

… there seem to be no permanently held pictures of anything [in our minds]… If the brain were like a conventional library, we would run out of shelves just as conventional libraries do… memory is essentially reconstructive.

Comment: it is the emotional presence an artist brings to his/her internal images that make them burn and live in frames and on pages. While emotion is present in everyone, the ‘pastiche’ of what we feel strongest about, makes an artist special, not the pastiche, but the rendering of it in a certain medium, like say, words, for poets.

90. Antonio Damasio

The evidence on biological regulation demonstrates that response selections of which organisms are not conscious and which are thus not deliberated take place continuously in evolutionarily old brain structures. Organisms whose brains only include those archaic structures and are devoid of evolutionarily modern ones – reptiles, for instance – operate such response selections without difficulty. One might conceptualize the response selections as an elementary form of decision making, provided it is clear that it is not an aware self but a set of neural circuits that is doing the deciding.

Comment: And yet, it is those old centres that give rise to the fundamental below the surface feelings that contribute to, along with conscious creativity, etc., to the artist being able to produce art, by the connection with and accessing what is below consciousness.

91. Wallace Stevens

The reader bacame the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.

Comment: where the book is. The transformative power of poetry.

92. Emily Dickenson

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch-
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Comment: Walking through consciousness.

93. Antonio Damassio

In the cerebral cortices… there is an ever-changing pattern of neural activity. There is nothing static about it, no baseline, no little man – the homunculus – sitting in the brain’s penthouse like a staue, receiving signals from the corresponding part of the body. Instead there is change, ceaseless change.

Comment: This is the answer to one of the so-called hard problems of a representational view of how the brain works. There is no little man that caves back into another little man, and so on. Instead, there is only active perception and our experience of it as a side issue we call consciousness.

94. Antonio Damassio

We cannot fool ourselves anymore than we can fool others when we only smile politely… This may be the very good reason why great actors, opera singers, and others manage to survive the simulation of exalted emotions they regularly put themselves thorugh, without losing control.

Comment: Pages 142 – 149 of Descartes Error will be of interest to actors, and how they push their emotions, feelings and behaviour to do convincing work. This patch also discusses the Lawrence Olivier approach of portraying an emotion and the method approach of actually making yourself feel something for it to be convincing. In the latter approach, this pushing one’s self internally, for example, crying, and doing the scene over and over to get it right on film would be very draining.

95. Leo Szilard

The creative scientist has much in common with the artist and the poet. Logical thinking and an analytical ability are necessary attributes to a scientist, but they are far from sufficient for creative work. Those insights in science that have led to a breakthrough were not logically derived from preexisting knowledge: The crative prosses on which the progress of science is based operate on the level of the subconscious.

Comment: Yes.

96. Jonas Salk

[creativity rests on a] merging of intuition and reason.

Comment: Yes.

97. Antonio Damassio

From an evolutionary perspective, the oldest decision-making device pertains to basic biological regulation; the next, to the personal and social realm; and the most recent, to a collection of abstract-symbolic operations under which we can find artistic and scientific reasoning, utilitarian-engineering reasoning, and the developments of language and mathematics. But although ages of evolution and dedicated neural systems may confer some independence to each of these reasoning/decision-making ‘modules,’ I suspect they are all interdependent. When we witness signs of creativity in contemporary humans, we are probably witnessing the integrated operation of sundry combination of these devices.

Comment: And think, cave art from Europe and Australia may be as much as 50,000 years old. We have been doing art for a long time. It is that important to us, to our preferences, to our emotions (sorry, feelings, if you are AD)… what came first, talking or art?

98. Emilie Glazer

Eysenck (1993) proposed one of the most influential thories in the field. He claimed that his psychoticism (P) personality dimension is directly related to creativity, the association being mediated by high divergent thinking and low inhibition, governed by raised levels of nervous system dopamine.

Comment: The dopamine component is the making of connections rapidly without much mediated conscious thought. It is also about the body, and intuition. So, you have ability to be original and at the same time suppress negativity to such creative thoughts and with high ‘reward’ and intuitional emotion.

99. Emilie Glazer

[Jamison] suggests that each mood experienced in affective disorder provides specific contributions to creative ability. Mild manic periods enable high energy, rapidity, flexibility and fluidity of thought, the cognitive aspects of hypomania parelleling imaginative thinking. Depressions allows the meticulous refinement, focus and organization of the wild ideas formed during the manic period. Fluctuating between these two mood states allows the infividual to experience a range of human emotions, placed in’ the unique position to express basic human universals, facilitating an empathic relationship with the audience.

Comment: Her conception is one of the well known capsulizations of the useful aspects of bi-polar disease, when I person is not laid out by the full blown ends of the spectrum. But the last clause doesn’t seem valid to me as a poet. I don’t write for an audience other than for the most literate possibility out there. A fictional audience at best. Poetry is for the self, connection with others is another issue entirely.

100. Antonio Damasio

The minimum neural device capable of producing subjectivity thus requires early sensory cortices (including somatosensory), sensory and motor cortical association regions, and subcortical nuclie (expecially thalamus and basla ganglia) with convergence properties capable of acting as third-party ensembles.

Comment: This view of subjectivity, as in, I think of myself, does not suffer the receding homunculous problem of the representational view of the brain. It also, in my view, starts to give a description that ‘objective’ science might have an in to subjectivity to study it, something that has engendered a lot of dispute in science circles. In addition, it also gives a mechanism whereby some higher animals can be seen to have subjective knowledge of themselves. Humans have an additional second order of ‘narrative capacities’ by virtue of our language.

I would add one more thing: as we grow through baby-hood, one of the innate concepts that comes on stream is, as they say, the ‘theory of others’, meaning that we understand that those faces out there, of our mother and father, are different from ourselves. They are outside of us and are their own objects. My suggestion here, is that the subjective may arise simply as an offshoot of understanding there are other people, something that occurs long before we can speak.

101. Rene Descates

… I think, therefore I am… From [this] I knew I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is to think, and that for its existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this ‘me’, that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from body, and is even more easy to know than is the latter; and even if body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.

Comment: A classic quote from Descartes. Such a clear, intentional division between body and mind. And the western world has held such notions for three millennia leading up to and beyond Descartes. We still believe it. Science is Voltaire’s out of wed-lock child. And we believe science… with good reason.

102. William Faulkner

The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Comment: While Faulkner was talking to other writers, it would be nice to take this quote and give it broader application, as in, to all of men. There is another question: Faulkner was not a poet, so how does he know this, meaning, can we trust him? That depends on the use we put this quote to.

103. Leon Tolstoy

All happy families are like one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Comment: minds react to pain and pleasure in different ways. The two states are not mirror images.

104. VS Ramachandran

Your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has constructed purely for convenience.

Comment: this counterintuitive thought came from his using a mirror box so amputees would see their real limb projected onto the end of the limb they have lost, and that they experienced loss of pain, loss of ‘frozeness’ and felt control over the non-existing limb. This means that we don’t need a real limb, or body to feel pain or any other sensation. We just have to see it because the brain produces a map of sensation for it. And because the body images of our limbs are perfectly projected onto our actual limbs, making it impossible to distinguish our body image from our body. This explains that zen thing of being out of your suffering body in your mind. It also suggests that if we project on our mind the image of ourselves as a brilliant poet, or anything else, for that matter, we believe it and act that way to, presumably, create much better poetry. p 186 Doidge

105. David Zieroth

Some poems come unbidden, from somewhere that remains hidden but active, that odd combination that I once despaired of knowing more about but am now content to let be, grateful its ‘is-ness’ has chosen me.

Comment: that elusive thing, though he goes on to say, he has more prosaic sources from conversations with non-poets and so on.

106. David Zieroth

I write for myself. I write to find out what I know, how well I know it, how best to articulate that knowledge, what delights I might encounter along the way and which directions I couldn’t have imagined had I not begun’that eureka moment of chthonic connection, that golden thread. I write to keep in touch with the mystery of poetry, that power beyond reason.

I also write for the perfect inner ear of the perfect listener.

Comment: Yes, we write for ourselves and the perfect reader.

107. Eric Kandel

Psychotherapy changes people, “through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections, and structural changes that alter the anatomical pattern of interconnections between nerve cells of the brain.”

Comment: this is brain plasticity at its basic level: individual nerve cells, individual synapses. These change. And you can change them simply by willing it so, as is done in a shrink’s office. That is why you can become better at something, such as poetry, particularly if you are a poet already. This is because will, or focus on right prefrontal activities is only part of the poet’s package. But will is very important.

108. Norman Doidge

When we read, the meaning of a word is stored or ‘mapped’ in one sector of the brain; the visual appearance of the letters is stored in another, and its sound in yet another. Each sector is bound together in a network, so that when we encounter the word, we can see it, hear it, and understand it. Neurons from each sector have to be activated at the same time – coactivated – for us to see, hear and understand at once.

Comment: The complexity of understanding a word. Consider that there are also symbol languages like Cantonese, and hieroglyphs like Egyptian and Mayan and that there are languages that you can only hear, thus you do not understand them through a ‘letter’ on a page.

109. Grafman

… if you take a million people, and you look at the same areas of their brains, you will see those areas more or less committed to performing the same functions or processes. They may not be in the exact same place. And they shouldn’t be, because each of us will have different life experiences.

Comment: Grafman is talking about normal development. But, say, you only had the right half of your brain, if you could speak and read, that means the normal functioning of the left side of the brain actually resided in the right side. The point is the age at which it happens… But what this means is that normal ‘plasticity’ guarantees that every person is different from the rest of the world, and in fact, because border area neurons get taken up with events you are thinking about right now, that you are not the same person from one minute to the next, much as a river is the same but never the same. This is yet another exceptional discovery, much like the one Human Genome discovering that 80% of our brain genes are junk, that point to our thinking being, like chaos theory, like fingerprints, that each is unique, but the brain is constantly changing you to someone else. And you thought memory was real.

110. Ken Robinson

IQ tests can even be a matter of life and death. A criminal who commits a capital offense is not subject to the death penalty if his IQ is below seventy. However, IQ scores regularly rise over the course of a generation (by as much as twenty-five points), causing the scale to be reset every fifteen to twenty years to maintain a mean score of one hundred.

Comment: Scary. The real point Robinson makes is that IQ tests are limited focus tests of limited focus educational interest in ability to read and do math. This is a holdover from the industrial revolution. Getting rid of IQ tests means changing the education system, and The Element argues for change.

111. Henry James

The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind…. If you change your mind, you can change your life.

Comment: You can become a better poet simply by framing your mind so as to become better.

112. Norman Doidge

Read the last few pages of The Brain That Changes Itself, Appendix 1, p 308 -311. They deal with Marshall McLuhan’s concepts about media and the connection with brain plasticity. In short, media are an extension of our senses, and they implode into us.

Comment: We wear our brains outside our bodies.

113. Vidal Sassoon

My philosophy has always been to share knowledge. Our academy and education centres are filled with energy. That’s what helps young people to push the boundaries of their creativity. I tell them if you have a good idea, go for it, do it your way. Take good advice, make sure it is good advice, then do it your way.

Comment: And you thought all he could do was give you a shampoo.’ Take good advice, make sure it is good advice, then do it your way. Jump off that cliff, but only after you are sure you have received good advice.

114. Michelangelo

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.

Comment: Yes, I know this is not about poetry, but it is worth bearing in mind.

115. JZ Young

Poets teach us to use words with special force. We may need their help in finding new ways to talk about brains.

Comments: sounds good to me.

116. David Zieroth (David Kosub)

DK: Who do you write for? For readers? For yourself? Other poets?

DZ: I write for myself. I write to find out what I know, how well I know it, how best to articulate that knowledge, what delights I might encounter along the way and which directions I couldn’t have imagined had I not begun’that eureka moment of chthonic connection, that golden thread. I write to keep in touch with the mystery of poetry, that power beyond reason.

I also write for the perfect inner ear of the perfect listener.

Comment: the last comment is the outside interest of all poets – outside of themselves. See:, for the rest of the interview.

117. Dante

It seemed to me that I had undertaken too lofty a theme for my powers, so much so that I was afraid to enter upon it; and so I remained for several days desiring to write and afraid to begin.

Comment: Writer’s block: fear.

118. Alice W. Flaherty

My postpartum mood disorder, which had several manic as well as the more typical depressed features, came after I had given birth prematurely to twin boys who died. They were so small – one grasped my finger before he died, and his hand hardly fit around it. For ten days I was filled with sorrow. Then suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, I was wildly agitated, full of ideas, all of them pressing to be written down. The world was flooded with meaning. I believed I had unique access to the secrets of the Kingdom of Sorrow, about which I had an obligation to enlighten my – very tolerant – friends and colleagues through essays and letters.

Comment: To state the obvious, Flaherty’s shift into output protects her from the incredible pain of losing two children. But there are two more things to note: manic depression can rob a human being of a ‘normal’ grieving process, not to mention other types of emotion, and the thing most clear to me in this quote is that Flaherty sees the world from a manid-depressive point of view. It is burned up with speed, and alienated from the more subtle emotions that humans have. The connection with poetry is again obvious: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who at his highest could not communicate any intelligible thought to someone talking to him. At the highest, an artist, for example, Van Gogh, can do no useful work. It is the oscillation between moods the rapid juxtaposing them together where creation happens.

119. Catherine Graham

A therapist I was seeing after my father’s death [her mother had died a year earlier] suggested I keep a journal to help me deal with the overwhelming grief. I started to write about my life, my parents’ lives, my feelings, and this journal writing gradually turned into little poems. After making this profound connection ‘yes, you are writing poems ‘ I haven’t stopped writing poetry, reading poetry, teaching poetry. Poetry is my lifeline.

Comment: The necessity of writing poetry. Graham had never intended to become a poet, yet the diary began that. It was the suggestion of someone else, and not even a writer, though the suggestion was to diarize, not write poetry. There is much in this interview that Graham attributes to the hidden, or intuitive sources for her poetry, style, word choice and so on. ‘Limbic lovely’ as the expression goes. (As mentioned, I would never have written poetry, either, but a poet recognized what I had written, and I have done it ever since. Surely an obsession. It needs to be. Life is far too hard on art). Go to: to read the rest of the interview. And see her site:

120. Fyodor Doestoevsky (From: Notes from the Underground)

Again, what is my object precisely in writing? If it is not for the benefit of the public why should I not simply recall these incidents in my own mind without putting them on paper? Quite so; but yet it is more imposing on paper… Besides, I shall perhaps obtain actual relief form writing. Today, for instance, I am particularly oppressed by one memory of a distant past. It came back vividly to my mind a few days ago, and has remained haunting me like an annoying tune that one cannot get rid of. And yet I must get rid of it somehow… For some reason I believe that if I write it down I should get rid of it. Why not try?

Comment: The overload, the pressure in the brain to be relieved by writing. Perhaps this is why alcohol that quenches the mind is the writer’s drug, as it also loosens inhibitions meaning that the logical constraints on metaphor are released.

121. Aristotle

Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry and the arts are melancholic?

Comment: Not much women’s lib in his world. The reason for the view is that in his day, the word melancholy was linked to periods of frenzy, i.e., both depression and manic at the same time. This joined meaning continued on into the 19th century, but has been lost since then.

122. van Gogh

He sliced off his left ear after a fight with Gauguin. He did so because of his hyper-religiosity. “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.”

Comment: He had epilepsy related hallucinations of threatening voices coming through that ear.

123. Vincent van Gogh

Sometimes I draw sketches almost against my will. Is it not emotion, the sincerity of one’s feeling for nature, that draws us? … The emotions are sometimes so strong thatone works without knowing one works, when sometimes the strokes come with a continuity and coherence like words in a speech or a letter.

Comment: At his peak, he turned out a new canvas every 36 hours. Manic. Effortless. As simple as… writing. In his case, he wrote two or three six page letters to his brother every day.

124. Joseph Conrad

I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours every day – and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.

Comment: Writer’s block.

125. F. Scott Fitzgerald

… there was one little drop of something – not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story. It was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.

Comment: Again the writer’s identifying his work as his own identity and once that fountain is not flowing, he is a lesser human being. He is ordinary, and cannot stand that. Oh, and everyone knows Fitz was an alcoholic – the writer’s drug – and that stimulates creativity by reducing inhibitions, but in the long run decreases it and makes the person depressed to suicidal.

126. Lionel Trilling on Sigmund Freud

Of all mental systems, the Freudian psychology is the one which makes poetry indigenous to the very constitution of the mind. Indeed the mind, as Freud sees it,… is in the greater part of its tendency exactly a poetry-making organ… [and he discovered what] psychoanalysis is, a science of tropes, of metaphor.

Comment: Of course we all know that Freud was about sex, and he saw that writing used a flow of liquid out of a tube onto a piece of paper, i.e., sex. And that all creative work was driven by neurotic associations like writing is a symbol of wanting sex with one’s mother. i.e., creativity and mental illness. And then Jung made it into the sub-conscious – emotion.

127. Alice Flaherty

Strong evidence exists that creative, productive people do have high self-esteem – often to the p0int of arrogance.

Comment: Remember the Irv Layton dictum: a poet is a blend of arrogance and inexperience. A strong ego is needed.

128. Honore de Balzac – Wikipedia

Balzac’s work habits are legendary ‘ he did not work quickly, but toiled with an incredible focus and dedication. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at five or six in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee. He would often work for fifteen hours or more at a stretch; he claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only three hours of rest in the middle.[53]

Comment: A writer’s method.

129. Alice Flaherty

The Romantics’ belief that creative inspiration arises from an irrational, uncontrollable inner source did not originate with them. What was new… was their emphasis on the sublime, … transendence… grandeur to great to be expressed.

Comment: How to set yourself up for not being able to write. And how many writers emphasize the intuition, at the heart of great writing, even today.

130. Roland Barthes

A creative writer is someone for whom writing is a problem.

Comment: well put. The kind of person for whom reading is not a pleasure, not the thing to put you to sleep at night. But is so demanding of attention, and memory, and comparison, and the fire of blowing the top of your skull off from tremendous stuff, and amphetamines that it is the last thing to do, as it would mean being awake all night long and being destroyed all the next day.

131. John Clare

They have cut off my head, and picked out all the letters of the alphabet – all the vowels and consonants – and brought them out through my ears; and they want me to write poetry! I can’t do it.

Comment: A self-evident truth.

132. DC Reid

Poetry is the brain’s heartbeat.

Comment: Poetry is the brain’s heartbeat.

133. Rilke

If I lose my demons, I will lose my angels as well.

Comment: another comment on the issue of needing those mental ups and down in order to do writing, in this case poetry.

134. Lauren Slater

Every morning before work, I come to the blank page and look at it. It looks like winter. It is February in my mind…. [the paper is] the white of Prozac powder, spread thing.

Comment: Being medicated, undepressed, Slater could do no work. It is the missing highs of creation and lows of rewriting.

135. Woody Allen

While sentence structure is innate, whining is acquired.

Comment: Woody is not really a disciple of Chomsky. Oh, and, language arose about 100,000 years ago, while writing arose about 5,000 years ago. Whining arose with Woody.

136. Alice Flaherty

Thomas Babington Macaulay supposedly learned to read at the age of two by listening to his father read the Bible aloud for an hour each night. (Because of the angle at which his father held the book, he learned to read upside down.) Samuel Johnson reportedly read the Book of Common Prayer by age three, Lord Byron read the classics in the original languages by age five, and all of these writers read insatiably thoughout their lives.

Comments: Many things. Writers read insatiably, hence are better prepared to write, both by association and from knowing a lot of things, their literary heritage; Byron died at 36 from a fever during war, but he had completed a full poetic achievement. His early reading prepared him, and mania and excess in life allowed him to write huge volume.

137. Alice W. Flaherty

To the extent that self-expression [i.e. writing] does broadcast and reinforce a person’s character, it clarifies a link between art, eccentricity, and mental illness.

Comment: Another self-evident truth.’ The important word is: reinforce. Writing can make you crazy, in more ways than one, but it is like remembering a memory so often that the structure of thought controls your whole mind. This is typically called depression. So, would a mind-break that was happy be a bad or good thing?

138. DC Reid

Surely all art is the result of having traveled too far with disease.

Comment: Some of it anyway.

139. Rainer Maria Rilke

See, we don’t love like flowers, in a/ single year: when we love, an ancient/ sap rises in our arms. O, girls,

Comment: Limbic lovely and all that. Pheremones. Can we intelligently love? Can we rationally choose?

141. Rainer Maria Rilke

We want to visibly/ show it, while even the most visible of joys/ can only display itself to us when we have changed it, from within.

Comment: Isn’t this reminiscent of Cezanne moving into expressionism where he sought to paint what the first instant of perception was before the mind shaped the data into the form we want to see. Read Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

142. Rainer Maria Rilke – eighth Duino Elegy

If there was consciousness like ours

in the sure creature, that moves towards us

on a different track ‘ it would drag us

round in its wake. But its own being

is boundless, unfathomable, and without a view

of its condition, pure as its outward gaze.

And where we see future it sees everything,

and itself in everything, and is healed for ever.

Comment: An elegy is a lamentation for the dead, a song. The ten Duino Elegies are a lamentation for humans who face death with that knowledge, and only at some times do they share in the timeless. But there is much life, before the inevitable death, and much life after, for Rilke and his Europe were Christians and Catholics and heaven was as sure as the world in front of their faces. So, today, the distinction Rilke is making is altered because few of us believe in life after death. But in his day, the animal, without knowledge is pure.


143. NYPD Sanitation Department


Plop. (Scatological poetry).


Comment: Scoop.(Scatological poetry scoop).


144. Alice Flaherty


For many, there is the primal conviction that they hould not do anything but write – because it is their vocation, in a nearly religious sense. Writing is what they are meant to do, and the headaches and the restlessness are their body’s rebellion when it is kept from fulfilling its destiny.


Comment: Art as religion. The necessity of writing for the writer. And the act, in studies by Alice Brand show that the act of writing both intensified positive emotions and blunted negative ones. And doing art as a need.


145. Soren Kierkegaard


A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music.


Comment: So may you have so much more sadness… okay just another reaffirmation that you have to be crazy to be an artist.



146. Nathaniel Hawthorne



I don’t want to be a doctor, and live by men’s diseases; nor a minister to live by their sins; nor a lawyer to live by their quarrels. So I don’t see there’s anything left for me but to be an author.






147. TS Eliot



I was too slow a mover. It was much easier to be a poet.



Comment: If you can believe it, he was a boxer in college.



148. George Bernard Shaw



My main reason for adopting literature as a profession was that, as the author is never seen by his clients, he need not dress respectably.



Comment: Yes, I am slobby by nature, added to it by being alone, I can get even more slobby.



149. William Faulkner artist is a creature driven by demons… He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.



Comment: Compulsion. Exorcism.



150. Anais Nin



The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.




151. Alice Flaherty



The need for narrative, the need to place events in stories, shapes much of our writing and speech. Linking facts in to cause-and-effect chains makes them easier for our brains to absorb…Creating narrative links gives a sense that there are causal chains that will allow us to predict…



Comment: The selective mind selecting out of the great ‘booming buzzing confusion’ what it means to tell and thus makes it seem so not of the randomery of the world. Significance.



152. Paul Valery




[Writing does its deed] to erect a minor monument of language on the menacing shore of the ocean of gibberish.



Comment: It gives the world meaning. Meaning is always in question to a writer. As in the world does not exist unless it is observed. Squeezed reality.