Here are tidbits from my published work on literary matters.

Between Speech and Song

Observer Vol.24, No.10 December, 2011

When APS [Association for Psychological Science]] Fellow Diana Deutsch was alone in a dark recording studio, fine-tuning some spoken commentary she recorded for a CD, she was stunned to hear the voice of a strange woman singing. After looking around to make sure she was still alone, she realized that the singing voice was her own. She had been looping the phrase “sometimes behave so strangely” over and over to find sounds that needed to be tweaked. Now the words themselves were behaving strangely:

They had morphed into song.

After getting over her shock, Deutsch was thrilled: “I realized that I had stumbled on a strange perceptual phenomenon, [one] which must reflect a close relationship between speech and song.” She began playing the looped phrase to anyone who cared to listen. She even tried it out on a room filled with 250 of her undergraduate students at the University of California, San Diego. After a few repetitions of the phrase, she raised her hands as if she were a conductor directing a choir. “On the downbeat, the class immediately sang along in chorus—and remarkably in tune!” says Deutsch.

This auditory “illusion” was potentially important. It contradicted an old idea that the brain analyzes words and music in completely separate areas: one in the left hemisphere and the other in the right hemisphere. In general, the idea that we have a rational left brain and a creative right brain is a myth, but how the brain circuitry for processing music and language works is still not clear. Neuroimaging now suggests that our systems for these functions overlap. “Some aspects of speech and music are processed by the same circuitry, up into and including the cortex,” says Deutsch.

Throughout history, human beings have been drawn to sounds “near the boundary between speech and song,” Deutsch says — including devotional chants, speeches, and even rap music. Poets and lyricists are our practical experts on the boundary, she adds, because they arrange words to enhance our perception of musical qualities. Read more. 


The Power of Poetry

Psychologies (a London-based woman’s magazine)

I found my first ‘grown-up’ poem at the age of nine, in the Rudyard Kipling classic The Jungle Book. One tiger asks another: ‘What of the hunting, hunter bold?’ The hunter
replies that his prey escaped; he is mortally wounded. ‘Brother, I go to my lair to die.’ Perhaps this was my way of taking in the awful concept
of death. Perhaps it was an articulation of my inner fear of failure.
Poetry has more than one meaning, even to the same reader. Some
meanings are more powerful, since they are hidden. I only know that
the words have stayed with me.

It is not uncommon for people who do not ordinarily read poetry to treasure healing quotes or poems over decades. Lily, a 45-year-old psychologist, discovered the Robert Frost
poem ‘Reluctance’ during a painful break-up in her twenties. When a recent relationship ended, she found herself repeating its conclusion like a mantra, and sent the poem to her
ex to explain her feelings. ‘Ah, when to the heart of man/Was it ever less than a treason/To go with the drift of things,/To yield with a grace to reason/And bow and accept the end/Of a love or a season?’

It is not just the language and sentiment of a poem that are consoling, but the formal qualities. Rhyme links disparate themes – treason gives way to reason, which moves on to season – forming mental connections and suggesting a process of getting over anger and moving on. A metaphor describes one thing by calling it another, helping us to
understand our emotions: love is like the seasons, ever changing like the cycles of nature.
‘There is a history of metaphor being used therapeutically,’ says Dawn Blasko, a psychologist who specialises in poetry in therapy. ‘It is difficult to face your demons, while talking hypothetically helps people get to things they’re not thinking about consciously.’ Repetition of words or sounds can also be soothing, like the rocking of a chair or a child’s lullaby. ‘That’s why we say “there, there”, instead of just “there”,’ says the poet Kate Light.

To appreciate the power of poetic language, think of the political speeches that move nations. Churchill inspired the British to resist the Nazis when he said ‘We
shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.’ We shall fight, we shall fight – the repetition recalls a
rocking cradle, and the love that gives adults courage. While soothing,
the repetition also builds to a crescendo, inspiring pride and action. Read more.


The Universal Language

Peter Cole just won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant for his work translating Arab and Hebrew poetry into English. Maybe he should get a peace prize, too.

  • Peter Cole, a Jewish poet, translator and publisher, received a MacArthur “genius” award of $500,000 last week, and the timing couldn’t have been more apt. Cole is cofounder of Ibis Editions, a small Jerusalem press dedicated to translating Arabic, Hebrew and works in other Mideast languages in to English. (His MacArthur was announced as the same time that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was making headlines when he spoke in New York at Columbia University and the United Nations.) Cole’s latest volume of translations, “The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry From Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492,” celebrates the Sephardic medieval culture in which Hebrew and Arabic influences intermingled. He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Temma Ehrenfeld. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How has poetry helped you cope with the mistrust and violence between Israel and its Arab-speaking neighbors?
Peter Cole: It’s hard to boil these things down. All of the medieval work has been central to my sense of how these cultures can come together and has certainly recalibrated me as a person. I love Arabic and have had marvelous teachers and formed meaningful friendships within it. And of course it took me to Taha Muhammad Ali [a contemporary Palestinian poet], whose work is absolutely vital in the context of the conflict, as is the very different, and far more polarizing, work of the Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai. I can think of several poems of my own that have helped. The first thing that comes to mind is “I Sing a Doubled Song,” a poem about the Hebron massacre, when a Brooklyn-born Jewish physician burst into a mosque in Hebron during Ramadan, and on Purim, and opened fire.

It’s sometimes said that Jews were chosen to suffer. One might also say that poets are chosen to suffer; certainly Hebrew poetry reflects much pain.
I think the notion of Jews “being chosen” for anything of this sort is dangerous. What interests me most is the role that Jews have often played as intermediaries—between cultures and languages. I find that endlessly fascinating and rich … [But] in the global village, the old antagonism, or polarity, of diaspora and homeland makes less and less sense—and does more and more damage. Something has to change.

You’ve said that the Spanish Sephardic tradition is richer than the Eastern European-Yiddish one that influences much Jewish poetry. Which modern Hebrew poets seem to most live out of the Sephardic tradition?
What I mean is that it’s richer for me and interests me more than does the watered-down Yiddish influence that lies behind a lot of Jewish poetry written in English. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Very few poets emerge in a serious way from that Sephardic tradition. One who does, and who is producing interesting work, is Haviva Pedaya.

Can you see a future where Hebrew and Arabic poetry enrich each other, with Jerusalem as a center?
For the most part, all things Arabic are treated in Israel with condescension, at best, and often with contempt. Many Arab writers know Hebrew quite well and have absorbed a great deal of world literature through Hebrew. The same, alas, can’t be said for Hebrew writers.

You are not institutionally religious, yet much of the work you translate is devotional. Do you ever use poetry for guidance or solace? Is it a kind of prayer?
Poetry is a part of me, in all situations, so it’s hard to think of it as something that I’d use—as though it could be picked up and then put back down. If anything, I suppose it uses me. As for its relation to “prayer”—[the French philosopher] Malebranche said that “attention is the natural prayer of the soul”—and the translation of poetry is all about attention.

You’ll find more of my work here.