Oct 24, 2011

"Thoughts on One’s Head" by William Meredith: Brain and Heart in Poetry and Politics

Indiana University

Thoughts on One’s Head by William Meredith : The Poetry Foundation

Today it may seem I’m reversing myself on the feel-good Oct. 22 post, but I don’t think so. On my team, I want Michaela Terrien, John Prine and William Meredith.

But first, from Wikipedia, a couple of terms that were new to me:
“The central sulcus is a fold in the cerebral cortex of brains in vertebrates. Also called the central fissure, it was originally called the fissure of Rolando or the Rolandic fissure, after Luigi Rolando.”

And, “Trireme: . . . probably of Phoenician origin . . . as a ship it was fast and agile, and became the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC.” 

    With benevolent calm and wit, William Meredith’s poem, “Thoughts on One’s Head,” proposes that the human head, center of reason, carefulness, and correctness, and the home of the soul, ultimately dislikes itself. In the end, and for the sake of self-esteem and pleasure, or even ecstasy, one’s head would prefer beauty and passion to reason and judgment, which amount to the ability to measure. 
Indiana University

    In the timeless war between heart and head, the head is the responsible force that takes care of daily matters, which are necessary but unlovely, dispassionate, heartless, void of pleasure. One of my favorite lines is: “Judgment is in the head somewhere; it keeps sums . . . .” Some readers may have trouble seeing that as a bad thing; sums must be kept, after all, or one ends up trillions of dollars in debt. But what do you want written on your gravestone? “He was responsible”? “He kept sums”? And “sums” of what? Pleasure and pain, Meredith offers. Do you want your pleasure and pain measured out carefully as a sum? 

   The speaker was “ taught to read and write, make love and money, /Operate cars and airplanes, teach in a college . . . ”? Making love is on par with profits, driving cars and airplanes. It’s all taught. We may, for a second, ask what’s wrong with a little technique from a textbook? That’s not so bad. And driving is fun. Why not making love like driving a hot car--you know, down-shifting, double-clutching, peeling out? Well, then, how about teaching in college? Should that be the same kind of operation as making love? 

    The site of this careful rationality is the speaker’s head, “the place the soul calls home just now.” So if one ends up wondering why the speaker “dislikes” his “seat of Me,” one only need think about the old, old conflict between reason and passion. I think we tend to like ourselves better if we can believe we are rascals and outlaws who operate by passion. Robin Hood. Jesse James. We fancy ourselves reckless and romantic; we say all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy--and William Meredith too.  Ask any good Nazi: in the short term, success is all about the appeal to passion. If it feels good, it's irrational.

    It’s easy—and I mean easy—to go weak-kneed over the likes of e.e. cummings, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, or their ancestor Walt Whitman. It can be a labor to follow the lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s thought—or Richard Wilbur’s. 
People's Park, Bloomington, Indiana
Are You Sure about That? 

Sit-ins feel good, but they don’t accomplish much until some leaders—who can use their left brains to strategize, as William Meredith does in his poem—come to the rescue and form a plan that might actually accomplish something. What a shame that, consciously or otherwise, we think of those pragmatists as dull. We’d rather swoon to emotional oratory than sit down and crunch the numbers. The fact is, we need it all, though it makes for a drier insurrection, or a drier poem.

Thoughts on One’s Head by William Meredith : The Poetry Foundation



Hannah Stephenson said...

An excellent and interesting poem and discussion here...as Jack Black says in School of Rock, "It'll test your head, and your brain, and your mind."

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, they are different, aren't they. Maybe when they're all the same item, it's nirvana?

Anonymous said...

I just enjoyed that poem so much, so much. His voice reminds me of EB White.

The last two lines jarred me, seemed to be stated in a too obvious fashion. Wonder which part of my head came to that conclusion.

Brenda's Arizona said...

My mom used to tell me the front of hair looked lovely, the back looked like a rat trap. What does a 7 year old know about looks on the back half of their head? I'm smiling to see Meredith point out the same.

I always wondered if the heart kept score, kept sums of emotions, and then told the brain/head "this is how it is". And pretty soon the head learns to jump to conclusions that aren't smart. Is it wise to keep emotional sums in our heads?
And if we do, can we 'dislike the seat of ME'? Is that what he means? This almost feels like a teenage girl's poem of angst.

Lovers' Lane