As noted in my previous post, the lyric poem is usually described as an expression of the poet’s thoughts and feelings at a given moment in time. The importance of being hyper-attentive to the world around us and within us, to register ideas and sensations as they happen, is something that the Romantics, in particular, were keen to stress, though almost every poet since then would regard this as an essential part of what they do and who they are. Ezra Pound, for example, in the the essay on Imagism that appeared in the March 1913 edition of Poetry, describes the image in terms which are very close to the definition of the lyric poem. The image, he says, is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”. Pound, of course, differs from the Romantics in his rejection of the idea of poetry as ‘expression’, but he shares with them the notion that poems seek to capture a moment, to present ‘the present’.
But a problem arises when we start to examine more closely the idea of ‘the present moment’, for there is an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that we never experience things ‘as they happen’, and that we are all, poets and non-poets alike, doomed to be the ‘unreliable narrators’ of our own lives.
Part of the reason for this is that perception, like every other natural phenomenon, is subject to the laws of physics. Light and sound take time to reach our eyes and ears and the delay, though usually only a matter of fractions of a second, means that everything we see and hear is already in the past.
Sometimes, though, the delay can be much longer, as with the light emitted by distant objects like the moon and the stars. This is beautifully captured in Michael Donaghy’s poem ‘The Present’
For the present, there is just one moon,
though every level pond gives back another.
But the bright disc shining in the black lagoon,
perceived by astrophysicist and lover
is milliseconds old. And even that light’s
seven minutes older than its source.
And the stars we think we see on moonless nights
are long extinguished.
Here, the night sky appears to us, not as a real thing, existing in the here and now, but as the map of a bygone galaxy. This prompts Donaghy to compare the dubious ontological status of the stars to the evanescent quality of a line of poetry which, as our eyes scan the words from left to right, “is literally gone before you know it”. In the final couplet, Donaghy plays on the two meanings of ‘present’, where it appears both as ‘a gift’ and ‘a moment in which to dwell’
Make me the present then: your hand in mine,
and we’ll live our lives in it.
Of course, while this notion of ‘ancient light’ may have a certain philosophical interest and an undoubted poetic resonance, for most practical purposes, and in most ordinary situations, the delay referred to above is of no real consequence. We are still able to catch a falling object and perform other complex acts of co-ordination. A skilled tennis player will still be able to accurately strike a ball that is travelling towards him or her at over a hundred miles per hour.
But the idea that there is a time lag involved in the transmission and reception of light waves is not the only challenge to our notion of the present, for we must also take into account the fact that light and sound travel at different speeds, so that they do not reach the eye and ear simultaneously. And if, in addition, we consider that the brain processes visual and auditory information at different rates, we must ask ourselves how it is that the images and sounds produced by a given event will invariably seem to us to occur in perfect unison. For example, when we watch someone speaking, it appears that the sounds they produce and the movement of their lips are completely in time.
The answer to this question is that our perception of sights and sounds occurring together is actually an illusion constructed by the brain, which actively synchronises imput from the different areas of the somato-sensory cortex. Arguably, though, this, too, need not concern anyone except philosophers since the brain is not conjuring the appearance of synchrony out of nothing – it is not an act of pure imagination – but is merely re-assembling elements that that have fallen out of step in their journey from source to destination.
However, the brain’s role in all of this is not as innocent as it may appear. If it were merely compensating for delays and differentials, the factors mentioned here would be of no real consequence. But the more worrying truth is that, in many instances, the brain doesn’t just put things back together, but subtly alters them as it does so.
The evidence for this is now almost overwhelming. In one experiment, subjects are asked to look at a screen on which two different images are projected in very quick succession. The first image is of a blue dot in the top left hand corner of an otherwise blank screen. The second image is of a red dot in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. But though the subjects are actually witnessing two discrete events, when asked to describe what they have seen, they invariably report that the dot moved diagonally across the screen, changing from blue to red midway. Now, since this moment of transition never actually occurred, it is clear that the brain has interpolated this third event in order to make sense of the two events that it had really witnessed.
Considered in isolation this odd misperception might be considered a mere curiosity. But the literature of cognitive psychology is full of experiments demonstrating this same tendency on the part of the brain to insert things into its account of events in order to construct an intelligible narrative – even if this means distorting or misrepresenting reality. From the brain’s point of view, it is far more important for things to make sense than for things to be true.
Consequently, it isn’t just that our ‘now’ is always already a ‘then’. The ‘present’, as it is given to us, is often something that never happened in the first place. And if our brain might be fooling us about what is going on in the external world, what other tricks might it be playing on us with respect to the perception of our internal world – the thoughts and emotions that the lyric poem is meant to capture?