Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Space and Time in Chinese Verse

Frederick Turner

Summary Recent studies have begun to clarify the general neural strategy of poety as opposed to prose as modes of information.

In the cultures studied, the poetic line is about three seconds long and is synchronized to a threesecond information processing pulse, deriving from the anatomy of the auditory cortex. Verse uses this cycle as a carrier wave for an additional channel of information, beyond the simply linguistic. Metered poetry brings information to us in a "stereo" mode, using both the right and the left sides of the brain, and inviting a creative integration of them analogous to depth perception in vision.

Using this explanation of metered verse we can examine the differences between Chinese and Western (and other) verse forms. There are two main differences: one is that Chinese verse has a line of four, five or seven syllables (as opposed to the roughly ten-syllable line of most other languages). The other is that Chinese poetry has a much stronger visual component: Chinese script is ideographic, permitting the kind of play on a visual level that Western and other verse can manage on only an auditory level.

The number of syllables in the Chinese verse line presents a problem. The Chinese line would last only one to two seconds if recited at Western rates of recitation, much shorter than the two to four seconds of other poetries. I have solved this problem experimentally by recording and measuring Chinese verse recited by a native speaker, at about two to three and one-half seconds long, agreeing with that of other languages.

The ideographic element in Chinese verse makes possible a kind of visual meaning quite as powerful as that of linguistic sequence. Chinese poetry adds a pictorial, right-brain element to poetry, on top of the existing right-brain elements of poetic meter; this may be related to the spatialized conception of time in the themes of Chinese poetry.

One of the most remarkable, and most strangely ignored, discoveries in the human sciences in the last few decades has been the cultural universality of poetry. It has been known for centuries that the "high" civilizations of Europe, the Middle East, India, China, and Japan possessed poetic traditions of great richness and antiquity. But the resemblance between these traditions could always have been explained as a single peculiar invention propagated by cultural diffusion or as a by-product of a certain stage of economic progress: either as a cultural homology or as a technological analogy.

Now, however, anthropologists have recorded poetry of dozens of societies from all over the world.1 These societies are often so isolated from one another that cultural diffusion could only be invoked as an explanation if the diffusion occurred at some inconceivably ancient stage of human evolution, when all our ancestors lived close enough to exchange ideas--a stage at which cultural and biological evolution cannot be clearly distinguished, in any case. Moreover, the model of poetry as an epiphenomenon of a particular stage of

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