Quarter After Eight is an annual literary journal devoted to the exploration of experimental writing in all its permutations. We celebrate work that directly challenges the conventions of language, style, voice, or idea in literary form. This blog is a place to engage in conversations about the work we publish, as well as the work that inspires us.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Emotional Laughghter and Experimental Poetry

by Jen Schomburg Kanke 
           A  recent study published in Neuroimage, a journal focusing on brain function as researched via imaging and modeling techniques, reported that not all fun-stuffs are processed in the same portion of the brain. Through the magic of the MRI, the team of researchers, led by Diana P. Szameitat and Benjamin Kreifelts at the University of Tübingen in Germany, discovered that laughter associated with tickling is processed in a different part of the brain than what is referred to as "emotional laughter" such as experienced during joy or "taunts" (which the study doesn't describe in detail but I can only imagine were something like middle school "your mama wears combat boots" contests). The findings suggest that taunting and joyful laughter ask the subject to do more work in the social cognition department than tickling which may point to the answer to some evolutionary mysteries (which are so mysterious that I was completely unaware of them before reading the study and only half understand after reading it). Which got me wondering: What would my MRI look like if I were hooked-up while reading some of my favorite experimental poetry?
            When reading David Trinidad's "Gloss of the Past," I could almost guarantee that it would light up the anterior rostral medial frontal cortex (arMFC), our little gray house of processing social cues and interactions. This poem, constructed using only the names of eighty-seven lip gloss colors from the 1960s, leads the reader through the many stages of a relationship from "Pink Dawn" and "Aurora Pink" to the harder days of "Stark Raving Pink" and finally to the heartfelt  call of "Viva La Pink." Found in Trinidad's 2007 collection The Late Show (Turtle Point Press), "Gloss of the Past" sits alongside of poems like "All This, and Heaven Too," a poem comprised of Bette David film titles, as well as more traditional narrative pieces such as "Watching the Late Movie with My Mother." I chuckle along with the poem not only because of turns the relationship itself takes with the vulnerability of "Sweet Young Pink," "Fragile Pink," and " Fainting Pink" coming so soon after the bolder moment of  "Skinnydip Pink," but also because lip gloss colors aren't usually thought of as fodder for art. The juxtaposition clicks in my asMFC as hilarity of the highly-evolved social animal sort (perhaps not in yours though, this particular study kept mum on issues of taste).
            But I'm a little foggier about what might be going on in my brain when I view poems such as Aram Saroyan's poem "lighght" from 1965. When I see this poem, I laugh not only because I think it's joyfully ballsy as hell to call it a poem (the title of the poem and its complete text are one in the same), but also because I can't help laughing when I try to say the word. Although Richard Hell proclaimed the poem unpronounceable in a 2008 New York Times review of Saroyan's Complete Minimal Poems (Ugly Duckling Press), I think it can be pronounced. Try it with me now. Start to say the word "light" but then double-up on that open space in the middle of the word. Whoa! What just happened? Did you feel that? To try to pronounce the word creates a moment of forced laughter in the reader's body. It's as if the poem has reached out and tickled us deep down inside where no mere fingers could ever reach.
Thinking about this makes me want to open up my brain and take a good look inside. Am I processing this poem in the area of social cognition or is it getting me in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) which deals more with emotional readings of physical stimuli (such as facial gestures and tickling)? However, since it's unlikely that my health insurance will cover such a procedure (even though laughter is the best medicine), this may need to be one mystery that goes unsolved, yet my soul is considerably lighghter for having considered it.


  1. We need some research into how the brain processes an attempt at humor which shoots right over one's head. The title of your blog entry is one such case, Ms. Schomburg Kanke, as I thought, upon reading it, that it must have been rendered by a totally ham-fisted typist. But then a few minutes later a flash of chagrin registered in my prefrontal cortex (at least that's what it felt like.) It was one of those "duh, now I get it" moments.

    I'd never taken the time to read Saroyan's poem "lighght," even though it would not have taken a very large investment thereof. I guess it would be fair to say that I have now read it. (I was kind of busy in 1965, when the poem was published, having just enrolled as a freshman at OU.)

    I enjoyed reading your piece. I need to think it over before saying the same of having read Saroyan's "poem." But maybe that's his point.

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