The Tucson XX anniversary conference just wrapped up with music and song, including a rap song featuring my name.
Which brings me naturally to “fringe consciousness,” as William James called it in his magnificent Principles of Psychology of 1890.
“Fringe consciousness” is a state of knowing without a lot of sensory detail. The most famous example is that frustrating feeling of a word that won’t come to consciousness — what’s the name of the flying dinosaur? The swimming dinosaur? The one that looks like the Loch Ness monster? Ummm… mmmm.. it’s on the tip of my tongue! That’s a feeling of knowing (FOK). There are hundreds of FOK’s, and we even know where they show up on the brain — in the front of the front of the cortex, the prefrontal lobe.
Poets and artists have always known about FOK’s, because they use them all the time. FOK’s are the silences in music, that dance gesture that is hinted but never quite expressed by an expert dancer. It is the feelings of knowing sometimes we have with great art. It’s not in the paint on canvas, but it’s strongly hinted by the paint.
What about rap songs? Rap is called a “short form” by poets, like Japanese Haiku.
Here is an English example:
old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
If you sit in a quiet space and you let those syllables echo in your mind, you will have a very specific “fringe” experience. It can be very beautiful, and of course the real art of the Haiku is to set off quiet mental bells in your mind. The point about Haiku is not really the 17 syllables — it’s the waves of silent conscious knowing it can evoke.
Here is William Butler Yeats, one of the finest Irish poets, on that inner silence:
“We can make our minds so like still water
that beings gather about us to see their own images,
and so live for a moment with a clearer,
perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our silence.”
Or here is another one, a love poem:
“But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
You’ll notice that it helps to give the mental echoes five or ten seconds to ring in your mind.
It also helps to say the words out loud, if you say them with feeling — however you want to interpret that. If you are shy — unlike the traditional Irish and Japanese, who reveled in the loud-spoken word, we are taught to be shy about poetry — if, as I say, you are shy, you might say the poems out loud in a solitary room. Or if you are bold, and can say them out loud in many different ways, you should definitely listen to the unique BBC recordings of the great Welsh bard Dylan Thomas.
Almost all ancient cultures used song, dance, and drama to perform their poetry out loud.
Our so-liberated culture is much more shy about our feelings. But that’s easy to solved. You could say your poetry out loud in a closet, or try the nice echoes in a tiled bathroom.
What about rap songs? I personally don’t get any fringe feelings from rap, but rap fans must know some good examples. You are very welcome to send me your poems, rap or otherwise, your own or someone else’s — and if you can describe your feelings of knowing , do let me know what they are. You might want to resort to a little poetry yourself to describe your FOKs.
Because we live in such a poetically impoverished time, I’m going to finish this blog with two short examples —- one a poetic curse, and the second one a blessing to a loved one.
Poetry is NOT just a soft-hearted medium. Poetry and prose have always been used for blessings and curses — and still are in traditional cultures.
First, a famous curse by Robert Graves, called The Travellers’ Curse after Misdirection (from the Welsh). Imagine having walked in the countryside, day after day, carrying a heavy pack, footsore, thirsty and hopeless — and then finding out somebody gave you the wrong directions.
(Be sure to feel the echoes.)
The Travelers’ Curse after Misdirection
(from the Welsh)
“May they stumble, stage by stage
On an endless Pilgrimage
Dawn and dusk, mile after mile
At each and every step a stile
At each and every step withal
May they catch their feet and fall
At each and every fall they take
May a bone within them break
And may the bone that breaks within
Not be — for variation’s sake —
Now rib, now thigh, now arm, now shin
but always, without fail, the NECK
— Robert Graves
Mmmmmm … that was a nasty one.
But here is Yeats again, in a much more loving mood:
“WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace, 5
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”
Those echoes in your mind are a special state of consciousness.