An Evolutionary Theory of Poetry

by Sue Parman

This article is a short version of Sue Parman’s talk, “At Play in the Fields of the Word: A Theory of Poetry,” presented to Conversations with Writers, May 13, 2013, in Hillsboro, Oregon. The original theory was published as “An Evolutionary Theory of Dreaming and Play” in Edward Norbeck and Claire R. Farrer, eds. Forms of Play of Native North Americans (Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1979).


When I was seventeen I worked in the sleep/dream lab of Fred Snyder and Alan Hobson at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. I stayed up all night watching the mysterious hieroglyphics of the brain scroll out on moving sheets of EEG paper: electrical activity picked up by 20 electrodes glued to the skulls of sleep volunteers.

Electrodes do not pick up the signals of individual neurons. You cannot read EEGs for messages from the unconscious, the future, or ESP from other minds. Electroencephalograph (EEG) machines are crude measuring devices that pick up the complex summation of millions of neurons firing either together (synchronously, to form big waves) or separately (asynchronously, to form flat lines). We know that a flat EEG is associated with wakefulness or with Stage I dream sleep. This stage is often called “paradoxical sleep” because the sleeper has the EEG of someone who is wide awake. “Big-wave sleep” looks superficially like epilepsy, the pathology associated with synchronous bursts of firing that disrupt specialized activity.

The question, What is the difference between Stage IV deep sleep and epilepsy? followed me through a B.A. in psychology and a Ph.D. in anthropology, and lies at the heart of my evolutionary theory of poetry. The more I researched epilepsy, the more I wondered why we don’t all have it, since it can be triggered by a number of conditions – hormonal changes, antibiotics, flashing lights, illness and injury. And perhaps we do, as in those little moments when we blank out or our muscles jerk.

As mammals with large, complex brains, we may be susceptible to epilepsy. After all, the mammalian brain specializes in learning rather than being prewired, as in reptilian brains. Perhaps when we curl up at night in a dark room on soft surfaces, we enter into a state of sensory deprivation in which neurons begin to recruit each other in synchronized linkages, and the synchronous bursts get larger and larger (Stages III and IV sleep), heading for the epileptic cliff.

But most of us sleep without seizures. How did evolution solve this potential problem? Studies of sleep and dreaming suggest that during deep sleep a brainstem mechanism (the Reticular Activating System) switches on, sprays the cortex with stimulation, and disrupts the synchronous firing, returning the brain to the flat EEG pattern of dreaming sleep.

So what does potential epilepsy during the night have to do with poetry?

During the day, the equivalent of slow-wave sleep is boredom. When we are subjected to repetitive, predictable sensory input, we can’t think clearly and feel intensely uncomfortable. Just as dreaming is the brain’s way of avoiding epilepsy in the night, play performs this function during the day. Both break up dangerous synchrony. We get pleasure out of play, disjunction, and surprise because it saves our large, complex brains from seizures. Johann Huizinga captures this essence of the human adaptation by calling us not Homo sapiens but Homo ludens, man the player.

What constitutes play varies according to age and experience. Readers of VoiceCatcher would be among the first to recognize writing as a significant form of play. They would agree with John Leonard who, in his book Reading for My Life, thanks books “for transcendence, a zap to the synaptic cleft … that radioactive glow of genius in the dark.” I seek the same radioactive glow in whatever I write – novels, plays, short stories and poetry. Poetry doesn’t have an exclusive on the “zap to the synaptic cleft,” but it has a head start. Why? Because it’s short!

You can wander all over the place with a novel before all the loose ends are tied up, but in poetry every word has to count toward setting up the surprise. The heart of a good poem is linguistic playfulness not plot or character. But it’s not enough to say that poets are “good with words.” The problem with words is that they come packaged with meanings – which is good, because then you know what other people are talking about and they can understand you. But it’s also bad because when you use words that everyone knows the meaning of, you’re stuck in stereotypic categories. Boring! Epileptic seizure coming on!

The poetic function of writing is to slit open the linguistic package and allow electricity to cross-fertilize the categories. According to Ted Kooser, “a poem is like one of those kaleidoscope-like objects that breaks up the world and lets you see it in a new way.” Jane Hirshfield says that poems come when “some hairline-narrow crack opens in the self” and, according to Leonard Cohen, cracks are how the light gets in.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” says Emily Dickinson. A poem should not simply convey information such as sensory details, and it’s more than a tightly structured poetic form. As Kathleen Rooney argued in The New York Times Magazine (April 14, 2013), a lot of “poetic” writing recycles its own trite conventions. She prefers to use the comedian Jack Handey as a model for her students (“Consider the daffodil, and while you’re doing that, I’ll be over here looking through your stuff”) because Handey’s approach “allows him to do what the best poetry does … access something honest and eye-opening by way of surprise.”

Some poets use puns to effect surprise, such as the wonderful “Bestiary” by Kay Ryan in which she links medieval with contemporary beasts. She concludes with a moral about the goodiary, “a text alas lost now for centuries.”

Some critics denigrate Kay Ryan’s poems for their “descent into punning,” probably because puns are associated with childhood, and childhood puns are often crude and obvious. But puns are what introduce children to the slitheryness of language. For example, When is a door is not a door? When it’s ajar. Or, Time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana.

We call such efforts “crude” because they kick us up only a few feet and don’t take us to the moon. But what if we link that linguistic pirouette with detailed sensory descriptions, poetic tricks of the trade and multiple layers of meaning? Poetry, as an adult form of play, allows us to slip in under the stereotypic veil of words and generate a direct experience with some vivid moment; the best poems bloom with surprise. As William Stafford says, “Poetry is a serious joke.” And with every joke we make, we step away from the epileptic void.

Go ahead, laugh. It’s good for you.


Sue ParmanSue Parman is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, poet, playwright and fiction writer. Since moving to Oregon in 2009, she has received writing awards from the Oregon Poetry Association, Oregon Writers Colony, Willamette Writers, Best Travel Writing Annual Solas Awards, and Oregon Humanities, and her play “Queen Victoria’s Secret” was published in VoiceCatcher6 and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She plays with words, having published six academic books and numerous articles in addition to memoirs, literary historical fiction, mysteries, science fiction, travel writing and poetry. Her chapbook The Thin Monster House was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. Her website is

2 thoughts on “An Evolutionary Theory of Poetry

  1. Sue, I love this piece! Partly it dovetails so well with mine (right after yours). I am intrigued by the near-miss with epilepsy idea. This reminds me of many other puzzlements, such as “Why can we hear each individual instrument in an orchestra, but also hear the music as a whole?” or “Why can’t we look directly at the sun?”
    As if evolution really is a slap-dash affair, attention to detail sometimes woefully lacking. I look forward to more of your writings.

    • Anita, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, which I’ve just unearthed during a change of computers. I’d love to sit down and talk with you more about these ideas. At our hypothetical dinner table it would be nice to include Stephen Jay Gould, Andrea Barrett, and Oliver Sachs. The first toast might be: Here’s to the wonder of chaos!

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