In her 1990 bestseller A Natural History of the Senses, poet Diane Ackerman applied a poetic treatment to a work of non-fiction, ostensibly the function of sensory input from the natural world and how it affects human beings as they move through the various stages of life.
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This essay examines the way in which Ackerman’s poetic voice and vision influence the ideas discussed in one section of the text entitled Synesthesia. Ackerman employs not only poetic language but the poet’s sensibility – specifically in her attention to sensory detail – to illustrate the idea of synesthesia or the blending of one or more senses into a new sensory experience.
Critical response to Ackerman’s text has been mixed. Hayward Johnson raved that “after this book nothing will ever look quite the some again” and employed some of Ackerman’s own poetic style to describe the sensory examination therein: “if you cover your nose and try to stop smelling, you will die.
Etymologically speaking, a breath is not neutral or bland – it’s cooked air, we live in a constant simmering. There is a furnace in our cells, and when we breathe, we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us” (Johnson 59).
Critic R.H.W. Dillard has described Ackerman’s work in A Natural History of the Senses and Synesthesia as “a history of her extraordinary enthusiasms,” one that continues in the vein of the poet’s “effort to draw scientific and poetic curiosity (and understanding) together into a unified field of electric language” (Dillard n.p.).
Dillard understands the work to “explore in depth and with intensity the full extent of the subject – its history, its detailed ins and outs, its poetry, and ultimately its meaning” (Dillard n.p.). Of Ackerman’s literary process, Dillard writes Ackerman is “a prodigious explorer of the world, if by “world” we mean, as she puts it, “the full sum of Creation.”
Her poetry is distinctive in finding its source in that same enthusiastic energy; she explores the world, inner and outer, with a scientist’s poetic eye, recognizing, as the chaos scientist Mitchell Feigenbaum put it, that ‘art is a theory about the way the world looks to human beings’” (Dillard n.p.). Dillard rightly places Ackerman’s work in the scientific context and comprehends the experiment that Ackerman’s has undertaken in Synesthesia.
Critic Mark Doty meanwhile likens A Natural History of the Senses to a failed zoological experiment, the attempt by a talented poet to go beyond the boundaries of creative writing and poetry and offer the same way of seeing to a scientific topic of inquiry (Dory 264).
In his analysis of Ackerman’s work, entitled Horsehair Sofas of the Antarctic: Diane Ackerman’s Natural Histories, Doty credits Ackerman’s ambition, yet feels that A Natural History of the Senses and its sister work, A Natural History of Love, are “compendia of facts, strange and interesting phenomena, and snippets of natural and cultural history….[that] want to be genial companions, broad tours of their fields, but the pastures they graze are so immense and the projects so fraught with problems that neither book is as successful as Ackerman’s best writing” (Doty 277).
For Doty, the issue is tone. In his mind, the content of Synesthesia quickly becomes buried under “tonal problems…everything is related with a kind of light touch, a perkiness, if you will, which ultimately cloys, especially when what is being related pulls against the tone” (Doty 277).
His criticism seems to imply that Ackerman’s poetic touch weakens the subject matter – the blending of senses, in this example – as her poetic descriptions involve numerous other disciplines and perspectives including scientific theory and observation, cultural history, literary allusion, and personal observation (Doty 277). In Doty’s opinion, A Natural History of the Senses contains “a great deal of rather smoothly digested research, a multiplicity of examples,” and not enough hard observation.
For Doty, after an extended spent reading A Natural History of the Senses, “the information starts to feel processed, its tone all rather bright and bland and harmless. One misses, as in the weaker of Ackerman’s poems, the sharp tang, the struggle to make sense or form out of felt life. The book has a kind of Ripley’s believe-it-or-not quality, the continual stimulation of which eventually becomes numbing and repetitive” (Doty 277).
What Doty has failed to grasp in Synesthesia, and what Dillard has, is the nature of the experiment itself. Ackerman’s work deliberately calls attention to the bias in inherent in Doty’s critique, a bias of which he himself remains unaware. Scientific writing as a rule must remain generic and colorless in order to keep its credibility.
This is Ackerman’s point. In scientific writing, the observer must stand outside that which she is observing, and even if she or her senses are affected by the object of her inquiry, she must not show that impact, otherwise her observations will be viewed as emotional and non-scientific.
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Much of the writing found in the sciences still keeps the observer’s sensory interaction with the object of inquiry safely off the page, largely in an effort to remain factual or objective. Ackerman’s poetic language injects the wonder that becomes any student of the natural world – it is absolutely fitting to be awestruck in the face of the wonders of the planet and of science – yet the moment that appreciation appears in scientific writing, the content loses its authority.
Essentially Synesthesia is the blending of art and science. Writing about the natural world and science with a poet’s eye, Ackerman’s observes the natural world with its proper respect and sense of wonderment. Ackerman’s poetic style in Synesthesia also stirs the scientific concepts for the reader, leading to a fuller understanding of the scientific basis of the phenomena, while simultaneously validating the development of the human sensory system and its integration with the burgeoning consciousness of the observer.
An example of this occurs in the passage when Ackerman describes the sensory transition involved in the developmental stages of a newborn baby. “In time, the newborn learns to sort and tame all its sensory impressions, some of which have names, many of which will remain nameless to the end of its days.
Things that elude our verbal grasp are hard to pin down and almost impossible to remember. A cozy blur in the nursery vanishes into the rigorous categories of common sense. But for some people, that sensory blending never quits and they taste baked beans whenever they hear the word “Francis,”…or smell the passage of time.
The stimulation of one sense stimulates another: synesthesia is the technical name…” (Ackerman 289). The ability to create a poetic image of this scale prior to introducing the scientific concept is what makes Synesthesia a stand out piece of scientific poetry.
In Ackerman’s thesis, synesthesia explains not only the artist’s process, but the scientist’s also. “Those who experience intense synesthesia naturally on a regular basis are rare – only about one in every five hundred thousand people – and neurologist Richard Cytowic traces the phenomena to the limbic system, the most primitive part of the brain, calling synesthetes “living cognitive fossils,” because they may be people whose limbic system is not entirely governed by the much more sophisticated (and more recently evolved) cortex…
While it is a small plague to the person who doesn’t want all that sensory overload, it invigorates those who are indelibly creative” (Ackerman 290).
The text marries poetry with hard scientific data to create nothing less than the synthesis of two disciplines – art and science – hitherto believed to be utterly polarized.
Poet Diane Ackerman’s work in A Natural History of the Senses in general and in Synesthesia in particular combines her desire to successfully apply the poetic treatment not only to a work of non-fiction, but also to the action of scientific inquiry.
Synesthesia examines the function of sensory input from the natural world and how it affects human beings as they move through the various stages of development, yet it does so in a poetic way. Ackerman’s poetic voice and vision influence the ideas discussed, without letting go of the validity of the argument. In Synesthesia, Ackerman deploys her poet’s sensibility – specifically in her attention to sensory detail and its impact – to demonstrate synesthesia and create a new sensory experience in the reader.
Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1990. Print.
Dillard, R. H. W. “Ackerman, Diane.” Contemporary Poets. Ed. Thomas Riggs. 7th ed. St. James Press, 2001. 6-7. Web.
Doty, Mark. “Horsehair Sofas of the Antarctic: Diane Ackerman’s Natural Histories.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 20. 1. (1995): 264-281. Web.
Johnson, Hayward. “A Natural History of the Senses.” Whole Earth Review 83 (1994): 59. Web.