The Poetry of Synesthesia
Recently, I led an abbreviated workshop on synesthesia at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. Since then, I’ve been asked by a number of people for any notes from that day for reference.
One of the poetic devices I’ve always loved in the written word, whether in prose or poetry, is synesthesia. It’s a medical condition, sure, but you need not “have” it to enjoy writing your own phrases to muscle-up your writing.
What is it? The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek meaning “perceiving together.” Someone who experiences synesthesia has one sense stimulated by another. “Colored hearing” is one example, when seeing a color actually produces a sound. A “synesthete” may hear a bell ring when a stoplight changes from red to green. The opposite applies, too, when a sound produces a color.
Synesthesia and Music
The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin claimed to be a synesthete, seeing red when he heard the note C, orange when he heard the note G, etc. Many dispute this claim but his assertions provide such interesting material! Not only did he claim that listening to music created visions of “shafts of light, sheets of flames and tongues of fire,” but he included an instrument in his scores called a “color organ” that — if it existed — would have filled concert halls with colored lights in various shapes, with the climax of his symphony being a white light so strong that it would be “painful to the eyes.” I’m not sure that part sounds inviting. If you’d like to hear one of his symphonies where a “color organ” was written into his score, check out Prometheus, the Poem of Fire (1911). It can be found on-line. Do you see that white light at the end, even without the color organ?
Duke Ellington claimed to experience synesthesia in a different way. He said that if one musician played a note, he would hear one color yet, if a different musician played the same note, he’d see a different color. Was his hearing that fine-tuned? I don’t know about you, but I believe that genius.
It is reported that Ellington also experienced another layer of synesthesia: texture. He said, for instance, that the note D was a “dark blue burlap.” How strong was his colored hearing? A painter as well as a musician, Ellington referred to his band as his palate.
The pop star Billie Eilish says: “Everything that I make I’m already thinking of what colour it is, and what texture it is, and what day of the week it is, and what number it is, and what shape…” Can you imaging being in her brain?
Colored hearing is not the only kind of synesthesia. Some synesthetes see a smell. For instance, smelling garlic may evoke the color orange.
Synesthesia in Poetry
Examples of synesthesia in poetry go all the way back to Homer, but I’ll give you a few examples stretching from the 17th Century to more modern times.
As the bell tone fades,
Blossom scents take up the ringing,
Charles Baudelaire helped popularize synesthesia in poetry with his poem “Voyelles” (1817) in which he assigns a color to every vowel. Here is the first stanza of that remarkable poem as translated by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue, vowels
Someday I’ll tell you where your genesis lies;
A: black velvet swarms of flies
Buzzing above the stench of voided bowels,
(French Poetry — from Medieval to Modern Times
Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets
Robert Hayden wrote the immensely popular poem “Those Winter Sundays.” Here are a few lines from that poem that incorporate synesthesia:
Sundays, too, my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold
(and later in the poem)
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking…
You can hear Hayden reading the entire poem on You Tube.
In her poem “The Blindman,” May Swenson wrote:
“The blindman placed a tulip/on his tongue for purple’s taste.”
In her poem “February 11, 1992: At the Art Institute of Chicago,” Sandra Gilbert wrote:
“The Van Gogh roomscape draws me
with its caked and screaming yellow bed
These are all examples of how synesthesia can be used to heighten senses and add extra depth in writing. Isn’t a “screaming yellow bed” much more interesting than “yellow bed?” Of course it is! What does purple taste like? How is cold “blueblack?” Somehow, it all makes perfect sense as soon as we read these phrases. They make us want to read on. They make us feel and see and perceive in new ways.