Use of a noun as a verb creates measurable surge in reader’s brain

Emily Dickinson was an avid reader of Shakespeare and took similar liberties with English grammar, as when she coins ‘perfectness’ to convey a uniqueness too intractable for standard ‘perfection.’ In that poem on the impossibility of objective perception (‘Perception and Object costs’) she transforms the passive voice of the verb ‘is situated’ into an ungrammatical active form, ‘situates.’ Each transformation has its rationale. ‘Situates’, like ‘perfectness’, conveys a wilful distance from definition—a disruptive energy crucial to her art. It turns the noun to a verb. Research on Shakespeare’s grammar, in particular his use of a noun as a verb (say, ‘foots it’ for dance), has demonstrated a measurable surge in the brain of his reader or audience. This research is still at an early stage, but one idea is that nouns and verbs may be processed in different regions of our brains, which means that when the usual connection is challenged a new pathway opens up. A ‘surge’ in the brain registers on an electro-encephalogram one six-hundreth of a second after we hear a novelty of transformed grammar.

This surge is said to be a kind of syncopation. In jazz, the jolt of syncopation interrupts the glide of musical pathways. This rhythm, as vital to jazz as to Dickinson’s start-stop lines, has made her appealing to composers, from John Adam’s Harmonium with its marvellously objective choral treatment of ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, to pop stars who adapt her lines. The British pop star Pete Doherty, interviewed on his release from prison in 2006, owned to selling a copy of Dickinson from his Bedford school (as well as a copy of Crime and Punishment from Her Majesty’s Prison library).

‘Actually, I nicked one or two of [Dickinson’s] lines,’ he whispered, sipping a Guinness in London’s Boogaloo bar. ‘Aargh, she’s outrageous man! She’s fuckin’ hardcore! Can’t ignore her.’

What did he pinch?

‘I took one Draught of Life, paid only the market price,’ he quoted. ‘I added, “now I’m estranged”.’ He delivered each word with a point in the air, like an invisible karaoke ball. ‘Bom bom bom bom bom bom.’ He saw his present-day life—estranged, imprisoned, finding solace in words—in what Dickinson had to tell of her time in 1862:

I took one Draught of Life—

I’ll tell you what I paid—

Precisely an existence—

The market price, they said…

Curiously, Doherty expresses a Dickinsonian aversion to public eyes. To perform in public is a nightmare, like war, ‘but to sit down and write in solitude is like a dream.’

Lives Like Loaded Guns, Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon.