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Between the Sixth Sense and the Seventh

Literary scholar Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek researches representations of perception in lyric poetry

Nov 26, 2010

Wie Fräulein Smilla im Roman des dänischen Schriftstellers Peter Høeg, die ein bestimmtes Gespür für Schnee hat, haben manche Menschen ein besonders feines Gespür für bestimmte Situationen.
Like Miss Smilla, who in the novel by the Danish writer Peter Høeg has a particular feeling for snow, some people have a “sixth sense” about certain situations. Image Credit:

Perceiving something beyond the five known senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch – is a curious matter, and unlike those senses, it is difficult to pin down. “Our sense of perception is what makes us able to sense or perceive things that actually are not perceptible,” says literary scholar Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek, who earned his qualification as a university instructor for his work on sarcasm in literature and is currently studying representations of perception in lyric poetry within the Languages of Emotion Cluster of Excellence at Freie Universität Berlin.

This “sixth sense” has nothing in common with supernatural abilities. Rather, it is a special sensory ability for “half-things,” as the phenomenologist Hermann Schmitz of the University of Kiel has called them: things that we perceive between the mind and the “gut,” between reason and emotion. “One of the characteristics of these half-things is that they are ephemeral,” Meyer-Sickendiek says. We are only able to perceive phenomena such as silence, cold, night, or a certain atmosphere for a specific period. And not everyone perceives them the same way: “It is only objectifiable to a certain extent.” Plus, every person reacts differently. Where the nighttime atmosphere leaves one person cold, another may be electrified.

Perceptions require some kind of trigger, however slight: a puff of wind blowing toward a person, for instance. “But just a single indicator isn’t enough,” says Meyer-Sickendiek, a fellow in the Heisenberg Program of the German Research Foundation (DFG), who has already written about the fascination of pondering. There are three components that interact to form a sense of perception: a fine perception, deep-seated experiential knowledge, and the ability to draw a conclusion from that, meaning the specific act of interpretation. “Because of their short form, poems are especially well suited to capturing these moments of sensory excitation in words.”

To fully explore how this mysterious sense has been treated in literature, Meyer-Sickendiek worked his way through nearly 300 years of the history of German lyric poetry – from the early 18th century to the present day – and filtered out all of the poems he found containing any variant of the word “spüren” for “perception.”

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

The poem “Ein Gleiches” (Sameness), written by the celebrated German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1780 in the forests of Thuringia in central Germany, is a prime example. “Starting with this poem, I tried to sketch out the spectrum of the sense of perception,” says Meyer-Sickendiek. It covers everything from the elemental perception of wind and weather or the existential perception of dangers or intoxication to the perception of community or commonality or the absence of a loved one, and even perception of a certain atmosphere or the passage of time.

Any scholar who is analyzing poetry necessarily also has to study meter – the sequence of long and short, or stressed and unstressed, syllables – and rhythm. This allows scholars to compare form and content over a longer period.

The nature poems of the Romantic period follow a stringent meter and a clear structure. Does that mean that their depictions of perception are more uniform? “Since at least the start of the 20th century, the language of poetry has become more fragmentary and less melodic,” says Meyer-Sickendiek. Nonetheless, intense experiences of nature or a certain atmosphere are still present and perceptible in many poems of the modern era – even if the lyric language is no longer the same.

The Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker has blended lyric and novelistic language, experimenting time and again with the boundaries between the two genres. In her poem “solch FLUGS- oder SCHNEE Schrift,” she sets down flashes of perception and feelings on paper in lyric form. “The language she uses in the poem is almost prose-like, though, and the poem is only recognizable as such in that it is aligned left,” says Meyer-Sickendiek.

hallo hallo hier ist das zar Rußland (Traum)
und ich spüre es in der Straßenbahn manchmal oder
wenn ich 1 Gedicht von Gennadij Ajgi lese oder
beim Warten in der Fleischhauerei oder
wenn ich, über das Kopfsteinpflaster stolpernd,
mich dem Anblick des Winterhimmels hingebe, wie es sein wird
wenn ich gestorben bin, wirklich nur 1 Sekunde lang, 1 Schwindelanfall
.. so schleifen (schlittern) im Schlaf im Kirchenzimmer nämlich
diese auf der Zunge geschmeckte Spar- oder Spur losigkeit
eines Schneefalles

This poem also focuses on a single brief moment: the sudden perception of how it will be when one has died. “I think this is how the sense of perception works. That the main thing is capturing that one single moment,” Meyer-Sickendiek says.

Further Information

PD Dr. Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek
Languages of Emotion Cluster of Excellence at Freie Universität Berlin
Tel.: +49 (0)30 838 57841