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UCLA Professor Writes Rhymes and Drops Science

Professor of pyschology by day, poet by night, 'My Minotaur' author Keith Holyoak finds that when he is not making breakthroughs in cognitive science, he enjoys writing verse.

Since the mid-1980s, rappers have been boasting in perpetuity about about "writing rhymes," "dropping science," and kicking it "old school." Well, UCLA professor Keith Holyoak means it.

If you believe that working as a cognitive science professor at UCLA seems at odds with pouring your soul out in verse, don't tell that to Holyoak, who for years has been juggling both. When not researching cranial matters, Holyoak authors poetry collections such as My Minotaur, a collection of poems he wrote during 1998-2006.

"There is a special opposition yet also affinity between being a cognitive psychologist and being a poet," Holyoak said. "In my 'day job' as a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA, I try to figure out how the mind and brain work—why normal people can seem so smart and yet so foolish, what goes wrong when people suffer various kinds of brain damage. I’m especially interested in how people see analogies—relationships between things that though different on the surface, actually have a lot in common. For example, the Internet is something like a nervous system, though it’s built out of computers instead of nerve cells. Scientists use analogies to build new theories; writers use them to build new metaphors."

"Being a scientist is either the opposite of being a poet, or else the same thing," Holyoak continued. "The stance of the scientist is critical and skeptical—you have to show me hard evidence before I’ll believe anything. The stance of the poet is open and accepting—I believe what I feel. But both are trying to understand the universe, just taking different routes to knowledge."

L.L. Cool J, Kool Mo Dee, King Ad-Rock...These guys have nothing on Holyoak. Here's a fellow who can quite literally "drop some science."

"As a cognitive scientist, I look at people 'from the outside' and try to understand how and why they think as they do," Holyoak said. "A poet has pretty much the same aim, but takes a view 'from the inside'. Instead of scientific experiments, the poet works with empathy, pain, love, dreams—all the things that make us human. A good poet, like a good cognitive psychologist, isn’t just concerned with their own personal feelings. Instead, each aims to discover and convey common threads of human experience that bridge the distances created by time and culture."

For Holyoak, the path to becoming a poet and a psychology professor began north of the border.

"I was a poet first, in the juvenile style of a boy growing up on a farm in western Canada," Holyoak recalled. "While still in high school, the first psychologist who caught my attention was Carl Jung, with his seductive theory of universal symbols and archetypes revealed in dreams and myths. But as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, an early course in experimental psychology tilted my interests toward science. It was a revelation to find that it was possible to do experiments that could reveal how people think. That revelation carried me through a PhD from Stanford and an early career at the University of Michigan, then on to UCLA in 1986."

A dozen years ago, Holyoak began to feel that "the long-dormant urge to write poetry returned. I read a lot of William Butler Yeats, whose poetic philosophy bears an eerie resemblance to the psychology of Jung. I encountered the great poets of classical China, Li Bai and Du Fu, and started translating them with the help of Chinese friends.

"Since we academics are conditioned to 'publish or perish', it was inevitable that I started to publish my poetry, first in magazines and eventually as books," Holyoak said. "My first book was a bilingual edition of my translations from the Chinese, Facing the Moon: Selected Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu (Oyster River Press, 2007). Last year, I published a collection of my own poems, My Minotaur (Dos Madres Press, 2010)."

Holyoak's oldest son Jim, a Montreal resident, provided the book's arresting black and white illustrations.

"Meanwhile, I’ve kept my 'day job' going, too—teaching, chasing research grants, publishing psychology papers and books—the usual academic life," Holyoak said. "Early on I found that switching between psychology and poetry was almost like switching between different brain states—quite jarring, as if I had to suspend my 'normal' scientific mind to sink into a poetic reverie. As time went by, it became easier to go back and forth, so now I might be working on a poem and a scientific paper on the same day (or night)."

Holyoak is all for one's pursuit of the muse...with a caveat.

"Neither job is a path to riches, though it’s pretty clear which one pays my bills," Holyoak said. "My first advice to a young poet: Keep your day job!"

When he writes poetry, "it’s usually at home or in my office," he said. "I don’t write easily in cafes and the like—too many distractions. Of course, a poet (or scientist) can be 'at work' while wandering around anywhere. My favorite places in Westwood are all on the UCLA campus, especially the Sculpture Garden."

Poetry is ultimately a journey of self-discovery, and as Holyoak learned, "I quickly discovered that I like to write poems in rhyme and meter—'old school' style—free verse generally bores me."

A journey, one should say, that is not yet over...

"I’m working now on a new collection of my own poems written in styles I’ve adapted from the Chinese poets," Holyoak said. "I’ll be leaving for a trip to China in May, and hope to find a few more poems while over there."

In the meantime, Holyoak's books can be found here. The following is an excerpt from My Minotaur...

 

The Kiss

 by Keith Holyoak

 

A roaring highway disconnects

The sandy beach from a bus-stop bench,

Golden youth in springtime flower

From sidewalks home to wasted men:

There ocean air, here city stench;

There sun-bronzed bodies, here old wrecks

Whose luck ran out when pain began

To soak right through each waking hour.

 

A tunnel burrowing underground

Connects the beach to cityside.

A vagrant sits, all vacant stare,

Waits for a bus—to where, who knows?

Their beach-day done, two lovers glide

From out the tunnel, arms wound round

Each other’s waists—the girl’s face glows

As her boyfriend stoops to kiss her there.

 

His lips seek hers—she suddenly

Breaks free, turns, runs to the homeless one

To stroke his rough gray-whiskered cheek,

To press her lips on his in a kiss.

She slips away like the setting sun—

Just gone, with no apology.

The old man weighs his glimpse of bliss

Against a pain he did not seek.

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