Dino Brains and Poetry

Perhaps the most famous dinosaur poem of all is one penned by Chicago Tribune columnist Bert Leston Taylor. Taylor’s poem includes this famous little ditty, which I think is quite brilliant.

The creature had two sets of brains
One in his head (the usual place)
The other in his spinal base
Thus he could reason a priori
As well as a posteriori.

Taylor’s poem is also one of the most misattributed. Nearly every time you see it, you will find it dated as 1912. Even the vaunted New York Times noted this date in a February 1998 column by C. Clairborne Ray. I am guessing that Ray, like others, was referring to a short volume of poetry by Taylor, A Line-o’-Verse or Two, which came out in 1911. But Taylor didn’t write the poem for his book. Instead, he wrote it for his A Line-O’-Type or Two column, published regularly in the Tribune. The famous words are from The Dinosaur, published in the Tribune on February 26, 1903.

The poem in the paper also includes a line that refutes another myth about Taylor’s words. They do not refer to the most infamous, supposedly two-brained dinosaur, Stegosaurus. Just below the title The Dinosaur, Taylor added “According to Prof. Farrington of the U.C.”  Taylor’s reference to Farrington was in response to a photograph and short note that appeared in the Tribune the day before, on February 25.

Under a headline that read “Mounting skeleton of 70 foot dinosaur at Field Museum. It was so big that it required two brain to move it about,” was a photograph of about a dozen vertebrae from the museum’s Brachiosaurus. A second photo illustrates Farrington at work on a vertebrae, with an accompanying text describing his work and the dinosaur. “He [the dinosaur, not Farrington] had not only a brain in his head but another well down his back, sixty feet from the primary seat of his intelligence. The second brain station controlled the nerve power that worked the second section of his body.”

We now know, of course, that no dinosaurs had two brains. The confusion came about because of an enlarged canal in Stegosaurus‘s sacrum. To this day, the function of this body is not clear. I am guessing that a similar space in the vertebrae of the Brachiosaurus led to Farrington’s interpretation of it. We may not know its function but at least it led to a couple of wonderful lines of poetry.

Poetry in Stone – Robinson Jeffers

Granite so infused the life of Robinson Jeffers that it helped transform him from a imitative, mediocre poet to one of the great American poets of the 20th century. His transformation occurred during the time he built his house, built on a barren knoll that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, California. Jeffers built what he and his wife called Tor House and the accompanying Hawk Tower between 1919 and 1925.

“My fingers had the art to make stone love stone,” wrote Jeffers in a poetic tribute to Tor House. His intimate knowledge of rocks came from the years he spent finding, carrying, and placing boulders for his exquisite little home. During the 44 years he lived at Tor House, Jeffers developed what Loren Eisely called “one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his natural background, that I know in literature.”

Looking toward the ocean from the garden at Tor House

I first saw Tor House and Hawk Tower in 2002 from the road that runs along the water below them. Light green grasses, gray-green shrubs and a few light gray boulders covered the slope leading up to the stone buildings. The house is squat with a narrow row of windows just below a small triangle of brown roof. The tower is square, about half the width of the house, and topped by a square turret with two eye-like windows opening out to the ocean behind me. The structures didn’t appear to be built so much as they appeared to emerge geologically from the hillside, as if Jeffers had used the nearby cliffs, seastacks, and outcroppings for blueprints.

Tor House and Hawk Tower

Up close, the buildings sustained my first impressions of geology manifest as home. No two stones were alike and rarely did stones of the same size rest next to each other. Edges were not perfectly straight but looked weathered and eroded. Barnacles still covered some of the stones Jeffers liberated from the sea. Finger trails ran through the mortar, trace fossils of a man and his passion.

Hawk Tower

His passion and intimacy with rock reveals itself in his poetry. I love his imagery of rocks as the “bones of the old mother” or the “world’s cradle.” Waves are “drunken quarrymen/Climbing the cliff, hewing out more stone for me.” The surf “cheerfully pounds the worn granite drum.” During erosion the “hills dissolve and are liquidated.”

And it is clear Jeffers felt the tremor of at least one earthquake. He wrote:

…the teeth of the fracture

Gnashed together, snapping on each other; the powers

of the earth drank

Their pang of unendurable release and the old resistances

Locked. The long coast was shaken like a leaf.

In a second, haunting description:

The heads of the high redwoods down the deep canyon

Rippled, instantly earthquake shook the granite-boned

ridge like a rat

In a dog’s teeth; the house danced and bobbled,

lightning flashed from the ground, the deep earth roared

yellow dust

Was seen rising in divers places and rock-slides

Roared in the gorges; then all things stilled and the

earth stood quiet.

Jeffers clearly paid attention to the natural world around him. Ever since his childhood he had had a connection to nature but not until he settled in Carmel and worked on the land did he develop the knowledge that gave him a voice to describe place. And this relationship centered on the house and tower he built from granite boulders on a low, barren knoll overlooking the sea.

“The place was maiden, no previous/Building, no neighbors, nothing but the elements, Rock, wind and sea,” wrote Jeffers in a poem titled The Last Conservative. How could he build any other type of structure? How could I not love that building? In his ode to Tor House, Jeffers concludes “My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably here, but a dark one, deep in granite.”