What It Means to “Promote” Poetry

Question: What were your responsibilities as Poet Laureate?

Rita Dove: It’s so funny. When I was Poet Laureate, when I was named Poet Laureate I went down to Washington a little bit beforehand to meet the assistant and meet the librarian of congress and all that and to kind of acclimate myself and I did ask what my duties were. The only official duties are to sponsor a reading series at the Library of Congress twice a month. That was fun to be able to invite poets from all over the world actually to come to read and to read for the archives. That was one official duty. The other duty was to advise the Library of Congress, the librarian of congress and also- and this was the funny one- to promote poetry in any way that I see fit. I said, “What does that mean to promote poetry?” And they said, “Well.” I said, “Well, what is the budget because if you’re going to promote you need a budget?” And I got a kind of a blank stare, so I thought okay this means that you make it up as you go along. You know I’m an artist. I can create. And I decide to just do things and figure they would stop me if they didn’t have enough money, which was probably a good way to go about it because they did find money for various things, but what was interesting, it’s sort of like being Miss America for poetry in that as the Poet Laureate you have an immediate cache and you have status. People see you. You have some kind of publicity, some kind of public stage and I thought of myself as being more like a lightening rod. People would say there is a Poet Laureate, let’s ask her or let’s tell her what to do and I got so many letters right from the beginning from people all over this country telling me what I should do and some of them were really good ideas, so and I couldn’t implement all of them in the time I was there, the two years I was there.

The one thing that I found very, very helpful was to remember that many people are very frightened of poetry and as Poet Laureate I had chance to travel around to just inject poetry into everyday life whenever I could and so I visited grade school kids or the Naval Academy, I mean all sorts of places where you thought you know didn’t know they liked poetry or poetry was absolutely necessary. So each Poet Laureate decides how they want to use that public arena and I decided to try to just be there in people’s faces whenever they turned around and to make poetry something that was all around us, so I went on “Sesame Street” for instance and yeah, it was really fun.

The other thing that happens with the Poet Laureateship is that when I was in Washington there was an opportunity to inject poetry into the government and though the Poet Laureate does not have to write official poems for anything there were many occasions when I would be asked to say a few words, which is of course a kind of a euphemism for do you have a poem, but there is always poem. You can always find a poem for almost any human situation, so I didn’t write poems for specific events, but I could look and see if I had a poem which would fit because I think is always important. It’s important if there is a celebration for some bill being passed it’s nice to have a poem there to remind us all of the human element and the human effort that went behind it, so that was important too.

Recorded on November 19, 2009

As Poet Laureate, Rita Dove learned that many people are frightened of the subject.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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