Neuroscience and poetics

In my vain efforts to wean myself away from poetry, I’ve spent some time this week thinking about how the brain functions. My motives aren’t exactly pure, being bipolar means that there is something wrong with my brain and I’d like to know a bit more about what it is that might be ‘wrong’. The other motive is that I’ve got a strong interest in research that’s still in an early stage of development- I find the various metaphors and gropings for some level of certainty to be fascinating.
As Jerry Fodor says in this weeks TLS, we simply don’t know how the mind works and the extent of our ignorance is staggering but that doesn’t stop us trying to pass off guesswork as fact. My favourite metaphor of the moment is the ‘attentional blink’ but I’ll get to that shortly.
This week’s New Scientist carries a feature called ’50 ideas to change science’, I was flicking through these when I came across a piece eintitled ‘Top-down processing, our past determines our present’ which appeared to be of interest because of the similar threads that run through the work of Charles Olson and David Jones. This turns out to be a bit wide of the mark but the piece continues- “In truth, we are realising that our experience is closer to a form of augmented reality, in which our brain redraws what it sees to best fit our expectations and memories.”
Isn’t this in effect an extension of the Pound/Eliot project? Isn’t this notion of augmented reality what Prynne is trying to express (I’m thinking of his later work and of the praise he heaps on Merleau-Ponty). I would argue that strong poetry is ideally equipped to play on the margins between perception, knowledge and feeling and that this is a privileged position that should/must be pursued. I’m not saying that we should all endeavour to write ‘like’ Prynne but that poets do need to think more clearly about the notion of ‘pure’ or ‘immediate’ experience and the ways in which these are compromised by our memories of the past.
This isn’t an easy task but there are examples, the way that Olson and Jones move between myth, history and the present, the austerity and resilience of Prynne’s work since 1995, John Matthias on brain function in ‘Trigons’: all of these point to fertile ground.
The other element that I’m waiting for is neuroscience catching up with the work of Alfred North Whitehead on process because it seems to me that progress in this field can only begin to be made by clearing out the Cartesian ‘gunk’ that Olson so delightfully refers to.
So,I’m calling for a poetics that re-thinks both perception and the relationship between substance and process in anticipation that it may begin to tell us ‘how things are’.
‘Attentional blink’ as I understand it, refers to our inability to register a visual stimulus if it is presented less than half a second after the first. I like this primarily because of the way it sounds but I’d like to report a serious case of inverted attentional blink. I’ve recently had another concerted attempt at reading ‘The Unconditional’ by Simon Jarvis. Previous attempts have been thwarted by what I thought was my inability to apply sufficient concentration. Normally I’d have given up months ago but the poem does contain enough good stuff to hold my interest. On this occasion I tried a different strategy which focused on the digressions rather than the narrative thread. This has proved more successful until I realised that I was becoming so absorbed by the extended metaphor that I had forgotten what it was referring to. This pattern repeated itself across many pages of reading and re-reading and I’m still no further forward in making sense of the thing. A clear case of attentional blink in reverse? Perhaps next time I need to be less absorbed….. any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

8 responses to “Neuroscience and poetics

  1. Hi John–
    Yes, it’s an intriguing thought—poetry as augmented reality—or is it augmented augmented reality? If our brain always ‘redraws’ what we take to be the real, then (really) what we’re talking about is care and feeding of the brain (via the mind? Or would the mind be seen as approaching some sort of equivalency with/ to the brain, just for purposes of this discussion?), giving the brain good, organic nourishment—poetry as oatmeal and fresh fruit, a touch of fresh maple syrup, not Pop-Tart poetry, not Fruit-Loop verse. I remember years ago Julian Beck referring to ‘the entertainments that degrade our existence’—maybe this is what we’re talking about—finding poetry that does not degrade either mind, brain or being. Wallace Stevens does talk about the poem as ‘the growth of the mind of the world’.
    The downside to the idea is that it could lead to a sort of a ‘triumph of the will’ thing, that we actually create reality, that we can control it, impose our will on it. Remember this gem from the Bush Era:
    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
    This was a very bad idea, I think.
    The second downside may be this whole ‘mind’ thing. (Okay, kids, let’s see if we can figure out how many different meanings he gives to ‘mind’ in the above paragraph). The brain may respond to chemicals and chemicals only and the creation of these chemicals through the mind may be negligible or non-existent.
    Still I can’t resist copying out the beginning of Erich Auerbach’s book on Dante:
    Ever since its beginnings in Greece, European literature has possessed the insight that a man is an indivisible unity of body and spirit and that his individual fate follows from that unity, which like a magnet attracts the acts and suffering appropriate to it.
    I wonder…

  2. Jim,
    I love the Stevens quote, I think what I’m fumbling towards is poetry as something that enriches and nurtures the ‘mind of the world’. I’ve been thinking of Prynne’s use of ‘ardency’ as an expression of immediate experience (and why that notion might be flawed).
    I’m an uncommitted relativist at heart so I don’t share your concern that it could lead to imperialist arrogance because I’m uncomfortable with any notion of reality as ‘truth’. I’ve also been reading David Jones and feel that ‘The Anathemata’ is one of he best expressions of that indivisible unity. Have you read it?

  3. John,
    The full quote is
    You know that the nucleus of time is not
    The poet but the poem, the growth of the mind

    Of the world, the heroic effort to live expressed
    As victory.

    It’s from a poem called ‘Reply to Papini’.
    ‘Ardency’ as an expression of immediate experience…I’ll have to think about that one. Is the alternative ‘non-immediate experience’? ‘Mediated experience’? ‘No experience’? ‘Experience?
    And then the ‘expression’ part. I express the experience of stubbing my toe by saying: ‘Oh my goodness gracious’–or something like that. As the experience gets more complex, it’s reasonable to suppose the expression of it will get more complex still–with poetry being a nice vehicle for this complex expression. When your experience, though, is of this poetry…?
    What? Meta-poetry? Literary criticism?

    I shall put David Jones on my list.
    Take care.

  4. Jim,

    I’ve now read the ‘Papini’ poem and I’m even more impressed, Stevens moves up the list.
    I may be making wild and unlikely extrapolations but I first fell across ‘ardency’ in Prynne’s comments to ‘The Solitary Reaper’. He says that the use of ‘O’ in a poem is an expression of ardency. The word was then filed away in my brain because I’d never comes across it before. I’ve now noticed that Prynne uses the word rather a lot, the other one that sticks in the brain is when he’s describing himself reading one of Heidegger’s books in with ‘great ardency’ in the early fifties.
    What I’m getting round to is the notion (as I read it) is that ‘ardency’ may be a way of expressing how we feel when we come across something that is (for the want of a better term) un-mediated by our prior experience.
    With regard to the stubbing of the toe, I consider myself as an expert in this field due to lifelong clumsiness. Yesterday, coincidentally, I stubbed it yet again and can now recall thinking before the pain kicked in-
    1. That was a stupid thing to do
    2. It’s going to hurt
    3. How much is it going to hurt?
    4. It usually hurts quite a lot.
    5.Shall I start swearing now or should I wait for the pain?
    Then the pain kicked in and I refrained from cursing, looked down and saw that I’d stubbed it on a plastic box rather than something metal or plastic.
    So the stubbing of the toe is informed by prior experience (I think).
    Contrast this with a recent holiday in Rome. I’d been as a child and knew quite a lot about Rome and I have a strong interest in cities and how they develop so I was fairly confident that I had enough of the ‘frame and only needed to fill in the details. This was not the case, for seven whole days I tried to make Rome fit into my prior knowledge of how cities grow and function. Couldn’t do it – Rome seems to operate on dimensions and trajectories that simply don’t exist in other places. I think it’s this kind of extreme confusion and excitement that’s worthy of poetic expression. I’m making notes…

  5. John–
    ‘Ardency’, the expression of immediate experience? Oh? Oh, I don’t know. O! I don’t know. ‘Ardency’ is a rare word—at least in my small circle of friends—but ‘ardent’ is not. I wonder where we get when we move from being an ardent stamp collector to finding that collecting stamps puts into a state of ardency. The former situation seems commonplace; the latter, suggests we might be in need of a map. I can’t comment on how Prynne uses the word, but moving the adjective ‘ardent’ over to the noun column does seem to be a way of rendering the familiar strange. Okay, so far as it goes…but ‘While I was reading Heidegger I was in a state of great passionacy?’ (When I was a young man I was in decent shape; right now I am indecent.) I’m fooling around here, but what is gained by saying ‘reading with ardency’ rather than ‘reading ardently’?
    It is interesting the difference between ‘O’ and ‘Oh’. ‘Oh’, of course, is as commonplace as toast. ‘O’ is rather hard to pull off in everyday speech—and indeed seems a wholly interior word. Stephen Daedalus thinks ‘O life!’—steam of consciousness and all that—but does he say ‘O life’? A word we can think, write, use in poetry, sing in an opera, declaim from the mountains, but would feel silly using when buying a cup of coffee. O cream! Pour it lustily, sir! O sugar! O decafe! It may be the passion implied, though, that does make it a powerful word, one worth bringing back to the world. I think I agree with Prynne; in truth, it is one of my favorite words. (I recently wrote a poem with the title ‘Oh, Hello, O Hollow One’) Oh dear…
    You stubbed your toe and thought all those things before you felt the pain? I recently pulled a garage door down with my fingers in between the panels. There’s a nice gap when the door is up that disappears rather quickly when you pull it down. The thoughts about stupidity and even the swearing came well after the pain.
    My last thought on ardency is this: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. (Courtesy of Shunryu Suzuki) Good Night. I’ll think about poets as revolutionaries at some other time.

    • Jim,

      Don’t want do to this to death but if we take ardency as a kind of fervour or eagerness rather than passion then we might get a bit further down this route. I’ve re-read the relevant pages on ‘O listen’ in Prynne’s book and concede that his use of ardency as applied by Wordsworth to the poetic task may be a bit more convoluted than I initially thought.
      The ‘immediate experience’ problem still interests me and I’m still trying to work out the difference (cognitively) between astonishment as a response to something that is outside our perceptual experience and whether I ride new stuff because I’m looking for that kind of audacious jolt that really good poetry can give.
      The poetic use of ‘O’ is something I’ve started to pay attention to. There appropriate, strong uses (Milton especially) and really affected uses – the kind that give poetry a bad name.
      Thanks again for making me think, Stevens now bestrides the list..

  6. [Notes from having read the article above and subsequent comments]:

    1. “O” – vocative <– Quite possibly not remotely helpful

    2. Meta-ardency!

    3. If a metaphor extends for actual pages, leave a trail of breadcrumbs (as it were) for yourself to follow perhaps? Have the book open in one hand and with the other write down/type (even voice into a Dictaphone, maybe??) where the 'absorbing' extended metaphor started and key turns through-out. Whilst the end result might be a jumble of apparently arbitrary words on a page or in a recording, if the above proves remotely useful/successful it should hopefully yield a condensed form of the "gist" of the material it's applied to?

    I stumbled here indirectly from arduitydotcom which probably explains why I'm commenting on a post from a year ago. I'm also not at all familiar with Simon Jarvis (so the above suggestion might be of no use whatsoever; I've no idea of the complexity/density of the material in question . . . )

    • Emily,

      I really ought to do more with arduity. Your breadcrumbing suggestion is a good one, I’m currently on my second reading of ‘The Unconditional’ and it is beneficial although I haven’t yet got to the dictaphone stage.

      What do you think of arduity? Is it worth expanding?



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