Poetics Today: Literature and the Cognitive Revolution

I have been reading the journal Poetics Today, a scholarly journal published by Duke University. Volume 23 collects articles from 2002 which are primarily concerned with “Literature and the Cognitive Revolution”. The endeavor has been a challenge for me. I’ve read academic writing in the past but not so thoroughly or consistently. The writing in this volume is not as turgid or intricate as literary criticism often is, perhaps because one influence the “cognitive revolution” has on literary criticism is to make it more technical and precise. Here I will respond to a few of the articles in this volume as they connected and influenced my own writing.

I’ll begin with Reuven Tsur’s article “Some Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Programs”. I had previously encountered Tsur in the chapter on deixis in Cognitve Poetics in Practice and was quite taken with his acuity and his detailed analysis. Not only is his research impeccable, but I also find his style of writing engaging.

In Poetics Today v23, Tsur argues that cognitive constraints can help explain and describe poetic conventions across cultures. He considers the impact of two cognitive processes on poetic form: short-term memory and gestalt rules of perception. The constraints on writing set by short-term memory are of interesting and useful, but I am especially intrigued by the application of the gestalt rules.

Can the gestalt rules of perception be applied to narrative structure in fiction? The gestalt rules of perception refer to our capacity to perceive objects as a whole rather than a mere collection of parts. The gestalt rules say that the mind tends to perceive an integrated whole when the individual parts are more complicated. Tsur applies these rules to an understanding of how various cultures share a preference for similar poetic meters, such as the placement of a caesura in a line of poetry or the bias for iambic over trochaic. Can this principle also be used to understand what makes a narrative complete? Or how many ways can a novel be subdivided into chapters and sections?

Questions about chapters and sections first came to me listening to a series of lectures by Catherine Brown on Literature and Form. Brown’s series of lectures provide an historical overview of various novelistic forms. And aspects of the cognitive approach toward these questions of narrative structure are laid out in the chapters on prototype and cognitive grammar in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. Tsur’s article suggests a way of approaching narrative structure that is both cognitive and historical.

I must admit to being just a little enthralled by Tsur’s writing. Some Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Programs is exemplary as an application of cognitive poetics to poetic form. Prosody has always confounded and amazed me. I try to learn as much as I can about meter but always remain a novice, practicing finger exercises and laboriously sounding out words. I suspect that it is a skill which requires intense and extended focus to master, like the calculus or playing the violin. Although prosody is tantalizing, my devotion is to narrative. I am interested in extrapolating the points Tsur makes about poetic form to an increased understanding of narrative form, so that I can shape my own writing in ways that work with a reader’s cognitive capacities.

Next I will respond to the paper written by Liza Zunshine on the poet A. L. Baurbauld’s catechistic hymn.

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