Cognitive Poetics: Literature as Parable

The chapters in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice on literature as parable bring together all the concepts from previous chapters to describe how meaning is made of whole texts. Each of the carpenter’s tools has been studied thoroughly. The hammer, saw, measuring tape and chalk, framing square, and nails are ready to hand, and the real work can begin. Prototypes, figure & ground, deixis, and scripts are used to build both micro and macro structures from a textbase. Cognitive metaphor and conceptual blending help explain how these structures interact to generate meaning from texts, both personal and general meanings, and how intertextuality provides literature with the capacity to modify the cognitive models that form our world views.

In What Are They Saying about the Parables?, David B. Gowler argues there are “no spectators in the dialogic word of parable.” He is referring specifically to the Biblical parables but his argument can apply to all parables and all literature read as parable. A parabolic reading of a text is a synthesis of the writer and reader as co-authors of the texts meaning. This fits nicely with post-structuralist theories about authorship. As Ellen Spolsky argued in a 2002 paper titled: Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory as a Species of Post-Structuralism, cognitive poetics makes the same argument as post-structuralism:

“…the meanings of texts are indeed unstable and dependent upon contingent contexts.”

But cognitive poetics does not proclaim the death of the author nor even the primacy of the reader. Instead, these chapters on literature as parable provide tools for a detailed analysis of the dynamic relationship between text and meaning. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Stockwell begins by commenting on the literary distinction between plot and story, proposing that cognitive poetics can map out the complex and inherently subjective relationship between plot and story—the implications of such a mapping apply not only to literature but to broader human experience using the theory of embodied cognition.

A reader first compiles facts about the text, constructing a microstructure from the textbase. These facts are assembled on the fly to construct a macrostructure using five cognitive strategies or macrorules:

  1. citation
  2. local deletion
  3. global deletion
  4. generalization
  5. construction

For example, in reading Jane Eyre I construct perceptions of characters and settings based on a description in the text:

Four equestrians galloped up the drive and after them came two open carriages. Fluttering veils and waving plumes filled the vehicles. Two of the cavaliers were young, dashing looking gentleman. The third was Mr. Rochester on his black horse Mesera. Pilot bounding before him…

From this description I form a perception, which not only includes the image of guests arriving at the mansion but also the perspective that frames the scene: Jane Eyre watching from a high window. Many details are quickly disregarded, such as the specific number of riders and carriages, even before the description concludes. Rather than a specific number of guests, my perception is of more than one, several, or a crowd of guests. Other facts linger, such as Miss Ingram’s attire and her “rich raven inglets” and Mr. Rochester on horseback. I share the main character’s interest in both these characters. But within a few more pages some of these details also fade. Of the facts picked out from the text and not deleted I begin to form generalizations about Mr. Rochester’s appearance, his personality, and his place in society. Also, because the whole scene is framed in Jane Eyre’s perspective from the window, I make generalizations about her and her world view. These generalizations combine with my sociocultural knowledge and beliefs of 19th century England as well as my opinions on class and gender as I build a macrostruture, which is my reading of Jane Eyre.

Application of these five macrorules is not linear or unidirectional. Even citation, direct recall of specific text, can vary between readers. The facts I pick out and notice will differ from the facts another reader or I myself upon re-reading may pick out from the same textbase. This nonlinear, multidirectional relationship between the facts (microstructure) and meaning (macrostructure) of the text is what literature as parable describes.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Michael Burke applies aspects of blending theory to explain how multiple input spaces (macrorules) blend to create new spaces that do not have a direct relation to the original input spaces. These blended spaces are also input spaces: macrorules that blend again to make new spaces. Three phases of blending (composition, completion, and elaboration) can extend the blending for as long as a reader is interested.

A parable, religious or otherwise, works on the reader to alter ways of perceiving and thinking about the world. Michael Burke uses the example of a biblical parable from Mathew 20 that tells of workers in a vineyard who are rewarded evenly regardless of how much work they performed. A narrative does not have to be explicitly didactic to be read as a parable, though. The assumption made in treating literature as a parable is that a change occurs in the reader as a consequence of reading. The allure of this assumption is strong because it fits well with my own experience as a reader and supports my motivation as a writer. But having recently read Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen, I have a healthy doubt of extrapolating this assumption too far. Keen highlights the lack of strong evidence to support most extravagant claims about the salutary effects of reading.

However, the claim Stockwell and Burke make about reading does not extrapolate but interpolates deeper into the dynamic process of reading. Parable is a cognitive process that constructs meaning in the real-world, not only literary texts. Parabolic projection is a cognitive blend with input spaces that are mapped onto generic spaces. Parabolic reading is how human beings experience and make meaning of the world using various conceptual tools.

Burke makes a case study of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2 and identifies multiple source domains, including textual features, social knowledge, intertextual connections, and personal memories. He identifies a main conceptual metaphor: PROCREATION IS ETERNAL LIFE and other conceptual metaphors that “parabolically [feed] this one.” Continuing to re-read the sonnect, Burke identifies two more conceptual metaphors: LIFE IS A BATTLE and LIFE IS A VENTURE that trigger other source domains. The field of meaning is constrained to the text but is not limited by it. The only limit to meaning is the amount of attention the reader is able and willing to give.

Burke is self-conscious of how meaning is made and remade while engaging with the text. At times he seems to be engaged in free-association, but he returns to the text after each new turn, not only to ground his reading but also to gather more associations. In his summary he admits that he could have made entirely different connections with equally valid conceptual metaphors. The purpose of parabolic reading is to show that meaning making is multi-directional and expansive, not to find the true or correct meaning.

Stockwell also provides a case study, a parabolic analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His analysis sticks close to one central concept: LIFE IS A GAME and does not examine as many source domains as Burke. But Stockwell allows for multiple subdivisions of that metaphor, and he reinterprets the nature of the text itself as a fairytale, a moral fable, a romance, and possibly a satire. There seems to be no end to the creative process of making meaning, a process in which conclusions reverse back to alter the nature of premises.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Michael Burke compares the medieval conception of meaning to principles of cognitive poetics: neither of which support absolute knowledge. Cognitive poetics establishes prototypes and blends, which do not have the feel of solid answers. Although I am drawn to this open-ended approach, my confidence was tested while treading the shifting spaces of parabolic reading. How far do I trust my own interpretation of my own reading?

One of the study questions at the end of Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction is to “investigate the main conceptual structures across a single long text” and to “sketch out the role this conceptual scaffolding plays in the global construction of the literary work as a parable.” I chose Herman Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno. At sometime I will share my notes from this exercise here. Identifying the main conceptual structures was not difficult and re-reading Melville with close attention was a delight. But the connections I made between the conceptual metaphors and the global construction feel tenuous. I know I could have drawn entirely different conclusions and made altogether different connections.

Texts are not like mathematical functions with a fixed output associated with each input. A text generates multiple and various meanings for each reader, meanings that change even before a reader has completely read the text. I’m fine with contradictions and explanations that provide multiple answers. The cognitive poetic approach to literature as parable promises an approach that is systematic and allows multiplicity and contradiction.

I want to write stories that enthrall readers to the point that their perception of the world around them changes. As a reader, I’ve attributed that feeling of being enthralled to the text I’m focused on at the moment. But the text is only one input space among many input spaces that go into the cognitive blend that shapes my reading experience. Stockwell and Burke offer insights to how readers use the textbase to create a macrostructure. The explanation provided by cognitive poetics goes beyond the basic platitudes that bombard anyone trying to become a better writer, such as “show don’t tell” and “make it count”. Instead of mundane advice, cognitive poetics offers a description of the reading process that contributes to the construction of meaning.

When I’m writing, I consider what aspects of the text are likely to be held onto by the reader and for how long. The goal is to include sufficient details in the text to allow the reader to construct a meaningful world. The world of the text is necessarily incomplete. If not, then what would the reader do? Writing is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. In visual art this idea is called negative space.

I am practicing how to track the dynamic process of reading and make connections between conceptual metaphors and global construction of meaning. My confidence improves. I am able to recognize connections in my own writing. At least half of writing is reading to revise. Recognizing false triggers, those that a reader may use to activate unrelated blends, will enhance my revisions. I will also look for details to include in the text that suggest specific blending space. Allusions or certain styles of prose can activate intertextual blends. A setting may activate schemas that function as input spaces to enrich cognitive blends. Literature as parable has clarified aspects of the revision process for me which will help me revise more thoroughly and efficiently.

Review: Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen 2007 Oxford University Press

Although proclamations of the novel’s imminent demise seem to be an annual occurrence–see last year’s eulogy–in the 21st century, attacks on the novel usually come in the form of radical apathy (people just don’t read). Defenders of the novel usually respond with radical fervor, lobbing specious exaggerations about the novels importance. But these often superbly articulated encomiums are little more than lances aimed at unperturbed windmills. And if I may continue the allusion to that first and best modern novel: with Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen is like the faithful Sancho, applying herself to identifying the erroneous assumptions but never leaving the side of intrepid bibliophiles.


I am such a bibliophile, bookish even. My reading, whether it be Dante Alighieri or Laurell K. Hamilton, is motivated by a belief in the redemptive capacity of narrative. My writing is, likewise, motivated by my belief in love and the power of stories to engender love in myself and my readers. Empathy and the Novel challenges these beliefs and in doing so enriches and advances them.


Keen explores the tangled and subtle relationship between empathy and the novel from the perspectives of both readers and writers. Furthermore, she delineates the surprisingly tenuous connection between empathy and altruistic action.


Empathy, the spontaneous sharing of feeling with another, is a primitive response that can lead to more complex emotional responses. Empathy itself is a derivative of emotional contagion, the automatic mimicry of another’s emotional expressions, a capacity shared by humans and some animals. Keen challenges the assumption that human empathy leads to altruism. Empathy may foster complex emotions such as sympathy, guilt, and even apathy, but none of these emotions entail altruistic action.


A study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner on holocaust rescuers showed no marked difference in empathy levels between rescuers and non-rescuers. Both groups had similar capacities for empathy. So even if novel reading does enhance and develop our ability to empathize, there is no evidence to support the belief that novel readers would be more inclined toward acts of compassion.


However, Sancho Panza’s devotion is relentless. Empathy and the Novel does not stop at debunking the myth that empathy leads to altruism. Keen also challenges the notion that novel reading enhances our ability to emphasize. As a reader, and especially as a writer, I take for granted the empathic experience of engaging with a story. What else is the experience of reading if not empathy? But Keen points to the enchanted helmet and says it might just be a wash basin turned upside down. The research suggests that empathizers make better readers in the first place than nonempathic peopleempathic ability at eight to nine years old predict[s] reading achievement at ten to eleven years  Reading does not cultivate empathy, rather being empathetic is what makes reading possible.


Keen is thorough and original in her writing. She provides a historical overview of ethical perspectives on the novel from the 18th century to present, revealing mutable attitudes and borrowed assumptions of critics and the reading public. Empathy and the Novel investigates the relationship both readers and writers have with novels, drawing on research from psychology, sociology, and neuroscience.


As a bibliophile, I am not yet ready to recant my love for and belief in the power of stories. But in the place of faith and hyperbole, I have a more nuanced appreciation and curiosity for the object of my literary passion. There are limits to empathy and to language. I’d like to explore those limits, push them if I can.


Empathy and the Novel replaces the specious exaggeration that novel reading propagates altruism with a refined analysis that explains why empathy is central to literature but leaves–appropriately–unanswered the bigger questions about the novel’s role in social improvement. The thoroughness of Keen’s own research reveals the paucity of research on the bigger questions: What is the relationship between empathy and altruism? Does novel reading impact empathy and altruism in the lives of readers? And what kinds of novels (if any) influence empathy and altruism?

Cognitive Poetics & Conceptual Metaphor: Part 2

A few years ago I attended a weekend training in Shambhala Art with Acharya Arawana Hayashi, and subsequently wrote about Chogyam Trungpa’s book True Perception. As I go further in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, I am inclined to relate the cognitive approach to my previous understanding of a variety of topics, including meditation and Shambhala Art. Particularly, Chogyam Trungpa’s writing on symbolism seems to be connected to conceptual metaphor.

In the vocabulary of Shamhala Art, a symbol can be relative or absolute. The pixels on this screen form relative symbols that indicate words, and the words are also relative symbols that indicate ideas. Ideas can also be relative symbols that indicate a particular ideology, and as Timothy Morton has argued, ideology can indicate a particular subject position. The reticulated system of relative symbols continues ad infinitum. The practice taught by Acharya Arawana Hayashi was to experience the phenomenal world directly, unmediated by conceptual structures. The practice makes use of absolute rather than relative symbols. An absolute symbol doesn’t indicate anything except itself; it presents rather than represents. Absolute symbols are non-conceptual. From cognitive poetics, conceptual metaphor describes the process of making meaning out of relative symbols using the concepts source domain and target domain. An absolute symbol could be described as both target and source domains.

During the Shambhala training weekend, a fellow student brought up the idea of recursion. Recursion can also describe how a target domain functions as its own source domain. As a meditation practice, perceiving an absolute symbol brings into awareness the experience of direct perception, not by suppressing the minds tendency to structure experience with conceptual metaphors but by looping a phatic perception, like repeating a mic check to hear the acoustics of a room.

The tools of conceptual metaphor and its sibling, conceptual blending, have powerful explanatory capacity. One danger of using these tools is the tendency to overuse them, to turn everything into a blend or conceptual metaphor. I may be guilty of this where I have re-interpreted Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings on Shambhala Art. Buddhism has a very different model of the human mind and how we make meaning than has cognitive science. Where two distinct paradigms describe similar events there may be shared features but extending one model too far into another is bound to inhibit the subtleties offered by either model. If I were to continue the comparison, I would want to investigate differences, as well as, correspondences.

Another pitfall of overusing conceptual metaphor is that it may break loose from its cognitive foundations. Tony Jackson criticized conceptual blending  in Poetics Today 23.1 with the challenge that its use does not entail a cognitive approach. Jackson pushes Mark Turner’s situating the cognitive turn in the humanities  by claiming conceptual blending is more or less an effective use of methods as old as classical rhetoric. No knowledge of cognitive science is necessary.

Jonathan Potter makes an argument along the same lines as Jackson’s in a 2006 paper, Cognition and Conversation. Potter critiques an approach to conversation analysis, claiming that it uses circular references and presumptions to make statements about cognition, and he argues that conversation analysis itself is not grounded in these assumptions. Potter describes cognitivism as a general approach that treats human cognition as a product of cognition . He offers as an alternative discursive psychology, which focuses on how cognitive aspects are constructed and situated in interaction. Like Jackson’s claim that use of conceptual blending does not entail cognitive conclusions, Potter argues that conversation analysis can be used with or without extraneous cognitive assumptions.

Caution is helpful when using a powerful tool such as conceptual blending. Using tools associated with cognitive poetics but that are not necessarily part of cognitive science requires justifying cognitive assumptions. Peter Crisp acknowledges this necessity in Cognitive Poetics In Practice by framing his description and use of conceptual metaphor as a return to language  after cognitive semantics has already established the conceptual nature of metaphor. Language alone,  he writes, cannot provide sufficient evidence  to specify metaphorical processing. Crisp calls on experimental psychology to determine when conceptual metaphor are activated but he offers a compromise for cognitive poetics: one can decide if an expression provides the basis (in principle) for a cross-domain mapping . (emphasis in original)

Jackson explains that the imbalance between the scientific and literary approaches disturbs the interdisciplinary nature of cognitive studies. But he goes on to argue the rich possibilities of such a disturbance, not by simply adopting the vocabulary of cognitive science but by showing how a specific cognitive universal  is relevant to the study of literary texts and relates to an element of culture and/or psychology.

The problematic richness Jackson describes motivates my interest in cognitive poetics. I appreciate the interplay between science and art, and I value different forms of truth offered by both. Being situated between science and art means not being wholly of either, which is a problem for cognitive poetics. I recall one poet on a panel at Naropa University lamenting the push to learn all the jargon of neuroscience and wondering if scientists should be required to learn the vocabulary of literary theory. And on one of my favorite podcasts, Brainscience, the host has mocked the trend of attaching the appellation cognitive  to disciplines that do not generate research useful to cognitive science. Being in the middle is sure to displease both groups. But for my purposes, which is creative writing, being in a troubled in-between space feels like home.

Cognitive Poetics & Conceptual Metaphor: Part 1

My reading and response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice continues with an exploration of metaphor as a literary style and as the basic pattern in the way the human mind works . The topics covered in previous chapters of both books operate in a fundamentally metaphorical way, that is cognitive processes utilize metaphorical mapping to make meaning.

Stockwell outlines various types of metaphorical expressions in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. He relates the cognitive linguistic model of metaphor to traditional literary criticisms tenor and vehicle. The cognitive model was previously discussed in Chapter 7 with an explanation of the mapping between source and target domain, which correspond to tenor and vehicle respectively.

Conceptual metaphors can be visible metaphors, which stylistically realize both source and target domains in the text, and invisible metaphors, which do not directly express one of the domains. For example, Juliet is the sun  is a visible metaphor but What light through yonder window breaks?  is an invisible metaphor because the target domain (Juliet) is not stylistically realized but is only implied. Stockwell provides a table with eight categories of metaphor that range from the most visible: copula constructions and parallelisms, to the most invisible: allegory. The various stylistic realizations express the same underlying conceptual metaphor but textual variations may map different attributes from each domain.

Different mappings generate metaphors that are either expressive or explanatory, depending on whether the metaphor emphasizes clarity or richness. Poetic metaphors tend to be more expressive. Scientific metaphors are often explanatory. For example, Where Mathematics Comes From by George Lackoff and Rafael Nunez outlines essential metaphors of mathematics: clear, systematic metaphors that build complex mathematics from embodied human experience. The_Faerie_Queene is an example of rich poetic metaphor that is systematic and abstract but not necessarily clear.

Because conceptual metaphor is fundamental to human cognition and a central feature of cognitive poetics, previous chapters have already begun introducing this way of describing how we make meaning. Reference to conceptual metaphor is ubiquitous in research and writing from cognitive poetics. Indeed, I first encountered the term as I was first discovering cognitive poetics by listening to talks and presentations from the Conference of Cognitive Poetics.

I appreciate Peter Crisp’s compare & contrast overview in Cognitive Poetics In Practice. He delineates what conceptual metaphor is and what it is not, first by distinguishing conceptual metaphor from linguistic metaphor. Conceptual metaphors may be expressed non-linguistically, and a variety of linguistic metaphors may express the same conceptual metaphor.

Also, image metaphors are not typically conceptual metaphors. Usually, a conceptual metaphor projects experientially basic categories onto more abstract categories. An image metaphor typically maps experiential categories onto other experiential categories without abstracting.

Crisp also clarifies the distinction between conceptual metaphor and blending theory, as well as how the two are related. Conceptual metaphor posits a mapping between two domains and blending theory can have four or more domains. Conceptual metaphor describes enduring patterns of cognition. Blending theory describes moment-by-moment processing of discourse. Because of the structural and functional differences, conceptual metaphor and blending theory complement rather than contradict one another.

Stockwell explains that much of our everyday speech consists of phrases which instance conceptual structures shared by groups of people. He uses two examples: GOOD IS UP and BAD IS DOWN to show how source domains are usually basic level categories based in human experience, such as the relative positions up and down. In the chapter on prototype analysis, Stockwell described how these basic categories are caused by cognitive models that can be activated by language in context.

The extent to which language mediates human experience, as well as how embodied experience influences language, is suggested by the contextual dependency of these cognitive models and basic categories. In a TED Talk from 2012, Lera Boroditsky presents research findings on the differences between cognitive models of TIME in different language groups. TIME is frequently represented as a conceptual metaphor related to SPACE in almost every language, but the nature of that relationship varies in different languages. For example, time may move around us or we may move through time. Time may move in the relative forward or backward directions: English speakers gesture forward when talking about the future and speakers of Aymore gesture forward to talk about the past.

In Borodistky’s examples, the target domain is the abstract notion TIME and the source-domains are basic level categories of relative position, consistent with Stockwell’s argument for embodied cognition. Borodistky describes another example of conceptual metaphors used by speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, who do not use relative positions but absolute directions. Instead of using left  or right  to give location, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers use absolute directions, such as northeast  or south south west . Borodistky cites research that has shown these speakers are able to orient by these absolute directions to a remarkable extent, in much the same way English speakers can tell their left from their right. For speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre the cardinal and ordinal directions are a basic level category. This category is not embodied in the way relative position is but, as Boroditsky explains, is based on sun.

Conceptual metaphors certainly shape our understanding of abstract notions by shaping the relationships between basic level categories and target domains. As a writer, the contours of that shaping are where I choose to work. How does my writing reflect shared conceptual metaphors, and how can my writing influence conceptual metaphors? For example, I am aware of the cultural tendency to represent negative target domains with blackness. It is boring to use the same conceptual metaphor over and over, however stylistically diverse the realizations. Instead, I vary the conceptual metaphors for positive and negative qualities in ways that challenge cultural assumptions and elaborate the qualities I’m describing.

Repeated use of linguistic metaphors that reinforce the conceptual metaphor BLACK IS BAD may seem innocuous in everyday speech because metaphorical mapping usually happens in one direction: the source domain is mapped onto the target domain and not the other way around. But this principle of invariance functions differently in literary discourse, as Stockwell explains. In literary discourse, two domains can inter-animate on another. In literary discourse, conceptual metaphors common in everyday speech can be made to dance, revealing contours that may have been unnoticed before.

In the next part of this response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice, I will continue engaging with conceptual metaphor by relating how this important concept has helped me reexamine some of my previous study of meditation. I will also consider some of the pitfalls and limitations of using conceptual metaphor as a theoretical and analytical tool.

Cognitive Poetics: Discourse Worlds & Mental Spaces

Here I continue my response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice. The chapters on discourse worlds theory and mental space theory build on schema poetics, introduced in the previous chapter. Discourse worlds and mental spaces further the consideration of how context and meaning are reproduced in the minds of readers. These two theories are distinct and come from different traditions, but for cognitive poetics they compliment one another in both scope and depth.

Discourse worlds theory comes out of possible worlds theory from philosophy of language and pragmatics. Possible worlds theory is applied to logical sets and obeys certain logical rules, such as the laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Stockwell uses the term discourse worlds to describe the adaption of the philosophical theory to readerly interactions that have narratological and cognitive dimensions.

Discourse worlds can have counterparts in the actual world, as well as other discourse worlds. For example, Shakespeare’s Richard III is the fictional counterpart of the actual Richard III King of England. And King Richard in Kill Shakespeare by Connor McCreery is the counterpart of Shakespeare’s character. Alternative discourse worlds are more or less close to the actual discourse world but vary depending on accessibility to objects, time, nature, and language. A principal of minimal departure is at play, so that unless the text specifies otherwise the assumption is that alternate discourse worlds are the same as the actual.

Furthermore, discourse worlds theory can be applied within the domain of the text itself. Using dreams and flashbacks, a text can offer counterparts in the same discourse world. Also, fictional characters themselves can be understood to have their own virtual discourse worlds which they use to interpret their experiences. These virtual discourse worlds are of six types: epistemic, speculative, intentional, wishful, obligational, or fantasy. This particular application of discourse worlds theory to characters in a text lends itself to use in creative writing, and below I link to a short story I wrote making use of this type of analysis.

In Cognitive Poetics In Practice, Elena Semino’s discussion of possible worlds theory references Umberto Eco and much of the ideas from this theory were familiar to me from a 2008 Richard Ellman lecture given by Eco. Eco relates the ethical function of literature to the ontological truth values of fiction. Fictional truth, Eco claims, can teach us important lessons about truth in the real world. The theory of possible worlds was developed by philosophers to calculate the truth value of sentences. According to Stockwell, discourse worlds extend the philosophical consideration to dynamic readerly interactions with possible worlds . Trans-world identity and counterparts within fictional discourse worlds seem especially salient to the problem of alternative worlds arising from domains of race and class, central concerns of my own writing.

Semino’s analysis of A Very Short Story by Ernest Hemingway using possible worlds theory takes into account tensions between the actual world, the discourse world, and the virtual discourse worlds of the two main characters. Her analysis operates at a more detailed level than is typical for possible worlds theory, tracing the changes in discourse worlds through each paragraph of the story. What is revealed is a rich private world of interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Last month, I posted a short story that I’d rewritten using a framework suggested by discourse worlds theory and Semino’s analysis. My intention is to continue revising the story, and I will likely use mental space theory and conceptual blending.

Mental space theory is offered as a supplement to discourse worlds, one that is grounded in cognitive linguistics. There are four types of mental spaces: time spaces, space spaces, domain spaces, and hypothetical spaces. Our mental representation of reality is called reality space and memory, imagination, and prediction operate on the reality space to create a projected space. Each of the four main types of mental spaces is characterized by linguistic features called space builders that open or focus on a space.

Mental space theory can be extended to narratives using the associated notion of conceptual blending that introduces two new types of spaces, a generic space and a blend space. For example, the reality space and the projected space are mapped onto a generic space that shares nodes and structural relationships with both. Features that emerge from that mapping create the blended space.

Understanding how to manage alternative possible worlds has implications for literary characters, who share similar cognitive apparatus with ourselves. Discourse worlds theory and mental space theory are ways of modeling how people comprehend stories, applicable to people as readers and people as characters. The six different types of discourse worlds listed above and the four types of mental spaces from conceptual blending are useful for representing the complexity of characters’ experiences and perspectives.

My approach to these theories and cognitive poetics in general is as a writer, interested more in the creative act than interpretation per se. A couple of months ago, I wrote that I wasn’t sure if this perspective had been explored in the research literature. Of course, very shortly I began to find multiple sources for research in this direction. One is Keith Oatley, a Canadian novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at University of Toronto. I am currently reading Oatley’s book, Such Stuff As Dreams. Another researcher writing about creativity and cognition is Charles Forceville, a professor at University of Amsterdam, whose research pertains to conceptual blending and creativity.

Forceville’s paper, Creativity in Pictorial and Multimodal Advertising Metaphors provides a description of blending theory (conceptual blending), including background information on antecedents to Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, as well as case studies of several commercials and advertising billboards. The reason Forceville focuses on advertising is because in that domain the goal of the creator is well defined.

The creative task of the advertiser can be divided into several sub-tasks related to conceptual blending:


  1. select attributes of product (target domain) to be emphasized,
  2. choose a source domain with those attributes,
  3. imagine a scenario that includes the source domain and the target domain, and
  4. select mode of expression.

What Forceville emphasizes is the second step, choosing a source domain, because this is the primary creative act in creating a blend. He points out that creativity is more closely associated with the source domain than with the target domain or blended space. Very often the blend is a starting point, as may be the target domain, and from these the source domain is reverse engineered. For example, if a writer wants her readers to feel sympathy for a character, then she may set up a conceptual blend with that character as the target domain and sympathetic emotions as qualities of a blend. Her task then is to come up with a source domain, someone or something that is obviously sympathetic, and to link the source with the target in the narrative.

I have not approached my own writing this way, at least not deliberately. My characters usually come to me as themselves. I put them into language and their they are. But I have approached whole stories using a process that has emotional outcome in mind. The characters and plot have started out as abstractions, mere bullet points in an outline. The actual writing is where I’ve come up with the metaphors and idiosyncratic details that make up the story. But my goal in writing a story is not usually so well defined as the examples Forceville considers; I’m not selling a product or even selling a character.

Metaphors and blends encompass entire stories. Just as often as I write stories from an outline, I write stories that express emotions which may be unarticulated until the story is told. I can’t reverse engineer the emotion backwards into a story. But if I narrow my attention down to one part of the story or one aspect of the writing, then the mechanics of creativity are more apparent. At the sentence or paragraph level, I do have specific goals. In a presentation Forceville gave at Hong Kong City University, he includes a study of creativity in comics balloons along with the advertising case studies. For example, he describes Alan Moore’s use of wavering lines around the dialog balloons for the character Rorschach in Watchmen as a conceptual blend that helps create the disturbing quality of the character. The comic artists’ varied use of balloon styles relate closely with components of literary style a writer might use in creative writing.

I am now passed the halfway mark in my response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice, and the variety of concepts so far presented are beginning to interrelate in motivating ways. My response to earlier chapters, such as figures & grounds and cognitive deixis, were full of interest, but each concept seemed more or less independent of the other. As I continue reading and responding, it is apparent that these concepts function together, extending and supplementing one another to generate models useful for reading and writing. Next month I will respond to the chapters on conceptual metaphor, a central concept of cognitive science and one that underlies the concepts presented in previous chapters.

Discourse Worlds: A Heuristic Response

Before responding directly to the chapters on discourse worlds and mental space theory in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, here is a short story I’m writing using the conceptualizations outlined in these books. In particular, I am making use of M. L. Ryan’s possible worlds theory summarized by both Stockwell and Semino. Stockwell prefers the name discourse worlds  when adapting Ryan’s theory to literary analysis. Semino cites Ryan’s Principle of Diversification  to describe the aesthetic potential of plot.

Keeping Ryan’s possible worlds theory in mind, I am rewriting an old story that I started in Jim Hall’s class at UK. Semino notes in her chapter in Cognitive Poetics in Practice that possible worlds theory is not a cognitive theory but a philosophical theory of logic. Consequently, the theory offers little insight into how specific linguistic stimuli interact with reader’s cognitive processing of the text. However, combining possible worlds theory with other cognitive theories, such as schema poetics, can fill in the gaps. I intend to revise the following story further, but I am pleased with the complexity and aesthetic dimensions of the current draft.

Train Track Blues (draft)


It wasn’t over. Moll wanted it to be, but Sonny kept asking for dinner. She turned over in bed. He raised his voice. Three days, Moll had only left the room to pee. Two weeks ago, her job cut her hours and then fired her. Sonny yelled. The walls shook. She needed to get out of her funk. He took her by the neck.

Please.  Her voiced wavered as she pleaded with him. Don’t bring him into it. 

He’s in it.  Sonny took a moment to catch his breath. I’m only asking what he thinks is fit for dinner. 

David looked up at Moll and Sonny. Moll begged again. But if Sonny couldn’t reach her, maybe her son could. Moll had to pull herself together. They wouldn’t make it on one pay check. David turned his eyes back to the TV. Sonny picked up it up. The chord ripped from the wall. The window shattered, and the TV landed on the pavement outside.

~


Moll had left Sonny one time and gone to her parents. She hated being there. They spoiled David. But there was no where else, no one else. Sonny sent her letters. Moll’s mother questioned her about the return address: Blackburn Prison?

Those letters worked on her. Moll believed them. Sonny really would be different. When they released him, he found a new job and started making a place for her. She read his letters and knew he wanted her. He had changed.

~


A bead of sweat rolled down his face, along the edge of his sideburns. The cadence of his voice, even more than his words, told how many times his fists had come down. The smell of his perspiration told the busted television was just the start. Sonny raised his hand.

I don’t want to see this,  David said and moved toward the door.

Sonny stepped in front of him. Stay,  he said, but his tone was different than when he spoke to Moll. He never hit the boy, not once. David slipped by him and out the door.

~


Train tracks cut behind the apartments. The next hours David balanced himself on the steel. Hot tar thickened the air; it burned his nostrils and stuck on the back of his tongue. He imagined hopping a train. The tracks went north. He could run along side and jump into an open box car. He wanted a rush to take him away. Anywhere.

The distance along the tracks made him want to give up. He thought of lying down on the tracks. Summer heat made the railroad ties sticky. He tried to imagine how it would be, his mangled body covered in a sheet. There was comfort the thought of it, like he was out of himself. The train would throw him from the tracks to the edge of the gravel where the bushes were deep August green. Birds, black with bright red shoulders, perched on the power lines. The sky soft blue. A spider–white, grey, pink–crawled across the ties. He thought of his mother.

~


When Moll had gone to her parents, things had been hard on Sonny. They locked him up, and then Sonny’s PO put a bracelet on his ankle for a couple of months. But Moll had proved herself. And when she came back, she proved she was his. He could have made her do anything, if he didn’t have scruples. But he did. He loved her. So he tried to make a life with her.

They had a nice little rhythm going. She waited tables at night. He had day work digging ditches and pulling concrete. The work was hard, but it kept him out of trouble. Even when they laid him off, he took it like a man.

We’re going out tonight,  he told Moll when he got home.

She was opening a can of greens. On what? You don’t get paid until Friday. 

Not always,  he told her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He let go of her and started searching the cabinets and drawers. Today I got my check, and I’m taking you out. Let’s go. 

She watched him as he opened and closed every drawer in the kitchen. I don’t understand,  she said. Why did they pay you early? 

Don’t ask so many questions.  A little edge came back to his voice. Where are my papers? I need my PO’s number. 

What happened?  she asked, worry slipping into her own voice.

He cursed. Where the hell are my papers? 

She pointed to the drawer across from the stove. Just tell me. 

Sonny went to the drawer. It was crammed full and stuck half open.

Sonny, did you get fired?  She came up behind him.

He gave the drawer a hard yank, and the front panel came off. His hand swung free, catching Moll on the side of her head. Knocked her down.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–  He was sorry and pulled her up. You’re okay,  he said.

Moll didn’t resist. She was okay. She stood without another word.

I just need the number off my papers,  he explained and rummaged through the broken drawer. Then I’m taking you out. 

She made David a plate and set it on the table. School tomorrow,  she reminded him. Be asleep by eleven. 

Sonny took her out. They went to a club. She had danced. And a week later, he had found work on another construction site. Even after losing his job, he still did for her.

~


Moll swept up glass from the linoleum. Outside the window, Sonny hauled the broken television to the dumpster. She wished he wasn’t such a child. Most of her life, she’d been a mother, over half her life. She fed and changed diapers when they were full of shit. She didn’t need more shit like this broken glass.

Lovers come and go, it’s true. But with children, lovers never go all the way. She wished–no, she loved her children, but if she and Sonny could start without their histories…painful histories. She wanted him to know that women feel it worse. He wasn’t alone. If he could take care of her…or if she were stronger herself… She pulled the blinds closed. She wished she didn’t need him.

When Sonny came back inside, the living room looked, almost, like nothing had happened. He told her to make a phone call. Something had to be done about her son.

~


David put a penny down and waited by the bush. When the train finally came, he was disappointed in the lumbering, creaking metal cars. It made him tired in that adolescent way that seems endless. But the penny came out shinny: bright, flat copper with a sharp edge.

Parked out front of the apartment was a tan station wagon. The rough putty and grey primer around the wheel wells were familiar, but a strange woman sat in the passenger seat. His father had come.

The three of them sat in the living room. Sonny stood up when David opened the door. Moll sat on the couch, wringing her hands. His father sat on the chair, his face stiff and guarded. The boy can’t stay in my home and disrespect me,  Sonny said.

David closed the door. They stared at him. A shard of glass that hadn’t been swept up was flush with the metal strip that separated the carpet from the kitchen. I can respect Sonny,  he said. I can respect you. 

Moll’s eyes smiled. She looked up from her hands. Sonny didn’t speak. His father tried to convince him to go with him. Was he really sure?

I’m sure,  he said. No one should have to go through it alone.

Cognitive Poetics: Scripts and Schemas

The topic of chapters six in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice is schema theory, an abstract representation of the contextual knowledge used to process language. Stockwell proposes schema poetics as an alternative to strict formalism, reader-response theory, and historicism. These other critical theories question the extent to which context is important. Schema theory examines how context is used to make meaning by providing principles and mechanics of contextualizing.

The conceptual structure used to understand language utterances is called a script, a term borrowed from cognitive science to describe the general protocols one has to negotiate various situations. We use scripts to perform complex sets of actions that become routine.

Scripts have headers that tell us which script is relevant to the situation. Headers can be preconditions, locales, actions, or roles associated with the script. Other components of a script are props, participants, entry conditions, results, and sequences of events. Suggesting one or more of these in a text can cue a script for the reader. A schema is our general understanding of a situation or an object, a bundle of information associated with the situation. Schema theory can help explain how readers organize these various components of scripts.

Discourse processing configures and reconfigures the associated schema dynamically, either changing or reinforcing the schema. Stockwell outlines four types schema management: restructuring, preserving, reinforcing, and accruing. There are also world schemas, having to do with content; text schemas, having to do with textual organization; and language schemas, having to do with linguistic style. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction proposes a literary schema that would be a higher level conceptual structure that re-registers  schemas that appear in a literary context.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Gerard Steen applies schema theory to generic love stories as a way to understand the cognitive processes at work when reading a textual instance of the love story. He uses the term scenario to identify the abstract representation of a particular piece of knowledge. In this case, the love story represents what we think and believe about love relationships. The basic love scenario can be understood as having three parts: wanting, getting, and keeping. The scenario is complicated by the interaction of these parts and their truth value for the individuals involved.

Steen uses examples from pop songs to connect the part of a love scenario with different metaphorical aspects of love. Then he turns to poetry to show how the love scenario is instantiated in textual content. He considers four basic text types: expository, narrative, argumentative, and descriptive. By focusing on one type of content (love story), Steen reveals features of schemas associated with these four basic text types. Schema poetics models a complicated relationship between the text and the reader, capturing some of the give and take necessary for language comprehension and the experience of literature.

Stockwell draws an analogy between scripts used to make sense of language and frames used to make sense of visual information. In visual art, collage and juxtaposition draw attention to the frame, emphasizing the human capacity to make connections between disparate objects placed side by side. Picasso’s Guernica is a jumble of objects that make sense framed by the schema of modern warfare. Timothy Morton considers frames as a key principle in his ambient poetics. Radical art, Morton writes, juxtaposes subject positions, frames as well as content. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud outlines different ways readers make sense of comic book panels on a page. A sequence of panels can be read as any of six different types of transitions: moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect, and non-sequitur. McCloud samples a range of comic book artists from Jack Kirby to Osamu Tezuka and finds patterns of transitions among different artists.

When I wrote about Understanding Comics  in 2007, I expressed an interest in exploring how McCloud’s list of transitions might be applied to prose writing. Schema poetics can offer some insight. The fundamental unit of comic book art is the panel and the story is told through transitions, which is why McCloud focuses on types of transitions. The fundamental unit of prose is the sentence (or paragraph, depending on who you ask). In comic books, the types of transitions McCloud defines are frames the reader employs to make sense of the images. Readers employ frames or scripts to understand prose as well.

Steen considers four text types: narrative, argument, description, and exposition. He identifies two of them with causal relations and two of them with additive relations. Narratives and arguments use semantically and pragmatically causal relations, respectively. Descriptions use semantically additive relations. Expositions use pragmatically additive relations. These relations seem to roughly correspond with the elements of McCloud’s list: moment-to-moment and action-to-action transitions suggest causal relations. Additive relations are suggested by subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions. This rough comparison is helpful to my understanding of schema poetics and is exciting as an area I have long wanted to explore.

Stockwell raises the question of how a particular schema or script becomes associated with a particular text. For his cognitive reading of The Dream of the Rood  he applies his own schema, a modern and personal schema that will necessarily be somewhat different from another reader. In some way, all reading is idiosyncratic, but grounding schema poetics in cognitive science accounts for the way in which the experience of reading the same text is shared by all who share the same cognitive processes. Components of scripts called headers indicate a particular script to be used in reading the text. Locations, preconditions, actions, and roles can all suggest a particular script. Two or more headers can create textual coherence, the instantiation of a particular script by a reader.

One of the Exploration activities at the end of Stockwell’s chapter suggests using schema poetics to account for the effect of surprises and plot twists in spy thrillers and crime fiction. Instead, I chose to analyze the first chapter of Lidia Yuknavith’s novel, The Chronology of Water , a memoir. The first words in the book activate and disrupt a well established script: On the day my daughter was still born…  The words my daughter  and born  are headers of the child birth script. Other slots in the script would be a trip to the hospital, a mother in labor with doctors and nurses, possibly other family members waiting and supporting. But still born  is part of a different schema that disrupts the child birth schema, modifying it from a culturally familiar protocol into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation. As Yuknavith’s account continues, the slots in the child birth schema continue to show up with uncanny regularity except for the infant child.

The opening chapter continues with other schema disruptions, such as stealing mail or peeing on the floor. As the narrator relates her experiences of depression, the reader must begin forming a still birth schema to understand the text. Yuknavith explicitly introduces a literary schema that acts as a constituitive schema, helping the reading re-organize the information and allowing the reader to treat the painful still birth schema differently. I thought about starting this book with my childhood…  reminds the reader of the literary artifice of the text. The still birth schema is re-interpreted as a literary device and not only as the account of a traumatic experience.

Schemas may evolve in three ways: accretion, tuning, and restructuring, depending on how the information provided by the texts relates to the activated script. He describes three levels of informativity. First-order and second-order informativity are either schema preserving or develop schematic knowledge by accretion. Third-order informativity represent a schema disruption, such as with The Chronology of Water . To assimilate third-order informativity the reader searches through schematic knowledge for a resolution, downgrading information backward into memory or forward into anticipation. Stockwell also mentions a third direction, downgrading outward, that resolves the schema disruption by recognizing that a literary schema is active.

The schema disruption in the first chapter of Yuknavith’s novel is not resolved by recognizing a fiction world or alternative universe, as in the two examples provided by Stockwell, Franz Kafka and Greg Egan. Rather, some resolution is offered downgrading forward in anticipation that the narrator herself recovers form the trauma by the end of the book and likely through the writing of the book, which makes possible a downgrade outward as the text is reorganized as a literary work. Despite the painful content of the first chapter of The Chronology of Water , the book is readable because Yuknavith makes possible both these ameliorating resolutions at once.

Understanding how readers utilize schemas to make sense of text and how readers manage disruptions is helpful in my own writing. I’ve written a collection of three small animal tales, short stories with a small animal as the central figure. Two of these stories have been published, and I will be rewriting the third soon. In the unpublished story, the central figure is a mouse. The setting of the story is a dark highway, and the main character gets in a car with a stranger. The feedback I’ve received consistently from readers in writing workshops indicates that a hitchhiker schema with danger and violence is active, but the text disrupts this schema in an unexpected (and to some readers incomprehensible) way. As I rewrite the story, I may use schema poetics to find ways of providing readers with multiple directions to downgrade the disruption.

In the Discussion section, Stockwell poses a problem with schema theory: Where do schemas ultimately come from?  One possible answer he provides is a process of basic motivations that become increasingly abstract. This answer, though, is based on research in computer programming and leaves unanswered important questions about human psychology. Do babies have a schema for schema construction? And how are unfamiliar experiences assigned to different schemas?

Embodied cognition seems to be a candidate for answering these ontological questions. In Cognitive Mathematics, Lackoff and Nunez build complex principles of mathematics from a few basic cognitive processes. First is an ability humans share with various other species: subitizing is the ability to recognize small numbers of objects that is distinct from counting. Symbolizing is also a key cognitive ability for mathematics, and so is cognitive blending. These are part of an embodied cognition because our ability to do them depends on our bodies, including brains. The ability to organize a set of behaviors may be innate, like subitizing, and may be something we share with other species. This ability combined with abstraction and language might explain how schemas develop.

Schema poetics provides a principled way of understanding how conceptual knowledge is organized and how context is important to reading, without reliance stylistic form. A schema reading is idiosyncratic, which makes it an attractive tool for creative writing. I can apply schema poetics to my own reading and writing, while maintaining my own set of ideals and concerns. Indeed, I have been using tools of schema analysis to write stories for many years.

Gerard Steen’s schema analysis of the prototypical love story takes as its subject a framework for narratives that I and many other writers have used: A meets B, A falls in love with B, A loses B, A gets B (or not). Within this framework, the characters, settings, and causal relationships allow for unlimited variation in the generic love story. Steen’s analysis goes further to examine variations in the framework itself and implications for choices about slots within the framework.

Many writers have made use of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or Vladimir Propp’s research on Russian folktales, but Stockwell makes the point that schema poetics is not dependent on a stylistic form, as are Campbell’s and Propp’s theories. Schemas are not even necessarily linguistic. Schema poetics applies psychological research on how people organize information broadly to information presented in a literary context. What I find most interesting from schema poetics is the mechanics of changing schemas, either reinforcing or disrupting. In the different levels of informativity, I sense the potential for my writing to be effective in the way I want it to be.

In the next chapters, Stockwell and Elana Semino write about discourse worlds and mental spaces, a topic I wrote about a year ago in response to a paper by Nelly Tincheva on the structure of movie scripts.

Cognitive Poetics: Grammar

According to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, what makes cognitive grammar “cognitive” is that it takes language in its psychological and social circumstances to consider grammatical form in terms of what that form is doing in the mind . Peter Stockwell uses prototype analysis to interrelate concepts in cognitive grammar, prototype analysis being a way of describing how the mind makes categories. He returns to a consideration of clause structure that he introduced in a previous chapter, and he narrows in on the subject position of the clause. The mind conceives the subject in a clause along four dimensions: its semantic role, its level of empathy, its definiteness, and whether its perceived as figure or ground. Each of these dimensions can be measured along a spectrum. For example, empathy ranges from speaker/human/physical object on the strong end to hearer/animal/abstract entity on the weak end. Semantic role ranges from agent to patient in various degrees.

Another concept Stockwell introduces is action chain, a way of modeling a clause that considers each of the participants in the action of the clause. Easter Wings  by George Herbet is modeled as an action chain with participants God (the active agent) at the head and man  at the tail (patient). The concepts wealth and store  are part of the setting, not participants. Using the tools of cognitive grammar allows for a detailed analysis of clause structure that accrues into an analysis of overall structure.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Craig Hamilton uses cognitive grammar to analyze Hospital Barge by Wilfred Owen. Hamilton gives a very close reading of the poem that connects the linguistic level with the conceptual level, but he makes a distinction between a close reading in the tradition of the New Critics and that of cognitive poetics. The distinction being that Hamilton does not merely comment on rhetorical effects of the poem; his analysis is grounded in cognition. He explicates how the rhetorical effect is achieved in the mind, by the mind, and for the pleasure of the mind. 

These chapters exhibit a fine level of grammatical analysis, an analysis of clauses that builds to conclusions about whole texts. A popular past-time, even among writers, is to disparage too strong an interest in grammar. The image is of a narrow-minded and unimaginative pedant who champions a set of rules imposed on language from an external authority. Middle school English teachers seem to be a favored target for this stereotype, an unfortunate caricature that misrepresents the passion language can invoke.

I love language, including its grammar. One of my favorite middle school assignments was to diagram sentences. I was fascinated that what I took to be a single idea (a sentence) was constructed from many different parts, fragments of an idea, fragments that could be rearranged to create new ideas, and I wanted to understand how those fragments related to one another. In the past few years, I’ve been trying to improve my sentence construction by reading grammar books, such as It was the Best of Sentences , and listening to lectures, such as Building Great Sentences. I appreciate a detailed analysis of language construction in the same way that I enjoy icing on chocolate cake or gravy on mashed potatoes: the extra touch isn’t strictly necessary except to make the thing palatable.

According to Hamilton, the goal of cognitive grammar is to provide an account of cognitive processes associated with language, an account rooted in linguistics. Rather than a normative or ethical endeavor, cognitive grammar, because of its origin in linguistics, is descriptive. As an approach to literary study, cognitive grammar is, therefore, applicable to any diction, whether correct  or not. As a creative writer this is like having my cake (with icing) and eating it too.

Stockwell situates the cognitive poetics approach as a union of critical theory and science. The scientific aspect entails any theory or model that arises from cognitive poetics be enthusiastically vulnerable to falsifiability and alternative models. He takes several pages to outline one model of cognitive grammar based primarily on the work of Ronald. W. Langacker. Then at the end of the chapter, as part of the exploration questions, Stockwell introduces an alternative model, systemic-functional linguistics. At issue is not which model is correct, but which is most useful or convincing .

However, the openness to alternative models that characterizes cognitive poetics is not willy-nilly or relativistic. Hamilton argues that our linguistic system is the way it is because our conceptual system is the way it is.  The aspects of Hospital Barge  he investigates using cognitive grammar are little different from aspects of the poem critics have been concerned with for decades. What distinguishes cognitive poetics from other critical approaches to rhetorical aspects of a text is an explicit concern with what the mind does when engaged with the text.

I mentioned that I am trying to improve my writing by studying sentence grammar. Cognitive grammar provides another means to improve my reading and writing. The model Stockwell provides for topicality of the subject opens up many more choices about sentence construction, choices that bring about various connotations, as he demonstrates with the opening lines of Ozymandias .

There have been times when I’ve gotten lost in the labyrinth of a protean sentence. To borrow an image from Oscar Wilde, I could spend all morning and all afternoon trying to find my way around punctuation, not to mention syntax. Cognitive grammar provides a hook to which I can attach the thread of my thoughts, so that I spend less time wandering in circles and more time confronting minotaurs. This is different than having a map, a map would turn the labyrinth into a copy of limited dimensions, or a set of directions, directions would take me through someone else’s maze. Cognitive grammar draws my attention to how a sentence marks some objects as agent and some as patient or how a sentence engenders empathy or defamiliarizes. It is up to me to choose which sentence to write.

The same year Cognitive Poetics was published, the journal Poetics Today put out several special cognitive  issues. In one of those papers, Liza Zunshine investigates the cognitive underpinnings of the catechistic hymns of A. L. Barbauld. Zunshine contends that the ideological coercion of the hymns is effective because Barbauld’s metaphors activate two cognitive domains: natural kinds and artifacts. Perception of natural kinds, she argues, is distinct from and evolutionarily older than perception of artifacts. Natural kinds are perceived as having natures, while artifacts are considered to have functions. The phrase Zunshine focuses on from the hymns is man is made to praise the God who made him . Hans Adler and Sabine Gross point out in a follow-up critique, also in Poetics Today, that Zunshine’s argument hinges on the verb in Barbauld’s metaphor, a verb they contend had different connotations historically than those necessary for Zunshine’s argument.

I found Zunshine’s analysis compelling, and a reading based on the tools of cognitive grammar outlined by Stockwell and Hamilton is in accord with Zunshine’s conclusion about the hierarchy of God and man. Two salient actions are described in Barbauld’s phrase: making and praising. God is the agent and man the patient for the action of making. The roles are reversed for the action of praising. The action of making is repeated twice, twice emphasizing the relationship of God as agent and man as patient. Reading the phrase actualizes both versions of the agent-patient relationship, complicating the meaning and creating tension, while leaving the hierarchy of God over man unchanged.

Zunshine bases her analysis on research by developmental psychologists and cognitive anthropologists that suggests people make a fundamental distinction between categories of natural kind and artifact. Although I think Adler and Gross miss the mark in their criticism of Zunshine’s paper (most of their argument actually supports Zunshine’s main thesis), another critique of her paper does resonate with my own concerns about cognitive poetics. Tony Jackon’s paper, also in Poetics Today, identifies several critical issues with cognitive poetics as an interdisciplinary approach. He questions the necessity of introducing scientific methods into literary studies, especially in cases where a non-science based approach is sufficient, claiming that the humanities and science may produce different kinds of truth . Arguments based on scientific evidence do not necessarily hold significance in a humanities context.
Hamilton’s chapter in Cognitive Poetics in Practice also attempts to situate cognitive poetics in relation to other critical approaches to literature. He writes,

…the saving grace of cognitive poetics is that it is not good old-fashioned hermeneutics at all: it is poetics. 

The central question of hermeneutics is how to read, the central concern of poetics is how to write. I come to cognitive poetics as a writer–a producer of literature. What Hamilton’s statement suggests (but I’m not sure if it has been explored) is the effectual quality of cognitive poetics that I find most compelling.

Cognitive Poetics: Deixis

My reading and response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice continues with chapters on deixis, a term that refers to language’s capacity to have distinct meanings in different contexts. For example, left/right  indicate meaningful directions that change in relation to an individual’s orientation. East/west , in contrast, indicate directions that do not depend on orientation. Left/right  are deictic expressions.

For cognitive poetics, deixis describes the experience readers have of being in  a story. The deictic shift deeper into a story is called a push, and the shift further out of a story is called a pop. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Stockwell identifies a spectrum of deictic levels experienced while reading and writing fiction. At the furthest level out are the real author and real reader. At the deepest level in are the characters. Between these two extremes are the implied author, narrator, idealized reader, and more. Pushing in and popping out are what give the narrative texture. Stockwell also identifies five different modes of deictic shifts: spacial, temporal, relational, textual, and compositional. Altogether, there are ten varieties of deictic shifts determined by direction and mode.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Reuven Tsur analyzes the deictic texture of Time as it is expressed in poetry. He identifies three types of Time: sequential, principle, and instance. Tsur associates the poetic quality of Time (in Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Keats) with conceptions of Time as spacial or sequential processing.

As was the case with my reading the chapters on figure & ground and prototypes, deixis provides a name and analytical framework for an experience that is already familiar to me as a reader and a writer. I was working with deixis when I wrote my story, Post Hole Digger  (Denver Quarterly Vol.48), which includes endnotes. The endnotes implicitly and explicitly comment on and actualize textual and compositional deixis.

When the idea to write a story with notes came to me, I felt as if the narrative had broken open. It was one of those rare (and cherished) times when writing is more visceral than cerebral. During the few days that I wrote the first draft, I was frequently overcome with the sensation of the ground I walked on being unstable. Now I can understand the story and my experience in terms of diectic shifts. Destabilization results from frequent pushes and pops in both text and composition.

Stockwell provides an analysis of the deictic texture of Wuthering Heights, a flush example because of Bronte’s framed narratives. He identifies several deictic modes at play in the novel but is especially interested in the shifts of relational deixis: implied author, narrator, and characters. What I glean from his analysis is that interest results from two or more deictic modes working together or against one another, rather than merely one type of deictic shift. For example, Stockwell quotes a paragraph from the novel that has perceptual, temporal, and relational shifts (as Nelly begins telling Lockwood about Heathcliff). While shifts occur in those three modes, two other modes (spatial and compositional) are held constant. The multiple modes and multi-directional shifts create tension.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Tsur identifies a pattern in emotionally evocative poetry that combines deixis with abstract nouns:

This width, that is spreading its nostrils.
This height that is yearning for you. 
Abraham Shlonsky

Tsur focuses on one of the most venerable abstractions in poetry : Time. He does not use the same terminology as Stockwell to describe modes of deixis, and he is not describing the particular mode of deixis Stockwell calls temporal. What Tsur does is show different conceptions of Time in poetry and describe how deixis and nouns (abstract and concrete) are linked to those expressions.

I came to the same conclusion from Tsur’s analysis that I came to reading Stockwell’s chapter: what makes the deictic shifts interesting is the tension between pushes and pops across various modes. Years ago, when I was working on Post Hole Digger , it became apparent to me that textual shifts between the main story and the notes were not enough to keep the narrative compelling. In earlier versions I used footnotes, and (at the suggestion of Laird Hunt, editor of Denver Quarterly) made a compositional shift: the footnotes became endnotes, so as to encourage multiple readings.

Deixis as a linguistic term denotes a fairly narrow set of expressions: words or phrases with meanings that depend on context. In cognitive poetics, deixis can be considered over entire texts, as well as single words or phrases. As art critics famously say: art is not a what but a when. So in a sense, all literary art is deictic because all art relies on context for meaning. Cognitive poetics develops that thesis and formulates a means for analyzing literary deixis.

Answering some of the exercises at the end of the both chapters, I noticed that spatial and temporal shifts were easier for me to see, perhaps, because those are the deictic shifts I have a habit of looking for in my everyday use of language. The first writing workshops I participated in taught me to consider perceptual and relational shifts as a creative writer. Keith Abbott’s classes were especially concerned with techniques of representing point-of-view and social class in fiction. I find textual and compositional shifts more obscure, because these conventions are more stringent. As a reader, I come to a text with strongly held expectations about what is a book, a novel, and a story. Even as a writer, I hold many of these same expectations and may fail to consider the option of breaking certain conventions. Identifying exactly what these conventions are is no easy task. Indeed, part of me doesn’t consider them conventions but simply the correct way to write. However, as Dr. Catherine Brown describes in her lectures on Literature and Form, even conventions about chapter headings in novels are numerous and have changed significantly over the years.

With the modes of deixis and direction of shifts outlined by Stockwell, I am equiped to identify literary examples of deixis. This is a fruitful project for a writer, because it fosters engagement with the text and enables abstraction from the text that can be used in creative writing. Reuven Tsur’s chapter, Deixis and Abstraction , is less broad than Stockwell’s but provides a model for using deixis to engage with, identify in, and abstract from a text.

In addition to providing a deictic analysis, Tsur links brain activity to the cognitive process he identifies. His use of brain science research introduces an explanatory aspect that is inherent in science but differs from the kind of explanations produced by poetics or linguistics. The introduction to the chapter warns that This challenging chapter makes use of cognitive-scientific knowledge about activity in the right and left sides of the brain…  And one of the questions at the end of the chapter addresses concerns about linking brain activity and emotional experience. Clearly, even for poeticists engaged in a cognitive approach, scientific explanations are not to be taken without pause.

More recently (a decade since Cognitive Poetics in Practice was first published), Joseph A. Murphy makes an earnest call for more reliance on neuroanatomical research in cognitive narrative research. In his paper, Theory of Mind in Reconciling the Split Object of Narrative Comprehension , Murphy distinguishes between types of research that emphasize external influences from research that emphasizes internal structure. He argues for an adjustment in the relative importance given to internal structure  in literary studies.

I found Murphy’s argument compelling, in part, because he is upfront about the limitations of a scientific approach: It is reductionist and, due to the nature of experimental research, likely to be ineffective on its own, in explaining complex phenomena. Without discounting these limitations, Murphy finds value in reductionist explanations to demystify phenomena. He also characterizes the culture of neuroscience with a long view: scientists see themselves and their research, not as ultimate answers to difficult problems, but as contributing to a body of evidence that leads to a better understanding of those problems. Scientists, Murphy says, jump right in with better-or-worse hypotheses, so that through experimentation they can begin to untangle the threads .

Although I appreciate Murphy’s argument and Tsur’s inclusion of brain science in his literary analysis, I remain an agnotistic in regards to a strong scientific approach to literature. As a writer engaging with cognitive poetics, the kind of explanations that are most useful are not ones provided by science. That doesn’t mean those explanations are wrong or aren’t useful. In fact, Murphy’s description of what makes good cognitive narrative research is promising because of its connection with science.

The fortifying influence of science on literary criticism is part of the attraction cognitive poetics holds for me, but instead of merely scientific explanations, what I find most useful are analytical frameworks that help me read (engage with and identify in) a text and abstract from that text when I write. Knowing what part of the brain lights up in an fMRI is important to the work of brain scientists, but it won’t make me a better writer or reader. The analytical framework of modes and direction for deictic shifts as described in these chapters helps me understand some of my most memorable reading experiences and how my own writing might provide similarly rich experiences for readers.

The next chapters I will be responding to from these two book are on cognitive grammar and will be a return to issues of figure & ground and prototypes.

Review of Second Nature by Jack Collom (Pt. 2)

I am continuing my review of Second Nature by Jack Collom using the techniques of Dark Ecology. In part one of this review, I considered aspects of radical kitsch in Collom’s book. Specifically, I noted the poet’s perpetual move into the kitsch of experimental and avant-garde writing as well as his use of kitsch to redeem anthropocentric suckage  in so-called environmental writing.

In part two, I consider radical juxtaposition, a second technique Timothy Morton makes use of in his Dark Ecology approach, and how this technique might jibe with Collom’s description of Swamp Formalism.

Dynamic twists, such as turning from scientific grandeur to kitsch imagery of Mickey Mouse, are frequent in Second Nature. Every poem–every line is a fresh experiment with what is possible in language. Collom describes his approach to poetic composition as Swamp Formalism because like a real swamp it unifies liquidity and detail.  Swamp Formalism evokes the complications, multiple axis, introduces numerous slant vectors, sifts and strews miscellany. 

The style varies and opens space for contradiction. Collom favors the sonnet, often writes acrostics, plays with font, makes good use of iambic pentameter, and experiments with free verse, fable, haiku, epistle, and essay. Throughout his career, Collom has associated himself with those perennial language experimenters: children. For several decades, he has led poetry workshops with school children. As a Writer-in-the-Schools, I have twice been in his workshops. Collom is a gifted teacher. Some of the children’s poetry is included in Second Nature. There are also several interviews. Many pieces are peppered with epigrams and quotes, often phony. For example, there is this pithy couplet attributed to Alexander Pope:

Einstein alone has glanced upon beauty bared; Once and for all, it is E=mc2. 

The wit is playful and sharp. Second Nature juxtaposes various forms and the voices speaking those forms. This is the other technique Morton identifies: a radical juxtaposition that questions the ideology responsible for making meaning.

At every turn but especially the turn away, we find ourselves mired in ideological fantasy that never delivers what it promises. Morton is hesitant to offer Dark Ecology as a solution to this predicament, since solutions turn out to be the mechanisms by which the ideological fantasy does its work.

Dark ecology holds open the space of what used to be called the aesthetic, until something better comes along. 

The techniques of juxtaposition (montage, collage, list poems, etc.) are a means to reconsider space by repositioning elements in space. Radical juxtaposition is radical because it also reconsiders form and subject position. These are the elements in the production of space. Morton uses the term space in a way that covers the various denotations (according to Meriam-Webster, some of these are: “a physical extent occupied by objects”, “a blank area and the material used to produce the blank area”, and “the opportunity to express one’s identity”) and develops an interrelation between the various connotations.

Collom’s poem DANCE!  begins with a morbid tautology: In the history of this particular dustball, one man’s life is the minutest tick of time.  In that cheerless voice, the poem continues to decry population growth, technology & consumption , and the glitch of hubris & addiction . The conclusion is a dire proposal for mass suicide, forced contraception, or genetic manipulation. But shuffled between those lines and emphasized with all-capital letters is another voice, an exuberant and sensual hedonist. The alternating lines interact with one another to create surprising resonances:


SNAP TURQUOISE PEARS
an almost instant snap, compared to the billions of years before
INTO YOUR ORANGE MOUTH!
solar death. Ahh, what wonders to be pinched off, by a glitch of
SHOOT UP
hubris & addiction!
INTO THE PALE EMPYREAN! 

Rather than two contradicting voices, the poem reveals one voice in harmony with itself. Framing different content from two perspectives side-by-side susses out the identical attitude inherent in both perspectives. The hedonist’s urging and the pessimist’s rant share an ideology and an intention to preserve the world for continued consumption.

Another cycle of poems hold content rigorously steady and juxtaposes form. Collom first presents three Nightmare Turquoise  poems as Shakespearean sonnets that are also, of course, acrostics. Each poem is rewritten on the facing page in tercets, so that the acrostic vanishes. The iambic pentameter is disrupted. A new rhyme scheme puts stress on internal rhymes buried in the sonnet form. The effect of both forms side-by-side is chiasmus; sonnets give way to tercets that enrich the sonnets. Each version emphasizes a different set of emotions, even though the texts are repeated verbatim. Changing line breaks and stanzas juxtapose prosody and brings attention to the deeper structure of the poems genetics, which are not ideas or words but rhythm and sound. Later in the book, in an essay on poetry as ecology, Collom explains:

…each syllable is like Blake’s world in a grain of sand  (sound). 

That same essay, An Evolution of Writing Ideas , makes a defense of the concept Truth but calls for an image of a slightly tattered, slightly sleazy Truth . This call is not unlike Morton’s injunction that radical kitsch hold the slimy in view. The essay continues with a discussion of poetry in terms of an inside and outside that joins the immaculate with the messy. Collom labels the essence of poetry as the mental act of focusing, an urge to strip away the confusion of perception and be in the world. He contrasts the pristine inside with poetry’s ecological surface . The outside of poetry is sound and sense rolling out a field  that is both finite, barely wrestled to an end , and infinite, as a fine poem rolls on rolls on . The fine poem he specifically refers to is The Windhover  by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Collom doesn’t describe it as a nature poem but as a natural expression of verbal growth.

The effect that Morton calls fantasy space or ambience is the sense that nature both ends and rolls on and on. Nature goes on forever, changing, metabolizing, growing, sprouting–an endless orgasm of life, jouissance. Ambience, Morton argues, offers a seductive fantasy. Collom’s description of The Windhover  frames the poem in just such a fantasy space, an ecosystem of sprouting language, the way another nature writer might describe fauna, flora, or weather. Collom acknowledges that his writing is also an ecosystem of sprouting language (and so is this review, for what it’s worth). As radical juxtaposition, the frame is the content.

Heady as all these sprouting frames can be, it may be less efficacious than appears at first blush. Morton cautions that sometimes the very gesture of embedding us in a deep, dark inside  can induce a perspective where everything is seen from the outside and exoticized . Turning frame into content can have the adverse effect of turning all content into a frame as the Beautiful Soul looks on. Radical kitsch and radical juxtaposition isolate the ideological fantasy and invite the Beautiful Soul in to participate.

Second Nature makes the radical move by including, as exemplars of verbal growth, poems by school children. While these are exemplary poems, they are framed in a way that collapses aesthetic distance. One appreciates children’s artwork as a type of kitsch, outside normal aesthetic consideration reserved for art in museums or commercial galleries. The Beautiful Soul encounters the children’s poems and wants to make the aesthetic move–the poems themselves invite such a reading–but the frame cancels the aesthetic. What is left are open, energetic little chaos systems .

Second Nature is a little chaos system itself, which makes reviewing it an interesting challenge. An initial perusal yields one or two gems: an expressive essay about transplanting antelopes on Colorado’s Front Range or the poem Back to Basics  which recounts a day of bird watching. A reader expects hits in a collection by an accomplished poet. Such a review, though, one that looked at what delights or what doesn’t, would fail to recognize Collom’s timely declaration of eco-poetics, a poetics of evolution. A critical approach, like Dark Ecology, helps a reader stay with a text that does not cater to any particular poetic taste, only to change and mutation. And Second Nature pushes eco-criticism by its boundless trust in language, evinced by the willingness to give even a vexed word like nature  a second chance.