"Print, Performance and the Politics of Poetic Cognition: Poems of the Eye or Ear"

Daniel W. Kim


This paper reports on a pilot empirical study of the reception of poetic form (defined broadly as patterns at the material--sound--level of poetic language. The study proposes a cognitive reception orientation (CRO) model for the reception of poetic form and then deploys it in a series of psycholinguistic experiments. Following concepts such as Roman Jakobson's poetic "set to the message" (Einstellung) and Rolf Zwaan's "cognitive control system," a CRO model posits that different CROs--different "modes" of response--best account for the varied responses or interpretations that can be attached to the same material features of poetic language. In the response to a poem's prosodic encoding, the act of reception involves many different cognitive capacities.

The study divided its 8 participants into 2 groups. Each group was presented with the same poem, Rita Dove's "'Teach Us to Number Our Days'," which they had not encountered before. One group "heard" the poem (from a tape, no access to text) while the other was limited to silent reading. For comparison, both groups then performed an identical set of perception and response tasks. The results are clearly indicative of differences between the way a poem's prosodic patterning (lineation, alliteration, consonance, rhythmic character, sound symbolism) is perceived in the two modalities of language processing.

The potential value of such research to the study of English poetry cannot be overstated. Orality/Literacy names a contested nexus in the study of language arts--a nexus that is inextricable from the fields of power in which it has been variously configured and, until recently, mostly misconfigured. Literacy has not risen to its prominent function in modern societies without cost. Oral traditions and the communities that practice them have been subject to the oppressive formations that have plagued modernity in general: primitivism, "Othering," colonialism. Applied to poetic reception, cognitive psychology may be able to ground cultural difference across the continuum between oral and literate poetries, complementing efforts by scholars and artists who would have oral traditions and performed poetries better understood for their vital orality and performativity.

As poetry scholarship directs increasing attention to the specific aurality vs. visuality of different poetries and their respective poetics, the disciplinary significance of a cognitive approach to poetic reception becomes clearer. Currently dominant (and mostly naturalized) generic definitions of poetry are based primarily on a print poetics of auro-visuality. While print-based poetries are certainly not "silent", their aurality is very different from the aurality of performance-centred or spoken poetries. Approaches to poetic language through cognitive psychology, then, open on to necessary considerations for the politics of formal aurality / visuality, providing a means for intervening in the marginalization of contemporary performed poetries (such as spoken word, rap, and poetries of identity and social protest) from the academic field.


Back to Literature, Cognition & the Brain