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What can a cognitive approach offer Poetry Studies?

My research focuses on poetry studies and cognitive science, and is framed as an interdisciplinary project seeking to explore what a cognitive approach can offer poetry studies. Currently, I am examining the extent to which various models of cognition can be integrated with experimental contemporary poetry. I was inspired by the Neurohumanities initiative within Trinity, and am very fortunate to get to work with Dr Philip Coleman from the School of English and Professor Mani Ramaswami from the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience.

I have always been interested by the once paradigmatic separation of the arts and sciences — a gulf that, despite much evidence to the contrary throughout history, has implied that the two disciplines are irreconcilable. Thankfully this has changed in recent years: the academic landscape has never been more exciting in terms of interdisciplinary potential. As a researcher with a background in the Humanities, it has been both challenging and fascinating to approach the methods and concepts of cognitive science, and to start developing the necessary skills for analysing and critiquing the many different mixed methods approaches that proliferate across disciplines.

A central challenge for much interdisciplinary work is to retain due respect for the methodologies — and often ideologies — of the respective fields that are being drawn upon, without trying to ‘solve’ the issues from one discipline with the methods of another. Determining these kinds of highly individualised approaches can often cause many issues when starting out, but the mutual benefit of carefully conducted interdisciplinary work to its different fields is what the most rewarding and innovative research has the potential to contribute.

I am currently exploring what the Neurohumanities approach can offer poetry studies, particularly in relation to modern experimental poetry that engages with both the linguistic and aesthetic dynamic of a text to produce meaning. It is here that various models and concepts from cognitive science can contribute to our understanding of how different meanings can be generated within or by a text.

In poetry that deliberately plays with or usurps its own visual form, there is great potential for examining the different systems involved in the reading, processing, and understanding of this kind of experimentation. For example, existent research into the concrete poetry of Canadian poet bpNichol reveals that applying theories of embodied cognition can assist greatly in generating an interpretation of this kind of multimodal work. Consider the case of an experimental work such as this ‘untitled poem’: . As Mike Borkent writes, this poem requires an embodied mind to understand it, and a cognitive poetic approach enables us to engage ‘with its uses and abuses of metaphors and iconic connections, and to synthesize the perceptual and conceptual meanings rooted in the materiality of language and the page’ (Borkent, 2010).

Fields such as cognitive poetics and Neuroaesthetics have arisen from this desire to synthesise disciplines, and they have generated some fascinating possible explanations into creativity: offering hypotheses on how a reader can interpret a poetic or literary device, why an artist might utilise specific colour or shape, and why the brain has evolved to appreciate art. Engaging with some of the wider debates about cognition and creativity that have also been developing in Philosophy is also crucial to my research. This provides an invaluable framework of reference for approaching some of the methodological quandaries that can arise. However, it is both reassuring and humbling that most of the mysteries of human creativity appear to remain as unsolvable as ever!

Despite the necessary singularity of some disciplines, I believe interdisciplinary research has huge capacity to be widely beneficial in a multitude of different ways, and I am excited at the prospect of how my project will evolve over the next few years at Trinity.

Introductory Reading List:

  • Borkent, Mike. ‘Illusions of Simplicity: A Cognitive Approach to Visual Poetry’ English Text Construction 3:2 (2010) 145–164
    — ‘Visual Improvisation: Cognition, Materiality, and Postlinguistic Visual Poetry’ in Visible Language 48.3 (2014) 4-27
  • Burke, Michael, and Emily T. Troscianko. Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues Between Literature and Cognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing and Visual Poetics. (New York: Granary, 1998)
  • Chatterjee, Anjan. The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Coleman, Philip, ed. On Literature and Science: Essays, Reflections, Provocations (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007)
  • Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry? Language and Memory in the Poems of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
  • Hogan, Patrick Colm. Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. (New York: Routledge, 2003)
  • Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003)
  • Lakoff, George. & Turner, M. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989)
  • Ramachandran, V.S. and William Hirstein, ‘The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience.’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 6. 6-7 (1999): 15-51.
  • Turner, Mark, Ed., The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Zeki, Semir. Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Zunshine, Lisa, Ed. The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Amelia McConville

Amelia McConville is a PhD researcher from Dublin, currently working on poetry studies and Neurohumanities. In 2017, she received her first-class honours BA in English Literature and Philosophy from Trinity College, before working for a year in a fundraising role at Trinity’s Development and Alumni Office. As well as interdisciplinary research, she is interested in contemporary visual arts, music and film.