chapter  15
14 Pages

Poetry and cognition: Eileen John

What kinds of thinking do poems provoke in us? How might a poem have an

impact on our thought processes and goals of thought? It is not easy to say

anything substantive and warranted on these questions. There is too much

diversity in what poems offer and ask of us, and it is hard for each of us to grasp

what seems like the ground-level evidence – what one has done or undergone

with a poem oneself. But critics and theorists of poetry nonetheless make the

effort at articulation and understanding, and I want to join in with some spec-

ulative ideas. The speculation was initially motivated by wanting to understand

why reading poetry feels cognitively different from reading novels and short

stories, works we categorize as prose fiction. This suggested that it might be

helpful to think about poems as not functioning for us as works of fiction, and I

will follow up on that idea to some extent. But the reasons why poems can

function other than as works of fiction rely on factors that tend to distinguish

poems from works of nonfiction as well. So it is more helpful to think about how

poems have an impact on us by managing to elude, to some degree, expecta-

tions for fiction and nonfiction. The two factors I will focus on are a deprior-

itization of causal understanding in favor of ‘‘willful connections,’’ and the

experience of poems as made objects or artifacts. Let me acknowledge that these

factors do not distinguish poetry in a deep or definitional way from other lit-

erary forms; these factors can be at work in our experience with novels and

essays too, and may not be at work in experience with some poems. But I think

our experience with the body of texts we identify as poetry is marked more

commonly and intensely by these factors.2