Before all you mental heath professionals start jumping all over me I do not pretend for one moment to be an expert or even well read on this topic. It did present itself as an interesting way to get people to consider how they look at poetry.
When the British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett was working at Cambridge University during the First World War, memory had only just started to be considered a psychological rather than a philosophical subject. A game of Chinese Whispers gave him an idea which he developed into a simple experiment. In 1932 he asked a group of people to listen to the following short folk tale:
One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: "Maybe this is a war-party". They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said:
"What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people."
One of the young men said," I have no arrows."
"Arrows are in the canoe," they said.
"I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you," he said, turning to the other, "may go with them."
So one of the young men went, but the other returned home.
And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, "Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit." Now he thought: "Oh, they are ghosts." He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.
So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: "Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick."
He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.
He was dead.
and once they had finished, like you just have, he got them to repeat the story. Of course no one could repeat it verbatim – it's too long for that – but from what people could and could not recall Bartlett realised that what each individual was doing was altering it to fit their existing knowledge and beliefs, and it was this modified story which then became fixed in their memories. Bartlett's findings led him to propose the notion of 'schema' – the cultural and historical contextualisation of memory – which has important implications for eyewitness testimony and false memory syndrome, and even for artificial intelligence!
This effectively means that we cannot trust our memories because there's a filter in between, editing and revising what we see and hear. It's like the wife when you tell her that her husband has died in a car crash, she simply refuses to 'hear' it: "No, he's not dead. You're being silly. How could he be dead? He's just gone to the shops. He'll be back any minute. Just you wait and see."
Remembering begins at the point of perception. If we perceive inaccurately then we will remember inaccurately. But even if we perceive accurately who is to say that we will remember accurately? You read that story at your own pace but what you remember is the gist of the story, maybe the odd specific detail like the number of men who were out hunting or how many were in the canoe; even now, especially because you're focusing on these new words, it's slipping away.
Those are just facts and figures though, the two men and the five in the canoe. They're the easy bits. The most important thing that Bartlett noticed was a normalising and rationalising of the events in the story. The very title of the piece “War of Ghosts” emphasises the fact that ghosts are an integral element of the story and yet in Bartlett’s original research, the subjects increasingly omitted the word “ghosts” when they recalled the piece. This seems to be due to the fact that ghosts were concepts that were not prevalent within the normal schema of his test subjects. Also none of his test subject were Native Americans either so the whole scenario was foreign to them and they did their best to make it make sense in their heads.
We transform, we resequence events, we simplify, we crave order and sense and if something won't fit, well, we simply reject it. Do you remember what the two men were hunting by the way? Some remembered them as out fishing. Fishing is normal. People fish the world over. But how many hunt seals these days? Or maybe that jumped out at you because it was unusual because just as we try and fit what we read into a framework we can come to terms with the fact is – and advertisers make the most of this – we will often remember the weird and wonderful before we'll remember the humdrum as long as there's not too much of it and then we start to select. A good example of that if the film Airplane. It wasn't till the third or fourth viewing that I could honestly say I'd caught the bulk of the gags.
So what has all of this to do with poetry? Quite a bit I think.
Poems are strange places, foreign lands. I've never read a single poem in my life and felt comfortable there right away, not even that 'Mr. Bleaney' I keep going on about. They are as alien as a bunch of Red Indian spirits going off to war. And I wrote 'Red Indians' deliberately, not to offend but to underline the fact that when I read 'Native Americans' my brain hears 'Red Indians' because I was brought up in a world where that's what they were called. When I read that story one of the first things I wondered was why the men weren't called 'braves'; that would have made more sense to me because I have a representation in my head of their world based almost entirely on Wild West films I saw as a kid. That's also why I changed 'ghosts' to 'spirits' because I've never heard an Indian talk about ghosts; they use the term 'spirit', as in 'Great Spirit'.
You'd imagine that memory comes into play after a poem has been read, a consequence of perception, but the fact is that remembering begins with the first word and is a process that continues while the poem is being read and after it is finished. It also has to contend with everything else that's going on round about it. Sometimes I think it's good to sit for a second and think about how much multi-tasking our brain has to do.
Kant first coined the word 'schema; He described the 'dog schema' as a mental pattern which
…can delineate the figure of a four-footed animal in a general manner, without limitation to any single determinate figure as experience, or any possible image that I can represent in concreto (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p1781)
which makes schemata an effective tool for understanding the world. Through the use of schemata, most everyday situations don't demand effortful processing – automatic processing is all that is required. People can quickly organize new perceptions into schemata and act effectively without effort. For example, most of us have a 'stairway schema' and can apply it to climb staircases we've never seen before.
So, is there such a thing as a 'poem schema'? Of course. And then you come up against a piece like this:
and you go, "No, wait a sec, that's not a poem," because it doesn't conform to what you have in your head as a poem. Schemata aren't fixed in stone though. This is a poem by the Scottish poet Stephen Nelson and it's very clear that his definition of 'poem' is a lot broader than a lot of people's. Not only does this poem fight with what we have with out head's definition of a poem, it also makes our perception work overtime: we fill in the blanks: 'st a t e' becomes 'state', we can't help it.
Egulac is meaningless to me – 'Egulac' in case you've forgotten was the village where the two men in the story came from – and I expect that Easterhouse will be meaningless to you unless you're from the Glasgow area. I've never actually been there. We used to drive by an area when we were kids which for years I always associated with Easterhouse but I've never confirmed that it was so my mental picture of the place could be completely faulty. I also imagined it as a scary place but again that's not based on first-hand experiences, just what people told me, so my 'Easterhouse schema' could be, and likely is, faulty. Then again, the Easterhouse that existed in the sixties, which is when I formed that schema, probably doesn't even exist any more. I simply don't know.
There are three ways we can deal with Stephen's poem – it's called 'Oot the Hoose' by the way: one is assimilation, we can broaden our definition of 'poem' to include it so that when we're faced with a similar poem we can cope quicker; another is accommodation, we can form a new schema solely for that poem or that kind of poem – perhaps slipping it neatly into a 'concrete poems schema' – and the last one is rejection, forget about it, just because he says it's a poem doesn't make it a poem.
So, is all this just fancy talk for experience? I suppose in layman's terms 'experience' is the word most of us would use but 'baggage' seems closer in its implications. We all bring baggage with us; experiences are momentary but their effects on us often are not and they affect how we respond to things in the future: do we embrace or do we avoid? If you've come to associate bad experiences with poetry perhaps you avoid the stuff. Maybe you had an English teacher who force-fed you Byron, for example. If you have, firstly my sympathies but perhaps you'd be good enough to set aside a new schema for the poem that I'm building up to.
Poems are not like dogs or staircases or even folk tales about dead Indians. They require a higher degree of interpretation. When retelling the ghost story a couple of people rendered the line "Something black came out of his mouth" as "he foamed at the mouth" and another as "his soul passed out from his mouth" neither of which being an entirely unreasonable alternative. They did not take the line literally. With figurative poetry there is even more scope.
The following poem requires that you access two schemata, the one for pain and the one for hunger. These are universal concepts. It's a lucky person who has never been in pain of felt hungry but they are also very broad subjects, pain especially.
Of course no two of will have identical schemata for pain and hunger. You have no idea what I was going through when I wrote this piece. If I was in pain, what kind? Physical? Emotional? Intellectual? Could the whole thing be a metaphor for something else? I'm not going to tell you. Suffice to say who I am will likely be very different to who you are. What you'll need to do is make the poem your own. It will either resonate with you or have you scratching your head. If it's the latter don't worry about it. I may explain where it came from in the comments but I don't think that will help. It'll be too late.
See how you get on. This is not a test. Well, it is, I suppose. Just not one that gets marked.
Pain is the opposite of hunger,
a certain kind of pain that is,
a certain kind of hunger and
that certain kind of pain will
consume that certain kind of
hunger, will swallow it whole, but
it won't work the other way round.
It can with different kinds of pain.
Sunday, 18 October 2009