Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My good friend Joe Ahearn sent me an interesting article a few weeks ago—“Constructing Meaning When Reading Poetry: An Expert-Novice Study”, by Joan Peskin of the University of Tornoto. It appeared in the journal Cognition and Instruction (Vol 16, No. 3. [1998]). The study (though limited to only 16 subjects) purports to compare how “experts” construct meaning while reading poems to how “novices” construct meaning while reading poems.

It seems like a useful idea, but, in practice, the study seems only to confirm that expert readers are experts because they’re more highly trained and have developed a couple of reliable strategies (“textbase” and “the situation model”) from the network of references, structures, quotes, forms, and patterns they’ve accumulated in their reading histories; also that having difficulty reading poetry makes it less likely that one will enjoy reading poetry. Didn't we know those things already?

Now, this article is from 1998, which on one hand seems pretty dated, but on the other hand seems quite recent, especially given the fact that there seems to have been little or no study done on this topic since Peskin. But I have to say I have a couple of problems with Peskin’s approach.

First, she makes the same mistake that 95% of all high school English teachers make; she presents the high schoolers with 400-year-old poems written in an “English” that only vaguely resembles our own. One of the poems presented to the readers is Marvell (“On a Drop of Dew”) and the other is Spenser (“Lyke as a Huntsman”). The study doesn’t take into account the difficulty of reading what amounts to a dialect that only the experts have been trained to interpret. If we were only testing the ability to read poetry (and not testing the ability to interpret 16th-17th Century English), we would present the novice poems in the contemporary native dialect of the test subjects. If the study needed to present a range of difficulty, that could easily be accomplished with poems in modern or contemporary English (one Billy Collins’s “easier” poems alongside one of Ashbery’s “more difficult” poems, for example, though I have problems with the dichotomy that comparison establishes, too).

Secondly, Peskin is biased toward the idea that “Poetry communicates universal human truths.” [That’s the first sentence of her paper.] Really? Always? She’s looking for one kind of poem and one kind of reading, namely the kind of reading —the close reading of New Criticism—that has dominated our high school classes for half a century and has kept those high school teachers churning through antiquated poetry that Peskin’s study clearly shows the high school students are not prepared to understand. But those are the poems that work well with the New Critical approach, because they are written in a strategy (metaphorical conceit) that confirms what the New Critics wanted to believe about poetry, or wanted to promote in poetry.

Peskin says: “Poetry, on the other hand, tends to compress, and in doing so, it inclines toward the comparisons and condensation of figurative language. By emphasizing image formation, it often disregards syntax, the connectives and linear order of language. It seems, then, that the construction of meaning when reading poetry must make far greater demands on the inferential process.” She even goes so far as to use her paper to argue in support of a pillar of the New Critical program—the idea that there is “an identifiable and objective meaning in the text”, that there are strategies that any reader can be trained to use to decipher a poem, that “an assumption that poetry reading is personal and natural would blur any distinction between an experienced or inexperienced reader.” In fact, she admits that she chose the Marvell and the Spenser because they seem to her to have limited readings, which she clearly desires.

I see this problem regularly in the poetry courses that I teach. Students (and I don’t just mean high school students here—I’m including upperclassmen) have been consistently led to believe that poetry is by its nature difficult, that it is supposed to be difficult to read, that its meanings are supposed to be deciphered rather than apparent, that reading poetry is a kind of game that is open only to the initiated. It seems to me that Peskin’s study comes out of that kind of thinking and reinforces it.

To Peskin’s credit, she makes a stab at acknowledging that there may be some value in reader-response theories, though she refers to them (borrowing language from LM Rosenblatt) as “biased overemphasis on feeling, on the search for childhood memories.” Again, is that really reader-response in a nutshell? She seems to cite Eco on reader subjectivity more as a matter of professional obligation than in the spirit of inquiry, so her fourth and final research question (whether the readers are satisfied with their own readings) seems empty and tacked on.

But the paper is useful to me, at least, for a couple of reasons—for highlighting the importance for expert readers of what Peskin calls textbase (“a mental representation of the propositional relations in a specific text” ) and the situation model (“the cognitive representation of that area of domain knowledge that is relevant for the particular text”) mentioned earlier—that is, the ability to recognize how a text is put together and the ability to bring knowledge outside the text to bear on the reading of the text. These are exactly the things that we train our professional readers to do. Peskin does a good job of relating these strategies to Culler, to Fish, to Eco.

If only she’d related it all to the practice of contemporary readers and the kinds of things that real novice readers might actually encounter in the contemporary world outside an English Lit class.

An aside:

My favorite moment in the paper is when Expert reader #3 says of one of the poems “The poem is incredibly beautiful… The circle imagery is reflecting the rhyme-scheme which reflects the name of the poem which is about the round perfection of God. It’s all so beautifully interconnected it makes me shiver.” Is this one of those “top of my head taken off” moments I mentioned in an earlier post? I don’t think so.

Here, #3 is quite simply perceiving beauty. The moments I’m talking about are subtly different—moments where a sudden shift in internal vision occurs, where an entirely new linguistic path has been trod in previously undiscovered territory, where a shift in perspective or an unexpected turn or a sudden revelation or epiphany or turn of phrase makes the reader feel as though, literally, they have undergone a bodily transformation, a feeling that diminishes when the experience is repeated, when the territory is learned. On repeat, it’s as though the brain has been there, done that; the reader may experience a minor version of the initial response, but it’s a pale comparison, as though the brain recognizes that the reader wants to repeat the experience and is obliged to approximate it. Or… is there a subtle difference between what I’m describing and beauty, after all?

If, as Neuroestheticians like Semir Zeki claim, "visual art has an overall function, which is an extension of the function of the visual brain, to acquire knowledge" and, as  Stanislas Dehaene and other researchers have clearly shown, reading is a function of the visual brain, then...
...no, there might not be a subtle difference. I thought I was pursuing the point where knowledge acquisition and memory meet some yet undescribed phenomenon related to reading. But it appears that what I'm trying to describe may simply be the perception of a kind of beauty; and its function is related to the acquisition of knowledge.
Furthermore, this all is evidence that beauty resides, then, in the interaction between a reader (listener/viewer/audience) and a text (performance/painting/film), not in the intrinsic qualities of the object itself; and that is what reader-response theories are all about (and where aesthetic theory should meet scientific investigation--Neuroesthetics!)


  1. I'd be interested in reading the essay (& would probably have the same problem with the universal truth). Send the link or a copy? The apperception of beauty can be epiphany. "True" or "absolute" beauty, for me, can alter my state of being (Italians refer to it as the "thunderbolt").

  2. Gian, there's a link in the title of the article right at the beginning of the post.