In my previous posts, I discussed the role of autonomic nervous system response and primary process affect in the brain’s initial stages of information processing, and how poets demonstrate this processing in their work. In this post and in my final post tomorrow, I will focus on the role of memory in information processing, and how its insistently narrative form is reflected in the ways the poets Jim Reese, Vivian Shipley, Jack B. Bedell, ,and Gary Soto use memory in their poetics. Again drawing on the work of science journalist Rita Carter, whose Mapping the Mind introduced the complications of brain process for a non-specialist audience, I will now discuss some of the basic functions of memory and how narrative is an innate part of its structures, and the implications of this for poetics. [i]
Memories are groups of neurons that fire together in the same pattern each time they are activated. The links between individual neurons, which bind them into a single memory, are formed through a process called long-term potentiation (LTP) (Carter 160). The following are the different types of memory):
- Episodic memory—retains a sense of time and space, sense of being there, recollection of state of mind when the memory was set down. Personal `filmic’ sense of memory that represents past experience. Encoded by hippocampus, stored in cortex. Retrieval depends on frontal cortex. This kind of memory is more associated with emotion.
- Procedural memory--`how to’ memories like how to lift weights or ride a bike. Stored in the cerebellum and putamen. Deeply ingrained habits (as opposed to simpler movement instructions) are stored in the caudate nucleus. These memories are unconscious and automatic. Deeply ingrained habits (as opposed to simpler movement instructions) are stored in the caudate nucleus. These memories are unconscious and automatic.
- Fearful/Traumatic memory—this includes phobias and flashbacks, and is unconscious (based in survival reactions connected to the autonomic nervous system). These memories generate very quick reactions in response to environmental cues that sometimes seem to be an overreaction to those cues. These memories are stored in the amygdala.
- Semantic memory—store of things we `know’ independent of our personal relationship to them—“useful facts” stripped of personal associations. Information is registered by the cortex and is encoded in the cortical areas of the temporal lobe, and retrieval is carried out by the frontal lobe. This kind of memory is more associated with “rationality” (Carter 161-2).
- Short-term memory—information from the very recent past
- Long-term memory—that information memorable enough to get retained and stored. The process of laying down long-term memory takes up to two years, and until then these memories are fragile and can be easily wiped out. If emotional excitement is initially experienced with the sensory stimuli, this pattern is much more likely to become a long-term memory.
In addition, memory is characterized by the following processes:
- Consolidation—the replay from hippocampus and back again that turns fleeting information into long-term memory (164).
- Covert recollection—unconscious memories (174).
- Priming—unconscious recognition of a stimulus or prime. The prime is the stimulus itself, something like a previously encountered face (174).
- Prolonged exposure to stress hormones damage the hippocampus and therefore memory recall and consolidation (174-5).
- Temporal Lobe (cortex): long term memories;
- Putamen: procedural memories, like riding a bike;
- Hippocampus: memories are laid down and retrieved here, particularly personal memories and memories related to finding your way;
- Amygdala: unconscious, traumatic memories are stored here;
- Caudate Nucleus—genetically encoded memories (instincts) are stored here.
Memories of all kinds contribute to what is known as a `state of mind’: “an all-encompassing perception of the world that binds sensory perception, thoughts, feelings, and memories into a seamless whole . . . produced by millions of brain patterns firing in concert creating a stream of new mega-patterns—one for each conscious moment” (Carter, 162). All of these processes respond to the basic affective processes (Panksepp & Porges, see earlier posts) that precede them.
It is crucial to an understanding of narrative poetics and how poets working in this vein employ memory that memory is, in this sense, a narrative construction, based on selecting some details and ignoring others, from the start: “Most sensory perceptions are not registered consciously and only a few of those that are get retained. . . this personal selection of life’s highlights is distorted both by selection and by our idiosyncratic way of seeing things . . . So memories are not `pure’ recordings of what happens to start with—they are heavily edited before they are laid down” (167) . Furthermore, memory is edited in a particular way: “the brain likes events to follow a standard narrative formula—beginning, middle, and approximate conclusion. Studies have shown that when people recall experiences that do not conform to this pattern they will often edit them . . . in such a way that they fit the expected structure” (Carter, 168). This automatic editing has important implications for the way poetry works or doesn’t work on a reader. If it is to reach the basic affective levels discussed in my previous posts, thereby engaging our full participation in the work through physiological response, some semblance of narrative structure must be present. A structure detached from narrative is a structure detached from affect and memory, providing engagement only with tertiary cognitive processes.
The essential takeaway points, then, about memory are as follows: 1) memory is unstable and idiosyncratic, and follows a structure and procedure much like narrative ;2) everything that makes us “us,” the core of our identities, is based in the neural firings and chemical interactions: “the most profound aspects . . . of human personality and experience are rooted in mere flesh” (169). Furthermore, emotion is the basis of long-term memory, and our reactions to the world around us are a complicated concatenation of the narratives we’ve written and continue to write in our brains in conjunction with reactions to new stimuli, which is often interpreted according to old patterns. Everything we `know’ is a narrative construction based on sometimes idiosyncratic interpretation. `Rationality’ and `consciousness,’ tertiary processes, are very thin skins forming a fragile membrane around much more substantial and powerful unconscious, emotional memories—primary and secondary process affects. What we accept as “true” is more rooted in emotion and the brain stem than it is in rationality or the prefrontal cortex: “Although many of the `high cognition’ parts of the brain are likely to be involved in assessing the truth-value of a statement, a final acceptance of a statement as `true’ or its rejection as `false’ seems to rely on more primitive emotional areas including the anterior cingulate cortex—an area concerned with . . . melding emotional reactions with thoughts and judgments, and the insula cortex, an area which is sensitive to the `wholesomeness’ of things” (Carter,171). We react to stimuli emotionally first, and that stimuli is only processed cognitively at the end of a long chain of other interactions. As David S. Miall, who studies the neuropsychology of literary response, puts it, “The main emphasis . . . is the primacy of feeling or emotion as a process. This view, resting on recent research that has reversed the previous half-century's priorities in the emotion-cognition relationship, argues on neuropsychological evidence in particular that emotion is at the basis of, and shapes the purposes of, all cognitive activity (325)"[i] It is further significant that the emotion is processed in narrative modalities: “Emotions have also been identified as narrative in form: an emotion situates us in relation to both our past and a possible future” (p. 344).
Such “micronarratives” form the basis of memory and perception in a complicated dialogue that poets have always been in the business of articulating. For instance, in his work “Jesus Christ Pose,” the poet Jim Reese (who teaches writing in a prison in addition to his university job, and so his interactions with prisoners are sometimes the subject matter of his work) demonstrates the interplay between memory, trauma, and future actions:
Jesus Christ Pose I walk both sides of this fence. I have no sympathy for those who premeditate and execute heinous crimes. In a theatre practicum in San Quentin I watch you, a prisoner, standing in the center of the room. You raise your hands, palms up, head dangling down, your Jesus Christ pose. You begin to stand on one foot. The room is quiet. People begin shifting in their seats. Minutes pass. You begin to lose your balance. Every morning, you say, after my foster father left for work, she made me stand in the corner like this. When your desperate left foot hits the ground you scream in the voice of a child being beaten. And now I understand why some of you are here.
Reese’s poem is cinematic in its creation of scene, establishing a narrative in which the narrator is both at a distance from and imbricated with the prisoners he sees. The poem’s fundamental ambivalence, “I walk both sides of this fence” (which is both literal and figurative, since the poet has a life both inside and outside the prison), is first grounded in a distancing mechanism: “I have no sympathy.” But then a particular encounter, articulated in the poem’s central scene, complicates this statement. The striking image the prisoner’s “Jesus Christ pose” points to the ways the positively valenced affects of the CARE, JOY, and PLAY systems (Panksepp) are often sacrificed to the negatively valenced affects of RAGE and FEAR, and the attendant affects of PANIC/GRIEF. Each of us is shaped by those affects in dialogue with our experiences at the most fundamental levels, and the resulting behaviors, while not worthy of acceptance or sympathy, are deserving of an understanding that is not purely intellectual but rather both cognitive and affective. The prisoner’s “Jesus Christ pose” is linked to traumatic memory, and includes a flashbacks that is enacted when the prisoner’s “desperate left foot hits the ground” and he “scream[s] in the voice of a child being beaten.”
Traumatic memories, which are based in survival reactions connected to the autonomic nervous system, are inescapable imprints that generate very quick reactions in response to environmental cues that sometimes seem to be out of place, an overreaction to those cues. We don’t know what crime this prisoner has committed, but the tableau he creates, and explains with the words “every morning . . . after my foster father left for work/she made me stand in the corner like this,” invokes a visceral understanding in the narrator and in the reader that the human (and animal) response to trauma, although often seeming to be purely “animal” in its acting out, its manifestation of unregulated affect, is nonetheless a response to suffering that anyone, including the narrator, might experience if the circumstances are right for it. “And now I understand why/some of you are here” stands as the poet’s recognition of similarity across the literal divide a prison raises, a recognition of basic affect that a purely cognitive evaluation would disallow. Significantly, it is the prisoner’s staging of his experience, his enactment in the context of theater, of art, that makes this recognition possible.
A different kind of affective recognition is manifested in the poem “Nature, red in tooth and claw” by Vivian Shipley, which deliberately invokes the materiality of a Darwinian worldview to stage the debate between materialism and idealism, or, looked at slightly differently, between affect and cognition, that the poem enacts:
Nature, red in tooth and claw In Memoriam—Alfred Lord Tennyson For the life of me, I can’t fathom why my son spends hours floating by a breakwater protecting New Haven’s harbor from Long Island Sound. Trailing an eel or sand worm, Todd crams his six feet, five inches into an orange kayak, only to catch and release. If he were sensible, thrifty like me, he’d utilize his time, stock up on filets from blues or stripers. How can he fish not for the meat but for the solitude, to nourish his spirit? Tonight, it may have been a return to childhood need to impress his father and me that prompted him to bring back a striped bass over forty inches long. Watching Todd hoist it like bagged top soil for my camera, I figure— fifty pounds. Calling the fish, she—it was too fat to be a male—my son tries to return life he’s taken back into the water. All elbows, wading by touch in the pewter cove, slow dancing with the striper, Todd holds her tail for well over a half an hour. Because mosquitoes are biting his neck, I resist saying the fish will end up a floater a day later. Responding to my silent cheerleading on our deck, she does not swim. I’d learned to rationalize death of what I eat in a Siem Reap market while watching a Buddhist Cambodian woman who would not kill in order to eat flesh. Admiring fish just hauled out of Tonle Sap, a large freshwater lake anchoring the town’s southerly tip, she said a carp would be perfect for a curry. Her mouth covered by one hand, she mumbled it was too bad the fish was still alive. The fishmonger caught up to her as she paused at another stall shouting out the miracle—the carp had suddenly died! Having given up on a resurrection in the cove, my son appears to tease the striped bass back to life separating skin with his knife, slicing from behind the gill plate to the bottom of the spine. Curious about what it’s eaten, plunging into the guts, Todd pulls out a whole lobster then another claw. To show off my Victorian PhD, I give my son a quick course on Darwin’s Origin of Species. Even though I know what he will find, I quote from In Memoriam: we trust that somehow good /Will be the final goal of ill. Blood slicking forearms, his hand probing, Todd will feel how firmly the heart roots before it gives way.
Is “nature red in tooth and claw?”, the poem asks. What, in the most ontological sense, is the foundation of who we are and how we comport ourselves? “How firmly the heart roots before it gives way” refers to the traditional opposition between the heart and the head, the emotions and rationality, and the precedence that some poets, unlike many other cultural institutions, have granted to those emotions, that “heart.” Shipley implicitly references that tradition and valuation in a figure that is also physiologically accurate. To return to Porges’s brain-heart-face circuit in the Polyvagal Theory presented in “Affective Poetics and Narrative Need, Part III,” it is the heart whose rate of beating regulates the possibility of connection to others, the physiological state necessary for the triggering of the Social Engagement System. The heart is “rooted” in a physiological sense, even in fish, part of a closed-loop circulatory system that is linked to a central nervous system. Although fish lack a neocortex, experiments have shown that they have both pain and fear responses.
Again continuity across species at the affective level is important here, for the ultimate kinship, Shipley shows, is that of the “heart” rather than the “head” or the kind of cognitions made possible by neocortical structures. How does a poet, who intuits this basic kinship, respond to that knowledge behaviorally? “We trust that somehow good/will be the final goal of ill,” from Tennyson, reflects the poet’s ambivalence about the Darwinian fundamentals about eating and being eaten. The forty-inch striped bass the narrator’s son has caught, reluctantly, has eaten a lobster, but the way the scene has him reaching for the fish’s heart, perhaps not deliberately, points to the ways all life is both reducible to its materiality and not. Shipley’s narrative is one that makes use of both personal and cultural memory, “showing off” the narrator’s “Victorian PhD” but also putting that kind of knowledge in its much broader affective context.
We are left with a rooted heart—one that may be uprooted, to be sure, but that also contextualizes the action in the rest of the poem. The narrator’s son “fishes for solitude,” not meat, unlike his “thrifty,” implicitly more practical, parents. The narrator has “learned to rationalize the death of what I eat,” providing a flashback to an earlier scene where she sees a woman struggling with the same dilemma, and coming down on the side of practicality in the end. Recalling the editorial function of memory discussed earlier, it’s clear, however, that the narrator may be interpreting the woman’s actions to serve a more materialist view, the one linked in the poem with the narrator and her husband. The poem is seemingly based on an opposition between the son’s idealism and the parents’ materialism, but the narrator’s larger sense of the “heart” as the source of continuity between all life leaves her with an affective priority that links them both. The poem’s narrative structure, its use of characterization and scene, points to the way these devices themselves root the larger questions the poem invokes.
Tomorrow in my final post I will continue to work through the implications of memory and narrative for poetics, and the ways they are both informed by affect at the most fundamental levels. Using Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges,” and Jack B. Bedell’s poem “In the Marsh,” I will attempt to trace the path from physiological response all the way through meaning making, the ways those responses prime us for meaning, and lead us to form and shape our memories in a particular way. Narrative poetics, then, gives us a unique window into the most complicated workings of the brain, from affect through cognition and back again. Cognition, memory, and narrative are all primordially rooted in affect, and it is there we must look for not just the origins of behavior, but of meaning and ontology as well.
David S. Miall, “Emotions
and the Structuring of Narrative Responses,”
Poetics Today 32:2 (Summer 2011).
[i] Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind (Berkely: University of California Press, 2010.