In my last post I talked about the mechanics of memory, and the way those mechanics take a narrative form. I traced the ways affect potentiates memory, and the way both affect and memory effect perception and the interpretation of stimuli an organism encounters at a later date. According to Louis Cozolino, a psychologist whose work integrates neurology and psychotherapy, the implication of this is that “our past then [has] . . .an inordinate impact on our present.”[i] This is the case because of the interaction between explicit and implicit memory, which is part of the interaction between affect and cognition, and it is implicit memory that has the most powerful structuring force. In Cozolino’s words:
- Explicit memory describes conscious learning and memory, including semantic, sensory, and motor forms. These memory systems allow us to recite the alphabet, recognize the smell of coconut, or play tennis. Some of these memory abilities remain just beneath the level of consciousness until we turn our attention to them.
- Implicit memory is reflected in unconscious patterns of learning stored in hidden layers of neural processing, largely inaccessible to conscious awareness. This category extends from repressed trauma to riding a bicycle, to getting an uneasy feeling when we smell a food that once made us sick.
- Explicit memory is the tip of our experiential iceberg; implicit memory is the vast structure below the surface. Many of our daily experiences make it clear that we have multiple systems of explicit and implicit memory.
It is primarily the systems of implicit memory that a creative writer accesses: it is implicit memory and the affect that informs it which makes writing “creative” as opposed to expository. Expository writing, by definition, tends to access more explicit memories and cognitive functions. It is more factual, “dryer,” less memorable. It is those things in the affective register we remember best: it is affective response that signal that yes, this, this thing, this moment, this scene, this experience is important, is what means. Affective response signals to the right neurons to encode: “the sort of scenes that stick in our minds are those that, for one reason or another, were experienced in a state of emotional excitement” (Carter, 164).[ii] In a state of emotional excitement, the intensity of perception is increased, and long-term memory potentiation is enabled. These are precisely the kinds of scenes that the narrative poet encodes. These are the scenes that have shaken us, and situated us, and given us a way to understand our positions in the world. In his poem “In the Marsh,” from At the Bonehouse, the poet Jack B. Bedell encodes this kind of moment:
IN THE MARSH I followed my father past the camp, past the two pecan trees and the pine that marked our boundary, black mud sucking my hipboots as I ran behind him. When he reached the bayou I froze in the marsh grass at a black-tailed deer collapsed into the bank, skin draped like linen over the hoops of its ribs. Its nose still dipped into the water; its stomach swelled. Around it the marsh hovered, swirled; insects dived and crawled, hurried to hide the body. I wanted to hurry, too, but the deer’s stillness kept me from bolting. I held my ears against the humming of blue flies and pressed into my father's shirt. He shrugged over me, ready to fish, pulled me away from the deer’s empty sockets. I forced myself not to look, not to see the deer disappear, not to watch the beetles dig into the deer’s stale flesh. Death, my father explained, and slapped my back as if to pat it in. I cast harder and more often until I could look at him and no longer see his eyes fall back into their sockets, until I could ignore his hollow hand patting me on the shoulders, until his words faded into the marsh’s breathing.
Bedell’s “black tailed deer/collapsed into the bank,” “beetles/dig[ging] into the deer’s stale flesh” are exactly the kinds of images that the neuroscience of memory has demonstrated are important, and they are important because they reach to the deepest levels of affect. Yet so often in the Western tradition, like Bedell’s narrator we have “forced ourselves not to look” at the viscerality of affect, the way it refers directly to our underlying mortality, our status as “stale flesh.” In a whirl of senses, “mud suck [s] hipboots,” “beetles dig,” the “marsh breath[es]. We want to turn away from “skin draped like linen/over the hoops of . . .ribs.” But like the narrator’s father, we need someone to “slap [our] backs as if to pat it in.” The new affective neuroscience acts as such a “slap,” though, as in the poem, the realities it points to have their own kind of beauty: children with encephaly who nonetheless demonstrate a whole range of feeling. Rats, like those in Panksepp’s experiments, who laugh when tickled, who exult in play. Chickens who bob their heads and cluck in time to Mozart, their nervous systems clearly responding to the notes. Evolutionary continuity across species, one of Darwin’s most fundamental insights, is brought to life in Panksepp’s experiments and in Bedell’s poem, where death is interchangeable with life, where the empty eye sockets of the decaying black-tailed deer becomes interchangeable in the narrator’s mind with the narrator’s father, and cannot look back at him until the narrator has performed the affective and cognitive work of making his father’s words, “death,” “fade into the marsh’s breathing.”
Not all memorable affects touch on mortality, however. Some touch on the affective systems that Panksepp has characterized as CARE and LUST, the urge to reproduce coupled with the urge to nurture. In his beloved poem “Oranges,” the poet Gary Soto uses narrative, characterization, and scene to demonstrate how each of these affects is constructive and enabling, forming part of the narrator’s fullest memories and articulations of self:
ORANGES The first time I walked With a girl, I was twelve, Cold, and weighted down With two oranges in my jacket. December. Frost cracking Beneath my steps, my breath Before me, then gone, As I walked toward Her house, the one whose Porch light burned yellow Night and day, in any weather. A dog barked at me, until She came out pulling At her gloves, face bright With rouge. I smiled, Touched her shoulder, and led Her down the street, across A used car lot and a line Of newly planted trees, Until we were breathing Before a drugstore. We Entered, the tiny bell Bringing a saleslady Down a narrow aisle of goods. I turned to the candies Tiered like bleachers, And asked what she wanted - Light in her eyes, a smile Starting at the corners Of her mouth. I fingered A nickle in my pocket, And when she lifted a chocolate That cost a dime, I didn't say anything. I took the nickle from My pocket, then an orange, And set them quietly on The counter. When I looked up, The lady's eyes met mine, And held them, knowing Very well what it was all About. Outside, A few cars hissing past, Fog hanging like old Coats between the trees. I took my girl's hand In mine for two blocks, Then released it to let Her unwrap the chocolate. I peeled my orange That was so bright against The gray of December That, from some distance, Someone might have thought I was making a fire in my hands.
Soto’s poem, though its narrative, engages many of the positive affective systems. The poem is replete with the imagery of heat and light: the “porch light burns yellow,” the girl’s face is “bright with rouge,” the orange is “so bright against/the gray of December” it seems to “make a fire” in the narrator’s hands. At the most basic physiological levels, food is broken down to generate energy and heat, and this fundamental process is linked in the poem with engagement, possibility, connection—the affective system that Panksepp defines as CARE, the basic urge for nurturance, here entwined with LUST, or basic sexual interest, recognizable to all: “the lady’s eyes met mine,/and held them, knowing/very well what it was all/about.” The poem captures what “it is all about” through a narrative studded with memorable affective triggers, a “used car lot” is next to “a lie of newly planted trees,” “candies tiered like bleachers,” “my girl’s hand in mine.” Soto’s poem demonstrates the principles of affect, the principles of the neuroscience of memory. Those things we remember most are those things that have most deeply engaged our affective systems. The things poets draw upon most are those things that have most deeply engaged our affective systems. Our affective systems are a place of potential so vast they have been the object of disavowal and persecution in religion, morality, philosophy, and countless cross-cultural norms: the body, the feminine, emotion are in so many traditions deemed the devalued other of the mind, the masculine, and rationality. We of course need to access tertiary process systems to regulate affect, for dysregulated affect is the source of much violence and antisocial behavior. But it is also the source of profound sociality, the source of our deepest despairs, motivations, and joys.
The anti-affective bias, so long imbricated into even widely variable cultural norms but that is perhaps more pronounced in Western cultures, does not make sense. It does not make sense because it is part of the bidirectional circuit of information processing that encompasses the affects of JOY, CARE, PLAY, SEEKING, PANIC/GRIEF, RAGE, and LUST. You can’t have positive affects without negative affects. You cannot have cognition without affect. This isn’t how our biophysiologies function, and we are, despite countless technological advances, biological creatures who share the cross-species affective potentiality that makes all of us, man and mouse, woman and cheetah, sentient beings capable of feeling and meaning, which are also inextricably linked. The great poets have always shown us these things, which is why people who don’t usually read or think about poetry reach for it on those occasions where they need meaning most—christenings, weddings, funerals. The poets I have discussed—Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Joe Weil, Vivian Shipley, Kate Gale, Jack B. Bedell, Jim Reese, Bruce Snider, and Gary Soto—are contemporary poets working in this affective tradition, as are many others I could have named. This tradition is integrative at the most fundamental levels, reaching into the bedrock of what has made us survive as a species, and what has made us enjoy doing so. Affective poetics, with its narrative bent, is a profound gathering place that brings together all that is within us, from Lear-like rage to simple joy, and its techniques mirror and access the narrative form that is the basis of memory, and thus the basis of the meanings we make from our lives every day. It is a tradition we must name, and grant the most profound respect beyond the posturing and jockeying of this school or that school this new innovation, that new technique. When we access affect we are able to, as Soto put it, “make fires in our hands,” to float, with Weil’s Mr. Danish, “conducting violins with a greasy spatula” to the bright field of monarchs whose orange wings lift him to that place of dignity denied him in life. We are able to, with Gillan, move from deepest CARE to deepest GRIEF, from the “blackened tips” of her husband’s fingers gone black from lack of blood “ to the “oil, heavy on the birds’ feathers” that marks the blight of an oil spill, the blight of larger death, from a beloved individual to the dying off of entire species. These poets summon us to live and breathe and think with all of our being, from deepest affect to most complicated cognitions.
What these poets and others working within this tradition show, and what contemporary affective neuroscience has empirically proven is the primacy of emotion—defined as a basic response located in evolutionarily efficient survival structures that function to turn us away from danger and toward those things that will benefit us. Emotion in this sense is crucial to anything that might resemble a theory of poetics that can explain what poets do and how readers respond. To get at the cultural function of poetry, its mechanisms, its meaning, we must look first to the mechanisms of affect and memory, and how those processes are instantiated through later cognitive processes. This is what is meant by the claim that poetry `is rooted in the body,’ and work from affective neuroscience is now in the position to explain how and why.
[i] Louis Cozolino,, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain (New York: Norton, 2010)
[ii] Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).