What Refrains Know

Well, in my last post (here), referring back to a first post on the subject (here), I promised to pull some strands of thinking together, and deliver some verdicts as to what poetics refrains know about your brain.

First, what I think I have assembled so far.
* I have a set of questions and assumptions derived from cognitive science: that the processes of the brain must be linked together into something we could think of as more than the sum of its parts, i.e. a mind; that this linkage will tend to be, as evolved things tend to be, as economical as it can be; that this must be a very complex system even as it assembles itself to do relatively everyday tasks, there being billions of neurons in the system.
* I have an attempt by Rabinovich et al. to model — using the power of maths — how a network of operations might achieve this connectivity; among their suggestions there is an idea that some key mental resources must be usable, and re-usable, to hold such complex networks together; and there is another idea, that each time such resources reappear, they are never quite the same.
* I choose to see the way this idea reminds me of poetic refrains — repeating operations that hold complex networks together, never the same twice — as more than just a distant resemblance (like the way in which a marshmallow resembles a jellyfish is just a distant resemblance). I see them as two different kinds of cognitive theory, two ways of representing to us how our minds work, two ways of reaching after difficult answers.
* By reading through a couple of poems, and showing how I think their refrains register the continuity and the changeability of the poem’s efforts, I have tried to indicate their ‘dynamic bridge’ qualities, in line with the Rabinovich et al. essay.
And thus we are back with familar questions: Is this knowledge, then? What kind of knowledge?


Regular readers with excellent memories will know that I have noted a few possible routes to answers. For example, I quoted Jerome McGann here, describing literary knowledge as ‘knowledge at the level of experience’. And I cited Stanley Cavell, via Sean Keilen, here, for the distinction between knowing and acknowledging.
      They both seem pertinent. Their both suggest the possibility of a kind of knowledge that requires engagement rather than scientific detachment, a willingness to experience things from the inside rather than to isolate them and quantify them at a distance, but also a willingness to see things as different and to realise that minds don’t all work in the same way.
      That’s what I am getting at: the idea that reading refrains, experiencing the different ways in which they work, gives a series of vivid, particular versions (or perhaps propositions; they vary, and don’t presuppose convergence on a definitive answer) of how minds re-use key processes.
      A scientific experiment is upfront about knowledge. It tells us what it’s trying to know, appeals to concrete criteria, or defines them, and benefits from an intellectual environment today that has, in general, sympathy with these expectations. The thing it’s knowing gets shorter shrift: it is observed as coolly as possible, a thing doing its thing.
      This obviously isn’t how it’s going to be with poems, which work on us as we work on them. We read them for a variety of reasons, and any resultant knowledge about the mind might be seen as an incidental process. I prefer to see it as an organic acknowledgement, and that literature and its characteristic forms have developed to give us (amongst other things) varied opportunities to learn, by experience, about our minds, without even realising it.
      The job of a literary scholar is often to suggest what we’re learning from literature without realising, or what we or other readers, thinking in particular ways, could learn from it. So that is what I am doing, with conviction, because I think there is special richness and liveliness to our encounter with the mind’s work when it happens like this, something that’s complementary and necessary alongside the cooler rigour of the scientists.
      Rabinovich et al., then, might help us realise that refrains acquaint us with our mental resources, and they re-enact those resources at the same time, making us think about how poems think we think. This is how and what they know: work in progress.

I shouldn’t use these notes for inward-turning meta-commentary, but… my use of the first-person plural pronoun (and there are more down below) isn’t without anxiety. In the preceding paragraph I made the point that not all minds are the same; so who are ‘we’? Well, it’s not possible to get very far in a dialogue with an essay like the one by Rabinovich et al. without accepting some consistency in the mental operations that ‘we’ humans have. On the other hand, the cultural conditions that produce a refrain, and many aspects of the way any one mind works, aren’t universal by any means. But I think this is a creative tension, more than a faultline.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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