Thursday, 9 June 2011

Gestalt effects and poetry

I'm interested in Part vs Whole effects and emergent phenomena: how poetry can be made from mundane parts; how a sad story can be created from comic episodes. There often isn't a simple one-way journey from the parts to the whole - understanding the whole makes you re-process the parts in context. The issue is mentioned in Metaphor and Figure-Ground Relationship: Comparisons from Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts by Reuven Tsur - " Figure-ground relationship is a very important notion of gestalt theory. Theorists of the psychology of music and the visual arts made most significant use of it. The significance of this notion in literary theory is rather limited. ... I will consider three literary texts that exploit this readiness of human perceivers to switch back and forth between figure and ground. All three texts achieve their effect by inducing readers to reverse figure-ground relationships relative to their habitual modes of thought or perception"

The effects are clearer visually. Here are 2 examples

The rabbit and the duck

(Source: Jastrow, J. (1899). The mind's eye. Popular Science Monthly, 54, 299-312.).

I suspect when people see this untitled they'll notice a detail that will lead them to identifying either the duck or the rabbit. The 2 interpretations are supposed to have equal status - it's not "really a rabbit". People told that the picture's a rabbit may not think to see it as anything else. The context and expectations can suppress interpretations even if (as in this case) one interpretation is as natural as another.

Writing analogous texts isn't easy. Getting the balance and contextual cues right is harder still. The nearest I've got to it is writing pieces that are long puns, displaying the 2 versions. Here's the end of "Doubled up in pain"

... a lover gone. No mistake.

... all over, gone. No missed ache.

The Margaret Thatcher Effect

Face rotation isn't a commonly required facility, and we're not very good at it. The individual features are interpreted using one process (perhaps quite a primitive one). A different process recognises that there is a face, and tries to identify which face it is.

Reading poetry you may have an emotional reaction to individual features, reactions that are shown to be "wrong" when you analyse more carefully. However, once you interpret anger (for example) through the ironic voice of the poem, sometimes the anger still shows through - you react viscerally to it - even though you know it's meant humorously

1 comment:

  1. This might also work, my poem ‘Empty’:





    in which I’m trying to superimpose one idea on top of another.