Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Reading strategies: when top-down meets bottom-up

Reading took evolution by surprize. Various regions of the brain had to be co-opted to provide the necessary skills. The way we use and coordinate these functions varies according to the language and circumstances. Experienced readers of novels will read a chunk of words at a time, recognising words by their shape, but infants learning English build words up letter by letter, sound by sound. That childhood strategy isn't lost as we develop, it's brought into play when there are new words, misspellings, etc. Sometimes sounds matter too, activating other brain regions.

With some texts, eye-movement won't be regular - they'll be some forward and backward jumping. Physically it's not just our eyes that are involved in reading. People who sub-vocalise will struggle with tongue-twisters, and the body sometimes mirrors activities that are read about - if a character wriggles their toes, readers are likely to.

Poetry can exploit these low-level, often dormant possibilities. It can also stretch experienced readers in the top-down direction too. Seeing a text for the first time, they might assess quickly whether it's a love letter, a maths proof or a phone directory, and begin reading accordingly. Within broad genres there are sub-genres - knowing that a novel is literary SF might lead them to read in a different way to when reading a "Mills and Boon" or Harlequin novel. That initial assumption may prove misguided or unhelpful (indeed, the author may deliberately subvert the genre) but readers have to start somewhere. The assumption helps readers decide how fast to read, whether to read linearly, whether to look for irony, and whether to laugh or cry. As well as being aware of genres and subgenres, experienced poetry readers are likely to have a collection of templates in mind - "the list poem", "the Naming of Parts poem", etc.

Poetry and prose are often thought to encourage different reading modes. Reading "poetry", people tend not to expect plot, and the persona's more likely to be conflated with the author. Bottom-up processing is likely to matter more - low-level features like sound may convey meaning. But the prose and poetry genres, like many others, overlap. Readers needs to remain flexible.

There can be clashes. For example

  • Sometimes the assumed genre (or template) has such a hold on the reader that subsequent counter-indications have no effect. The shopping list or note on the fridge never becomes a love letter, or a text read in a poetry magazine may continue be read as a poem despite its content.
  • Sometimes people take in the music of a poem without reading the words one at a time. Bottom-up interpretation clashes with the top-down, impressionistic feel. For example, reading a poem called "Mirror" the close-reader may see that the poet is contrasting themselves with a passive mirror, whereas the top-downer might assume that the poet's identifying with the mirror (perhaps they misread "I am looking at a mirror" as "I am a mirror" to make it fit their assumptions, or they missed a significant "not"). Is the top-downer "wrong"? Maybe not; despite the words, the top-downer's interpretation may be the more valid one, the persona in denial perhaps.

I think an experienced reader is likely to negotiate between top-down and bottom-up strategies, especially when reading poetry. The experience of reading one way informs the other. Poets subconsciously or otherwise can exploit this. In "Tears in the fence" No.59 Spring 2014, Mark Goodwin has some poems. Here's the start of "Mind Will"

wind th    rives in sky's grasp the   wind
ing of cloth pulls   the sky's hear   t open

and takes the p   ush of clouds & distant
land into the text   ure of corn's matt talk

The gaps allow a little Joycean wordplay, bringing out new meanings, though the effect's rather muted. It's more like disruption, stopping the reader using a standard novel-reading method of processing - letters rather than words need to be processed, and the 2nd line's "ing" will cause most readers to backtrack. In the 4th line, readers are likely to sense "text of [the] talk" and "corn stalk". The next poems in the magazine are by Chris Hall. Here's the end of "Five Surrealist Paintings"

th rose in th orangery
purpl turtl
th writing on the carapace
th blood on the flagstone

no fish

Dialect? As with Hall's piece, prose processing is impeded, but this time some lower level aural as well as visual processing needs to be adopted. If nothing else, reading will be slower. Hall ends his selection of poems with an author's note

My poetry is expressed on the page in an unusual verbal form. This is note because of any particular lexical experiment or linguistic virtuosity on my part. Rather, it is an attempt to force readers into 'voicing' the content in their own head, as the poems are intended to be experienced aurally as much as visually, and usually emerge for the first time in public readings rather than in print.

Poets don't often leave such notes for the reader. The intent's laudable, though maybe phonetic spelling could have been used throughout?

For some types of texts (maths, but also some poetry) each symbol matters, and readers may benefit from being made to read in a non-prose mode. In The secret life of fluency Daniel Oppenheimer wrote that for some exercises, "participants were significantly more likely to detect the error when the question was written in a difficult-to-read font. This suggests that they were adopting a more systematic processing method and attending more carefully to the details of the question". It's possible that the painstaking reading strategy that dyslexics are forced into may even be of benefit to them in some subjects. Perhaps poetry is one of them.

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