- New Aesthetic Criticism:Lyric Poetry and the Brain
In the long poem "Hibernaculum," A. R. Ammons imagines the cognitive origins and effects of poetry as follows:
poems deepen his attention till what he is thinking catches the energy of a deep rhythm: then he becomes essentially one: one in thought and motion: then, he
means: the recent forward brain is working with the medulla oblongata. . . .1
Nikki Skillman's new book The Lyric in the Age of the Brain begins with the question, What happens to the poem when, in our current "age of the brain," the poet knows so much about the material processes behind consciousness, imagination, memory, and emotion? Traditionally the purview of humanist exploration, such questions have now been appropriated by cognitive science, which roots its answers in the nonintentional matter of the physical body. Poets of the last sixty years are vividly aware of the materialist foundations of the mind, according to Skillman, and this knowledge acts as a significant conceptual backdrop for their poetics.
Skillman traces the effects of this awareness in the work of several postwar poets—Robert Lowell, A. R. Ammons, Robert Creeley, [End Page 569] James Merrill, John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and experimental poets such as Harryette Mullen and Tan Lin. Though the chapters move in a gentle chronology across the decades, Skillman finds "not so much a historical progression as a parallax view" (19). These disparate poets all share a reduced sense of poetic agency and a waning belief in the transformative power of the imagination, and such crises manifest themselves in radical changes in poetic form. But this is definitely a book that empowers the lyric in its engagement with the brain. It is not a work of cognitive literary studies, which might use cognitive theories to consider the ways in which brains write or read poems. These poets (and Skillman) work to defend human mystery and imagination in the face of the "seductive and intuitively reductive" scientific view of the mind (11). They "force the genre to evolve," embracing the materiality of the mind and the destruction of the unified lyric subject, while at the same time evoking the experience of inner life and exploring the human (and poetic) implications of this dismantling (17).
The poets' physical/metaphysical ambivalence is reflected in Skillman's methodology, which attempts to create a dialectic between materialist and idealist approaches to poetry criticism. Her argument for a "new aesthetic criticism" in the introduction is one of the most compelling aspects of the book (42). Skillman acknowledges the valuable liberations and transformations enabled by the culturally-and historically-oriented approaches to texts that have been dominant in recent decades. But she also points out some of their (familiar) limitations: the erasure of formal and sensual elements that make poems unique as a genre, the reduction of a text to what it can tell us about the social world (39). She recognizes a return to questions of form in the "cultural poetics" practiced by critics such as Michael Davidson, Barrett Watten, Christopher Nealon, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis (39); however, she ultimately finds that such approaches retain the priority of context over text, differing only in degree and not kind from cultural studies analysis. Skillman wants to flip this context/text hierarchy on its head, calling for "a cultural poetics that asks not what kind of cultural work texts perform but rather what kind of work cultural contexts can perform in interpreting the unique imaginative enterprises of specific works of art" (41). Citing Marjorie Perloff's critique in her MLA presidential address [End Page 570] that we have become "other-disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary," Skillman calls for a renewed focus on aesthetics, what makes literary study unique as a discipline (44).
Deploying this "methodological dualism" in the chapters of her book, Skillman treats mind science as a powerful discursive force within the cultural imaginary but asserts that the poetic imagination has distinctive capacities for reflecting on these questions, creating original works of art that are more than (and more interesting...