Space/Ground?

It is instructive to read an introductory theory book in a discipline other than one you are used to. I have been reading about cognitive poetics in an introduction by Peter Stockwell. I am familiar with some ideas in linguistic theory surrounding metaphor that areclearly linked to this, but not familiar with the idea of cognitive linguistics in the study of poetry.

A key idea is the notion of figure/ground – the notion that somethings appear to be more important, more fluid, more foregrounded while others remain as background and setting. The first is figure and the second is ground. The figure is prominent and the ground is not. This occurs most obviously in the way characters are more important than the places they are in. Description is often about ground and action involves figures. Figures often move across a ground that appears relatively static. This movement, in a poem, is expressed with direction words such as “over” or “in” or “towards”.

Another key term is “image schema” which refers to “locative expressions of place” (Peter Stockwell Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction 2002, p16). Stockwell gives the examples of “JOURNEY, CONTAINER, CONDUIT, UP/DOWN, FRONT/BACK, OVER/UNDER, INTO/OUT OF”.

Terms of mobility catch attention and urge us to continue reading -static elements are frankly boring and we quickly forget them. The difference between the moving elements and static elements produces literary and cognitive effects.

Well this is turning into a lecture. Rather than focus on the ways figure and ground are activated in the use of words my attention is drawn to the actual space of the poem – the topic at hand (so far – we will return to the moving bits later). Before any particular word is written or read we have the poem – the lines that form a shape in space. As we read left to right against the white space a figure forms over ground. A passage is enacted. Stuff happens. Poems are made out of arrangements of type and blank space – figure and ground in a physical, pre-verbal sense. Not sure what the cognitive content of this patterning is but it seems important to poetry – even before the specifics of actual words and their meanings. This is the start of the geography of the poem.

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