I’m teaching an Introduction to Creative Writing class at Green Mountain College this semester. We just moved into our unit on poetry, and a couple of days ago, during the opening lecture, I was talking to the students about the difference between prose and poetry. I quoted George Santayana, who wrote, “Poetry breaks up the trite concepts designated by current words into the sensuous qualities out of which those conceptions were originally put together.”
This morning, I was reading an article in The Atlantic about Douglas Hofstadter, a thought-leader in the development of artificial intelligence. Hofstadter argues that the core of human intelligence is to “understand the fluid nature of mental categories.”
“Cognition is recognition,” he likes to say. He describes “seeing as” as the essential cognitive act: you see some lines as “an A,” you see a hunk of wood as “a table”…and a young man’s style as “hipsterish” and on and on ceaselessly throughout your day. That’s what it means to understand…“At every moment,” Hofstadter writes, “we are simultaneously faced with an indefinite number of overlapping and intermingling situations.” It is our job, as organisms that want to live, to make sense of that chaos. We do it by having the right concepts come to mind. This happens automatically, all the time.
Now, the question is, how does Santayana’s quote belong with Hofstadter’s theory of cognition?
Both Santayana and Hofstadter agree that the process of cognition is based on recognition. We look at the explosions of colors and lines that are the given world and our mind pairs those sensations with “the right concepts” — that’s how we know a table is a table and not a rhinoceros.
But Santayana is saying that the poet is gifted with the ability to retain the original sensations, the explosions of colors and lines before “the right concepts” (or as Santayana says, the “trite concepts”) force those sensations into a specific category, into a specific box.
It is the the poet who connects us to the unfiltered sensations of the world and uncategorized emotions of the soul. As poets, it is our job to grab hold of those sensations before they can be boxed up into the prepackaged concepts constructed by our cultures, to save them from the inevitable loss that comes from being stuffed into a box.