There’s a tendency to find the cognitive value of art in its content rather than its form. This can focus the discussion on theme, which is one reason for skepticism about the cognitive value of art. When we paraphrase the theme of a poem, for example, it often looks rather thin. It may be cognitive, but it’s of little value.
Wallace Stevens’s poetry has cognitive content, but the cognitive value of his poetry is not only a matter of content. Stevens is interested, you might say, in the form of thinking.
Stevens is often accused of being emotionally cold, as if his attention to thinking came at the expense of feeling. But there’s a way of understanding what can seem like coldness as a device for encouraging us to reflect on an important mode of cognition, namely the experience of imaginative identification.
Much poetry solicits imaginative identification by means of empathy and sympathy. In empathy the reader is invited to share the point of view of the speaker, and in sympathy the reader is invited to share the goals of the speaker. Consider a classic of Romantic poetry: Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”
The poem provides many details about the speaker, which individuate him and invite us to imagine his point of view. We know that it’s been five years since he was at the river Wye, we know the impression the region made on him (“steep and lofty cliffs”), what it meant to him (“thoughts of deep seclusion”), and that it sustained him (“in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities”) over years of suffering. Having aroused our concern about what caused the speaker to suffer, we are led through the rest of the poem and finally see his point of view, that of a widower addressing his lost beloved.
Contrast this with Stevens’s poetry. In it, we typically learn virtually nothing of the speaker’s personal history, there is little effort to arouse our curiosity about him, and the feelings aroused or named are harder to get at compared with the drama of love, grief, and healing. The effect is to de-emphasize sympathy, empathy, and identification. Continue reading