restricted access Poetic Rhythm--Structure and Performance, An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics (review)
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Poetics Today 21.2 (2000) 473-474

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Poetic Rhythm—Structure and Performance, An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics

Reuven Tsur, Poetic Rhythm—Structure and Performance, An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics. Berne: Peter Lang AG, European Academic Publishers, 1998. 378 pp.

This book is an instrumental investigation of a theory of rhythmical performance of poetry, originally propounded speculatively in the author’s 1977 book, Perception-Oriented Theory of Meter. Its main goal is to find an answer to a central mystery in the metrical studies: What are the intuitive rules followed by poets and readers in writing and reading poetry that permit them to recognize certain very disparate verse lines as instances of the same abstract pattern of, for example, iambic pentameter? And how do we distinguish [End Page 473] a metrical from an unmetrical line? The theory suggested is based on Gestalt theory, speech research, and the hypothesis of limited channel capacity. It adopts from René Wellek and Austin Warren the assumption that poetic rhythm can be accounted for with reference to three dimensions: linguistic stress pattern, metric pattern, and pattern of performance. Two central differences between this theory of meter and generative approaches concern the status of deviation and the importance it attaches to Wellek and Warren’s notion of “performance.” Most theoreticians attempt to make deviant stress patterns conform with metric pattern. By contrast, the theory propounded in this book actually welcomes deviances and conceives of them as essential parts of the actualization of poetic rhythm by the reader: when stress pattern and meter conflict, the reader tries to resolve their incompatibility in the pattern of performance. Thus, the third dimension, the performance, becomes “the elegant solution of a problem,” and the theory shifts the constraints on acceptability from verse structure (as in generative approaches) to the reader’s “rhythmic competence.” The utmost limit of rhythmicality is not the verse line’s linguistic structure (as in, e.g., the Halle-Keyser theory) but the reader’s ability or willingness to cooperate, that is, to resolve the incompatibility of the stress pattern and the meter in a rhythmical performance.

The book has ten chapters and two appendices. The first three chapters give the general theoretical framework of the study. The third (“The Empirical Rationale”) recapitulates the notion of “rhythmical performance” in an empirical perspective and makes a further distinction between delivery styles. Chapters 4 to 8 are devoted to the rhythmical solution of performance problems arising from five kinds of complexity (“Caesura”; “Consecutive Stress”; “Stress Maximum in Weak Position”; “Enjambment”; “Bisyllabic Occupancy of Metrical Position”). Chapter 9 explores the ways in which music can throw light on poetic rhythm. Chapter 10 demonstrates that the same strategies found in the performance of English poetry are used, in a different theatrical tradition, to solve the considerably different problems that arise in Hungarian poetic rhythm. Appendix 1 (“The Interdisciplinary Perspective: Impressionism, Reductionism, Cognitive Poetics”) places the present study in a wider perspective, beyond metrics. Appendix 2 gives a list of verse lines containing stress maxima in weak positions.

The theory of rhythmical performance suggested is tested, throughout the book, on the poetry of some of the greatest English poets, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and Shelley, performed by leading British actors.

Idit Nov
Tel Aviv