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  You are in: Home > Literary Criticism & Linguistics > Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics  

Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics
Second, expanded and updated edition

Reuven Tsur

Reuven Tsur is Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature and Cognitive Poetics at Tel Aviv University, and Middle East vice president of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. His books include “Kubla Khan” – Poetic Structure, Hypnotic
Quality and Cognitive Style: A Study in Mental, Vocal, and Critical Performance; On The Shore of Nothingness: Space, Rhythm, and Semantic Structure in Religious Poetry and its Mystic-Secular Counterpart – A Study in Cognitive Poetics; and Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance – An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics.


This book has three distinctive characteristics:

1 It offers a widely interdisciplinary perspective.
2 It provides a comprehensive view of poetry, with groups of chapters on the Sound Stratum of Poetry (rhyme patterns and gestalt theory; metre and rhythm; expressiveness and musicality of speech sounds); the Units-of-Meaning Stratum (semantic representation and information processing, metaphor, rhyme and meaning, literary synaesthesia); the World Stratum; Regulative Concepts (genre, period style, archetypal patterns); the Poetry of Orientation & Disorientation (experiential and mystic poetry versus poetry of emotional disorientation; and the grotesque); the Poetry of Altered States of Consciousness (hypnotic and ecstatic poetry); Critics and Criticism; and Cognitive Poetics vs. Cognitive Linguistics.
3 It goes into minute details of poetic texts, so as to account for subtle intuitions
of readers. Updating from the first edition consists of samples from the author’s later instrumental study of the rhythmical performance of poetry and the expressiveness of speech sounds; and in three chapters responding to the later work of three cognitive linguists.


Preface to the First Edition
Preface to the Second Edition
A Note on Transliteration

General Assumptions
1. The Nature of Cognitive Poetics
2. Mental and Vocal Performance in Poetry Reading
3. Constructing a Stable World
4. Poetic Structure and Perceived Qualities

The Sound Stratum of Poetry
5. Rhyme Patterns, Gestalt Theory and Perceptual Forces
6. Metre and Rhythm
7. Delivery Style and Listener Response— an Empirical Study
8. Expressiveness and Musicality of Speech Sounds

The Units-of-Meaning Stratum
9. Semantic Representation and Information Processing
10. Literary Synaesthesia

The World Stratum
11. The Representative Anecdote: Human Contingency

Regulative Concepts
12. The Versatile Reader: Style as Open Concept
13. Style as Diagnosis and as Hypothesis Practical Application: The Ballad “Edward”
14. Archetypal Patterns

Poetry of Orientation & Disorientation
15. Space Perception and Poetry of Orientation
16. Poetry of Disorientation
17. The Grotesque as an Aesthetic Mode

Poetry of Altered States of Consciousness
18. Poetry and Altered States of Consciousness
19. Obtrusive Rhythms and Emotive Crescendo
20. The Divergent Passage and Ecstatic Poetry

Critics and Criticism
21. The Implied Critic’s Decision Style
22. The Critic’s Mental Dictionary

Cognitive Poetics and Cognitive Linguistics
23. Lakoff’s Roads Not Taken
24. Deixis in Literature: What Isn’t Cognitive Poetics?
25. Comparing Approaches to Versification Style in Cyrano de Bergerac


Professor Reuven Tsur has been awarded the Israel Prize for his work in Literary Theory

“The Israeli Minister of Education has awarded the Israel Award to our author Reuven Tsur. This is the highest distinction an Israeli scientist, scholar, or artist may receive from the State of Israel. The award ceremony will take place at the Jerusalem theater on Independence Day (April 29), and in the presence of the President of Israel, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education, Speaker of the Knesset, President of the High Court of Justice, and the Mayor of Jerusalem. Reuven received the prize in the category "General Literature", for his work in Literary Theory (the prize committee mentioned in its appraisal his work in Cognitive Poetics and Poetic Prosody). ”
More information is available at:

“In one of the founding studies of cognitive literary criticism, Tsur combines earlier theoretical approaches (such as Russian formalism) with methods from cognitive psychology and other fields within cognitive science, resulting in a capacious and suggestive survey of many aspects of literary form in light of their perceived effects on readers.” Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide

“Tsur's cognitive poetics is of a more general kind than the one developed in relation to cognitive linguistics, as may be gleaned from his seminal overview Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics (Tsur 1992).” From the Introduction, in Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen (eds.), Cognitive Poetics in Practice

“Tsur synthesizes his thinking over 25 years that led to the notion of cognitive poetics. He discusses such aspects as the sound stratum of poetry, regulative concepts, and poetry of altered states of consciousness. This edition includes responses to critics of the first edition.” Reference & Research Book News

“Cognitive Poetics as an emerging field of study is a fairly recent development in studies of cognition and literature. As such, it has a somewhat complex history. Reuven Tsur first used the term, he tells us, in 1980, and the first edition of this book, Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics (1992), outlined the beginnings of a theoretical approach based solidly in a wide range of interdisciplinary fields, including Gestalt psychology, Russian Formalism, New Criticism, literary criticism in general, linguistics, and neuroscience.

Tsur’s work, though complex and hard to digest, is exemplary in the breadth and depth of its research. By focusing on the ways in which research in the cognitive sciences can contribute to the study of literature, Tsur’s approach not only allows for but demands consideration of literary critical approaches in helping to distinguish artistic expressions from everyday discourse. Whereas cognitive science research in general focuses on features common to all human cognition, cognitive poetics focuses on ways in which human cognitive processing constrains and shapes both poetic language and form, and readers’ responses to them.

While Tsur takes issue with Stockwell over what is cognitive, he takes issue with Lakoff over what constitutes poetics. His main criticism of Lakoff’s work on conceptual metaphor theory is its lack of explanatory power in characterizing the effects and affects of poetry. The difference is one of focus: whereas Lakoff is interested in exploring the basic metaphorical schemas fundamental to all human cognition, Tsur is interested in what differentiates the poetic text from ordinary discourse?

One can agree with Tsur that his efficient coding hypothesis, in identifying “the amount of information coded in … various spatial images;’ provides “[s]ubtler and more flexible intertextual or intratextual distinctions ... of greater aesthetic significance” (p.583) in understanding poetic language than the body-mind hypothesis, but this is surely rather a case of which cognitive tools are better adapted for a specific purpose than an example of an operational principle that is restricted to literature alone.
That leads me to the final consideration for this review: what contribution Tsur’s theory makes to the development of future cognitive poetics research. Crucial to Tsur’s theory is the distinction between literary texts perceived as witty as against those that produce a more emotive effect. His argument is complex, but includes a distinction between convergent style, characterized by strong, articulated, and stable shapes, and a divergent style that is more diffuse in expressing undifferentiated gestalts. These are linked, respectively, to high and low categorization, which enable either rapid or delayed conceptualization, and, in metaphor, to split and integrated focus. These cognitive processes shape and constrain language at every level: semantic, phonological, syntactic, and prosodic. Literary styles can be identified by the extent to which they converge or diverge from high versus low categorization, as can critical styles adopted by readers’ preferences for either rapid or delayed conceptualization. Tsur’s preferences become clear in his detailed expositions: delayed conceptualization, with its propensity for open-ended possibilities, is his preferred strategy for appreciating the aesthetics of a literary text. This appears to be the basis on which he criticizes cognitive linguistic approaches that tend, his inference seems to be, to prefer the strategy of rapid conceptualization.
Throughout the volume, Tsur uses a revealing term when he claims that his theories, unlike others within cognitive linguistics, are “tailor-made” in accounting for the aesthetic qualities of a literary text. The term implies that the theory is designed to “fit” the phenomenon under examination, and I think that this indeed does represent Tsur’s more literary-oriented approach. That is, Tsur starts with the aesthetic object, and then develops a suitable theory from what we know about human cognitive processing in order to account for its effects. In other words, Tsur’s methodology is in the broad sense scientific: developing a theory to explain the data. Cognitive linguistic research does the same thing, but its focus is on general human cognitive activities and not on literature per se. What this means in practice is that cognitive linguists tend to approach literature from the standpoint of a cognitive theory and show how the theory illuminates the literature, instead of starting with the literature and seeing what cognitive theory best accounts for its aesthetic effects. […] I find it appropriate, therefore, that Tsur concludes his second edition with a discussion of one of the best examples of a cognitive approach to literature: Eve Sweetser’s article on Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, with its focus on the play’s versification strategies (Sweetser 2006). Tsur says:

... “blending theory” fails to account for the rhymes’ verbal structure or perceived effect, and directs attention away from the verbal structures to the contents. This led Sweetser to a brilliant comprehensive interpretation of the play, relating versification patterns to relatively large chunks of contents. In some of my recent pubJications, I introduced the notion of “relative fine-grainedness” in critical discourse. Sweetser’s discussion makes important observations on the play’s structure. The critical tools introduced here [i.e. in this volume] allow the critic to fill it in with reference to more fine-grained texture. This is one of the great achievements of Cognitive Poetics as I conceive of it. (637)

… Tsur’s “more fine-grained texture” refers, then, not to the contents of a literary text, but to its aesthetic qualities, not to (conceptual) interpretation but to (affective) experience. Both are complementary, not oppositional, but Tsur’s theory has the advantage of revealing not what poetry (or the arts in general for that matter) has in common with other human cognitive activities, but what makes it different. It is this focus that I think is needed for any further work that lays claim to falling within the field of Cognitive Poetics.
One final note. As I said at the beginning, Tsur’s work is complex and hard to digest. This, I believe, is the main reason his work has not been so influential in the developing field of cognitive poetics as it could or should have been. I recommend that readers of this second edition learn from my experience, and try not to read it as a linear narrative. Close and repeated readings of the theoretical stances taken throughout the chapters with respect to various literary phenomena, whether semantic, prosodic, or critical-evaluative, will enable Tsur’s theories to emerge more clearly and thus reward the reader with a fuller understanding and greater appreciation of the nature and function of Cognitive Poetics. The reader will find the effort worthwhile in ensuring the future development of what can truly be labeled “cognitive poetics’.” Pragmatics & Cognition


Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
720 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
April 2008
  Illustrated:   No
  Hardback Price:
£75 / $99.95
Paperback Price:
£45 / $59.95

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