Reuven Tsur,

Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics

Reviewed by Beth Bradburn

Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. Reuven Tsur. Amsterdam: North Holland,1992. xii + 574 pp. $182.50 hb.

[forthcoming in Journal of Pragmatics]

The publication of Reuven Tsur's Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics consolidates an enormous range of material generated by one of the earliest and most systematic efforts to mobilize cognitive science in the service of literary criticism. It is a mark of the eclectic originality of Tsur's work that the two natural audiences for this book would likely consider themselves to have little else in common. The first of these audiences, those working at the intersection of cognitive science and literature, should welcome cognitive poetics as an important complement to other scholarship which tends to emphasize the cognitive at the expense of the poetic. Tsur's 1983 volume What Is Cognitive Poetics? has been critiqued from within the cognitive paradigm [1] as overemphasizing the gap between poetic and every day language. Other work in the literary/cognitive field, however, supports the formalist assumption that literary response differs qualitatively from ordinary cognition [2]. Cognitive poetics emerges precisely from the investigation of this qualitative difference, and incorporates an astonishing range of empirical evidence and theoretical models from phonetics, linguistics and psychology.

The book's other potential audience, of course, is the body of scholars interested in formalism, who have always known that there is something special about poetic language. Such readers may not be aware at first that they are being offered explanations: rigorous, analytical explanations of poetic effects that the critical tradition has largely only introspectively intuited. Critics who have wondered, for example, whether an idea like "metrical tension" is anything more than a vague metaphor will be gratified by Tsur's explanation of how a reader compensates for the limited ability of short-term memory to hold onto "acoustic memory-traces" by "recoding" the line to use memory space more efficiently Tsur points to a cognitive, if not a neurological, location for this tension (p.172). At another level of analysis, Tsur posits a cognitive mechanism behind the perceived emotional impact of poetic language; certain poetry evokes diffuse, non-linear emotion through the linear, analytic medium of language by establishing "a definite spatial setting," thereby channeling some of the verbal message through the brain's right hemisphere, normally associated with spatial orientation, not linguistic processing (p. 360). The great strength of Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics, and Tsur's approach in general, is that Tsur never leaves an intuition about poetic response unexamined.

Moreover, as the above examples suggest, Tsur's cognitive explanations permeate every stratum of poetic structure, from sound to meaning to genre to "the critic's mental dictionary" (p. 501). The organization of the book follows the logical hierarchy of these strata, making it relatively easy to locate information about any specific aspect of poetics. Unfortunately, this logical arrangement does not mean that Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics is amenable to a cover-to-cover reading. The density of information here, along with Tsur's apparent ease of conceptual movement between Russian Formalist literary theory, Gestalt psychology, and, say, complicated graphic representations of acoustic data, can be overwhelming. The book will reward most richly the reader who is looking for something in particular (the index is good), such as an explanation of why certain speech sounds are perceived to evoke certain moods, or how readers recognize metrically deviant iambic pentameter lines, or what, cognitively, differentiates Metaphysical from Romantic verse.

All this is not to suggest that there is anything piecemeal about the book, only that its range is, demandingly, both diverse and densely packed. Still, it might be difficult for a reader totally unfamiliar with cognitive science from other sources to get a sense of the coherent theory toward which Tsur is working. The most general statement of the rationale of cognitive poetics is that it "systematically accounts for the relationship between the structure of literary texts and their perceived effects" and for the way that relationship is "constrained and shaped by human information processing" (p. 1). The seeming dryness of this formulation belies Tsur's strong emphasis on affect in language; one important goal of cognitive poetics, he writes, is to "bridge the apparently hopeless gap between human values and the stylistic and poetic devices that otherwise would be considered trivial from the human point of view" (p. 19). This phrasing is consistent with the universalist implications of a cognitive study of poetics. Although Tsur underwrites his universalism with illustrations from a variety of literary traditions, he draws almost exclusively on canonical works in those traditions; the reader looking to apply cognitive poetics to noncanonical texts must be willing to extrapolate from Tsur's examples. On the other hand, such an effort would be in the spirit of cognitive poetics; Tsur's analytical insights into every stratum of poetic effects are made to be put to use by the critic sensitive to both emotional and cognitive processing. The substantive contribution of this monumental work both to cognitive theory and to poetics is its offer of explanatory, logical tools for talking about emotional responses to poetry while still insisting on the immediacy of the responses themselves.


[1] Joseph M. Bizup and Eugene R. Kintgen, "The Cognitive Paradigm in Literary Studies," College English 55 (1993): 841-57; Tsur, Reuven, What Is Cognitive Poetics? Tel Aviv: Katz Research Institute for Hebrew Literature, 1983.[1]

[2] See David S. Miall, "Anticipation and Feeling in Literary Response: A Neuropsychological Perspective," Poetics 23 (1995): 275-98; David S. Miall and Don Kuiken, "Beyond Text Theory: Understanding Literary Response," Discourse Processes (1994) 17: 337-52.[2]