ReuvenTsur’s Reputation

(selected comments on his work)

His Place in the Study of Poetics

Even though few cognitive empirical inquiries were dedicated so far to artistic creation, philosophic thought, formal analysis and cognitive psychology have mapped the way to the next stage of systematic experimental study: I would mention for instance the questions raised by Nelson Goodman about the nature of perception, symbolic languages and the work of art, by Roger Shepard about the visual anomalies and their role in the visual arts, Reuven Tsur’s attempt at founding a cognitive version of poetics, Philip Johnson-Laird’s suggested theory of musical creation, Ray Jackendoff’s investigation of relations between musical forms and affects. (Mario Borio, 1995. Cognition & Creation: A Manifesto for the Pursuit of Convergences between Theories of Artistic Creation and Cognitive Science. Toulouse: Université Paul-Sabatier).


[O]ne of the contributors to this book is Reuven Tsur, who has run a cognitive poetics project since the early 1970s, long before the first publications in cognitive linguistics. He based his work on the early findings of the new cognitive science and applied those insights to the study of the relation between literary structure and effect. In doing so, he expressly continued the work of Russian Formalists and Czech and French structuralists, extending such study in an explicitly cognitive direction. The chapter he has offered for the present volume (Chapter 4) is a fine example of this approach, presenting a somewhat contrapuntal development of the treatment of deixis by cognitive linguists [...]. 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). ("Introduction", in Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen (eds.), 2003. Cognitive Poetics in Practice. London: Routledge. p. 3).


Reuven Tsur is Professor of Hebrew Literature at Tel Aviv University. His theory of Cognitive Poetics, which he continues to elaborate and refine, is one of the earliest and most systematic efforts to apply cognitive theory to literary studies. (Beth Bradburn, "An Interview with Reuven Tsur", Literature, Cognition & the Brain.  Available:


Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. 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. Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 555)

Reuven Tsur coined the term “cognitive poetics” to desccribe his own lifelong project of testing the informed speculation of generations of literary critics against what could be learned from cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, and research in applied linguistics. He also develops leading concepts trom Slavic poetics defining literariness (following Victor Shklovsky) in terms of defamiliarization or the systematic disturbance of everyday cognition. Rather than requiring special cognitive mechanisms, that is, literary activity makes special use of everyday cogmtive processes by disturbing, deforming, or delaying their functioning, making these processes manifest (dishabituating them) in the process. [...] Following Tsur, Miall and Kuiken see the literary disturbance and delaying of text processing as making ‘precategorical’ and ‘lowly categorized’ information—including what we call ‘gut’ feelings—available to readers (ibid., p. 548) 


Given that literary reading is so often imbued with feeling, it is surprising that feeling has still received so little attention from cognitive poetics. Of the major scholars in this field, only Reuven Tsur and Keith Oatley have made significant contributions (Miall, David S., 2006: Literary Reading—Empirical & Theoretical Studies.  p. 43). 

His Place in the Study of Poetic Rhythm

Terry V. F. Brogan in his English Versification, 1570 - 1980: A Research Guide. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (1981) summarizes Tsur’s article “Articulateness and Requiredness in Iambic Verse” (Style, 1972) and concludes: “An important new approach to the description of verse-structure”.

A Perception-Oriented Theory of Metre [is an] “attempt to embed the basic Halle-Keyser framework within a much wider, more highly formalized psychological (Gestalt) theory of meter which integrates (1) some of the current understanding of human processing of perceptual patterns and (2) the concept of Performance at a fundamental level in the theory, in order to achieve greater refinements of explanatory power, i.e. greater ‘delicacy’ of description, by converting Halle and Keyser's dichotomous metrical determinations (metrical, unmetrical) to a continuum of finer discriminations of metrical complexity”. And, also, “the theory goes far beyond the Halle-Keyser framework (Tsur manages to put considerable distance between himself and them in chapter 1). Section 8 on Performance is especially stimulating”. Terry V. F. Brogan (1981) English Versification, 1570 - 1980: A Research Guide. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Available Online:


One of the most sustained attempts to ‘explain’ and contextualize the findings of the generative metrists has been pursued over the past fifteen years by Reuven Tsur at Tel Aviv University (Richard D. Cureton, 1992. Rhythmic Phrasing in English Poetry, London & New York: Longman). 


[Tsur] has done powerful experiments, challenging the leading model in the field: the Keyser-Halle transformational model for English stress. Despite my admiration for that model, I have to admit that Tsur’s challenge is quite formidable (Norman Holland). 


This work represents in scope, depth, and precision of aesthetic analysis the single most important body of research into the rhythmical performance of poetry.  (Willett, S. J., 2001. Review of Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance—An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics, by Reuven Tsur. Journal of Pragmatics 33, p. 333)


Tsur was the first prosodist to appreciate the full ramifications of the relationship between working memory and meter in Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance—An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics. The complex research I have outlined and hopefully simplified for the nonspecialist in this paper has forced me, in all honesty, to revalue his groundbreaking study. I now consider that he has indeed performed a small Copernican revolution in metrics. (Steven J.Willett, 2004. Reconsidering Reuven Tsur’s Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance—An Empirical  Study in  Cognitive Poetics. Journal of Pragmatics)

His Innovations in Electronic Publication

In his article on "Poetic Rhythm," Reuven Tsur developed a mode of discourse which I follow here for incorporating sound clips into written academic discussion. (Linda Marie Zaerr, "A Nonsynchronous Model for the Performance of the Middle English Tail-Rhyme Stanza with Vielle", Versification: An Electronic Journal of Literary Prosody. Available:

His Close Readings

"There may be a better treatment out there of Keats’s “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” than that of Reuven Tsur, but if there is, in several decades of reading most of the important scholarship on this subject I have missed it" (Donald C. Freeman “Afterword” in Elena Semino and Jonathan Culpeper (eds.), Cognitive Stylistics—Language and Cognition in Text Analysis. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/ Philadelphia).