Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance
An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics (Synopsis)
This research is an instrumental investigation of a
theory of rhythmical performance of poetry, originally
propounded speculatively, in my Perception-Oriented
Theory of Metre (1977). "Iambic pentameter"
means that there is a verse unit consisting of an unstressed
and a stressed syllable (in this order), and that the
verse line consists of five such units. In the first
165 verse lines of Paradise Lost, there are two such
Among other things, the theory takes up one of the central
issues in metrical studies: all criteria for metricality
hitherto proposed have been violated by the greatest
masters of musicality in English poetry. The question
arises, how do we recognise two verse lines that are
very different in their structures as instances of
the same abstract pattern of, e.g., iambic pentameter;
and how do we distinguish a metrical from an unmetrical
line. One great difference between this theory of metre
and others concerns the status of deviation. Most theoreticians
deploy a battery of tools to make deviant stress patterns
conform with metric pattern. Only when all attempts
fail, they speak of "tension". When they
succeed, they blur the distinction between e.g. Milton's
and Pope's metrical styles. Or else, they have formulated
different rules of metricality for Shakespeare and
Milton, mainly on statistical evidence. But they don't
attempt to explain why some metric figure is acceptable
for one poet but not for the other. By contrast, this
theory actually welcomes deviances, and conceives of
them as of essential parts of the aesthetic endeavour,
just as metaphoric contradiction is an essential part
of it. Linguistic stress pattern and metre may be conceived
of as analogous to the two incompatible terms of a
metaphor. The reader registers their incompatibility
and resolves them in a pattern of performance. The
utmost limit of rhythmicality (as of the meaningfulness
of a metaphor) is the reader's ability or willingness
to cooperate, that is, to resolve the incompatibility
of the two terms by a rhythmical performance (or, in
the case of a metaphor, by a semantic interpretation).
Thus, the approach to poetic rhythm advocated here
is highly congruous with a wider aesthetics of "the
elegant solution of a problem", or of "the
balance and reconcilement of opposite or discordant
qualities"; and may account for poetic rhythm
and metaphor by a homogeneous set of principles.
Thus, the perception-oriented theory of metre performs
a small Copernican revolution, and instead in the verse
structure, it places the constraints in the reader's
"rhythmic competence": the utmost limit of
rhythmicality is the reader's ability or willingness
to perform the verse line rhythmically. Such a formulation
requires a systematic theory of "rhythmical performance".
The proposed theory of performance is based on Gestalt
Theory, speech research, and the hypothesis of limited
channel capacity. Wellek and Warren argue in their
Theory of Literature (1956, chapter 13) that in order
to account for poetic rhythm, one must assume the existence
of not one, but three metrical dimensions: prose rhythm,
metric pattern, and performance (generative metrists
have reinvented the first two of them). It would appear
that Wellek and Warren need the performance dimension
in order to account for the fact that two unlike delivery
instances may still be performances of the same metric
structure, and to point out that some "sound-recorders"
mistake in their analysis an accidental performance
for the poem's metre. For my purpose, performance is
a perceptual solution to a perceptual problem, and
as such determined by it to a considerable extent,
but also leaving room for considerable creativity on
the performer's part.
The empirical study of the rhythmical performance of
poetry must face almost insurmountable obstacles. "Rhythmical
performance" is defined as the vocal conditions
in which both the metric pattern and the linguistic
stress pattern are simultaneously accessible to awareness.
Since the former exists merely as a mental pattern,
only the latter is available for an instrumental investigation.
And even in this dimension, things are far from trivial.
The main difficulty lies in the fact that in speech
perception, contrary to common intuition, there is
very little correspondence between what we hear and
the shape of the sound wave as shown by the instruments.
This discrepancy is not due to the machines' incapability
of representing the speech signal, but to the complex
processing of the signal by the human brain. The sophisticated
electronic instruments do give an accurate analysis
of the sound information; but what really matters is
its integration that takes place in the brain. Thus,
for instance, the acoustic cues for linguistic stress
are intonational inflection, pitch, duration, amplitude--in
this order of decreasing effectiveness. It is impossible
to predict from the machine's output what their relative
weight is, and which one of two consecutive stresses
is perceived as stronger. This can be done only by
the human ear.
The way out from this dead impasse was suggested by
Polonius: "With windlaces and and with assays of bias
/ By indirections find directions out".
Empirical research must content itself with much simpler
distinctions in the stream of speech, and reinterpret
them in light of the theory propounded here, so as
to indicate, indirectly, some mental biasses and directions
inaccessible to direct inspection. Gerry Knowles of
Lancaster University created, independently from my
plight, precisely the tools which I needed. In his
1991 paper, he investigated the nature of tone-group
boundaries. He distinguished internally defined prosodic
patterns and external discontinuities at the tone-group
boundaries. The former consist in some consistent f0
pattern used in ordinary speech; the latter are temporal
discontinuation (pause), pitch discontinuation (a sudden
change in f0) and segmental discontinuation (that is,
in normal speech the articulation of adjacent words
is overlapping; when there is no overlap, it may be
perceived as discontinuity, even if there is no pause).
This would be the most evasive type of discontinuity.
"The important distinction that seems to be emerging
is between boundaries with or without pauses".
As shown in Chapter 3, these distinctions may account,
in a quite straightforward manner, for the rhythmical
performance of enjambment; but also, less directly,
for the rhythmical performance of strings of stressed
syllables, and still less directly, for that of a stress
maximum in a weak position.
In another paper, Knowles (1992) explores the alignment
of the f0 contour with vowels and consonants. "Although
the effect of a tone might be to highlight a whole
word or phrase, its focus is on a single syllable.
Within the syllable it focuses on the vowel, and if
the vowel is a diphthong, on one of the elements of
the diphthong. Ultimately within the relevant vowel
there is a single point which appears to be the focus
of accentuation" (Knowles, 1992: 294). Such points
may be located in various places in the vowel. Accordingly,
he speaks of early-peaking and late-peaking, as the
case may be. In our investigations, late-peaking turned
out to be the source of an impetuous forward drive
in the perceptual dynamics of the verse line, and a
major resource for rhythmic grouping. This research
explores how the correlates of stress and of tone-group
boundaries can be exploited as conflicting cues for
the perceptual accommodation of the conflicting patterns
of speech and versification.
In the verse instances discussed in the present study,
the stress pattern considerably diverges from the metric
pattern. In such cases, the reader of poetry must rely
on his metrical set. That is, whenever metric regularity
is suspended, the reader may echo, so to speak, in
his short-term memory, the regularly alternating underlying
beats, even though they may have no trace in the acoustic
signal. The reader may compensate, to some extent,
for the absence of the metrical signal, by anticipating
the return of regular beats. All this is possible,
if at all, for a very short period only, over a span
of a very few "chunks". I said if at all,
because the extra mental space required may not be
available; besides, it takes a fairly experienced reader
to perform such verse rhythmically.
The present approach assumes that poetic rhythm is,
essentially, an auditory phenomenon, though also affected
by syntax and semantics. Its auditory qualities may
be accounted for if we assume that it is processed
in short-term memory, which functions in the acoustic
mode, and is constrained by its limitations. The contents
span of short-term memory is limited to seven monosyllabic
words plus or minus two (Miller, 1970; that is why
the longest verse line that can be perceived as a rhythmic
unit without an obligatory break is ten-syllable-long).
Its time span is roughly the period we can remember,
e.g., a telephone number without rehearsal. During
this period short-term memory functions like an echo
box. In order to render a verse line perceptible as
a rhythmic whole, the reciter must manipulate his vocal
resources in such a way that the verse line can be
completed before its beginning fades out in short-term
memory. When the immediately observable string of syllables
deviates from metric regularity, the metric pattern
may be perceived as reverberating in the background,
provided that sufficient mental processing space is
available. Training cannot expand these spans of short-term
memory. The only thing one can do is to recode the
verbal material in such a way that it occupies less
mental processing space. Thus, for instance, "a
man who sells goods" can be recoded as "merchant",
and "a merchant who sells meat" can be recoded
as "butcher". Such recoding is impossible
in poetry, where the actual words may not be changed.
Still, some mental processing space may be saved by
two kinds of vocal manipulations: grouping and clear-cut
articulation. Gestalt theory has laid down fairly rigorous
rules of what facilitates perception: these include
grouping and parsing (which is one kind of articulation).
Accordingly, we may expect reciters to over-articulate,
on the one hand, word and syllable boundaries (parsing)
and, on the other hand, to group syllables and words
in certain ways. Speech research of the past thirty
years (cf. Lieberman, 1967) has established that in
the flow of everyday speech we tend to rather careless
articulation, and the listener has to do in the course
of decoding a lot of subliminal guesswork. In conversational
speech words are normally run one into the other in
English (and more so in French), and it takes special
decoding effort to determine the word endings. Taylor
(1990: 212) suggests: "Say rapidly 'How to wreck
a nice beach', and it will sound like 'How to recognize
speech' [...]. The sentence illustrates the point that
word boundaries are anything but fixed. Without boundaries
words are hard to recognize". Thus, much decoding
effort can be saved by clear articulation of word endings.
Clear-cut articulation of phonemes and of syllable
and word boundaries may save a lot of mental processing
space. Intonation is a typical means of over-articulating
syllable and word boundaries; but the over-articulation
of the syllable (or word) final consonants too contributes
to the over-articulation of boundaries.
There are less and more marked instances of deviance.
Two consecutive stresses in the iambic metre must be
considered as deviation. When a compound like "blackbird"
(whose first syllable is more strongly stressed) begins
in a strong position, it is less marked than when it
begins in a weak position. In Pope's poetry, all such
compounds begin in strong position (except in the first
position of the line, as in "Long-sounding islands").
In Book I. of Milton's Paradise Lost, 15 out of 20
such compounds begin in a weak position; there is a
similar ratio in Shakespeare's Sonnets. In Shelley
and Keats, slightly more than half of such compounds
begin in a weak position. In such phrases as "black
bird" where the last syllable bears the strongest
stress, the unmarked form is when they end in a strong
position. Some metrists even rule instances which end
in a weak position as unmetrical. In Pope, all such
strings end in a strong position (I found only one
exception, "Awake my Saint John", which Pope
probably pronounced as "Sinjen"). In Shakespeare,
Milton, Shelley, Keats there are some such strings
which do end in a weak position). When a string of
stressed syllables ends in a strong position, a construction
like Donne's "Shall behold God" (where the
stressed syllable in a weak position is part of a polysyllabic
which has an unstressed syllable in a weak position)
is more marked than "Shall be old God" would
be. Indeed, some metrists rule such instances as unmetrical.
The latter, in turn, is more marked than "Shall
see old God", where the stressed syllable in a
weak position is enclosed between two stressed syllables
in strong positions, and the stress pattern of natural
speech conforms with the iambic pattern. There are,
then, scales of markedness, on which each poet draws
his own utmost limit of metricality. The more marked
a deviation, the more emphatically the devices of grouping
and over-articulation will be deployed. But the present
research found plenty of evidence that leading British
actors tend to have recourse to such devices even in
less marked instances, where less marked performance
patterns would be available as well.
Halle and Keyser say that an unmetrical line is a line
in which a stress maximum occurs in a weak position
(a stress maximum is a stressed syllable between two
unstressed ones: "a garden" contains a stress
maximum; "a big garden" does not). Halle
and Keyser and their critics found eleven instances
of unmetrical lines under this theory in major Enlish
poetry. My 1977 book added a list of over forty more
instances. Two thirds of the instances occur in the
seventh out of four positions available for "violation"
in an iambic pentameter line. In Milton's "Burnt
after them to the bottomless pit", -bot- is a
stress maximum in the seventh position. The present
theory predicts that in such instances the last four
syllables ("bottomless pit") will be emphatically
grouped together, foregrounding a closed, symmetrical
shape of two stressed syllables enclosing two unstressed
ones ("stress valley"). Such a performance
requires segregation of the stress valley from the
preceding portion of the line; at the same time, continuity
of the phrase must be preserved. This can be accomplished
by having recourse to conflicting cues. When such a
stress valley begins in the seventh position, it threatens
the integrity of the line; regularity is reinstated
precisely on the last strong position of the line,
generating a powerful closure. In terms of our foregoing
discussion, the computer cannot show a stress valley;
but it can show conflicting cues for continuity and
discontinuity where syntax would require an uninterrupted
stream of speech.
A distinction must be made between performance patterns
and their acoustic and phonetic correlates. The relationship
between, e.g., a stress valley and its acoustic correlates
is similar to the relationship between a phoneme and
its acoustic correlates. We are interested in the phoneme
as an abstract category, and ignore the specific acoustic
cues that are its exponents. Consequently, there is
usually a trade-off between the possible acoustic correlates
that may cue a certain phoneme. Thus, for instance,
a voiced stop may be cued by the straightforward activation
of the vocal folds, or by a lengthening of the preceding
sonorant, or by reducing voice-onset-time, or by aspiration.
Most language users would not distinguish between the
various vocal devices; they merely perceive a unitary
abstract category, such as [b, d, g]. The same is true
of the perceptual organisations required by the rhythmical
performance of a deviant verse line. Consider the case
of a stress valley, produced to accommodate a stress
maximum in a weak position. Since a stress maximum
occurs, by definition, in mid-phrase, or even in mid-word,
the performer will face the following conflicting tasks:
he must segregate the stress valley from the preceding
context, but must preserve the continuity of the phrase,
or even more so, of the word. The listener, or even
the reciter himself, will be aware at best that the
perceptual problem has been solved. On closer inspection,
they might discern that a stress valley has been applied.
On still closer inspection, they might even discern
the opposite tendencies of continuity and discontinuity
between the stress valley and the rest of the phrase
or word. But it is impossible for them to discern by
what phonetic means this has been accomplished. And,
in fact, what matters for the solution is the abstract
category "stress valley", and it is immaterial
what trade-off between the various acoustic cues may
The acoustic cue for continuity is usually quite straightforward:
there is no measurable pause before the stress valley.
Quite frequently also "an internally defined intonation
pattern" is assigned to the sequence of four syllables.
It is more difficult to discover the cues for discontinuity.
I contend that there is an open list of possible acoustic
cues. Reciters display an astonishing degree of creativity;
new performances provide acoustic cues some of which
are quite expected, but some are entirely unforeseen.
But as long as they generate a unitary perceptual category
and indicate the required segregation, listeners exposed
to them for the first time immediately recognise them
as appropriate (assuming that continuity is taken care
We have no access to what happens in that black box,
the reader's head; we have access only to vocal performances.
We can only make inferences from these performances
to mental processes. And the vocal performances reflect
the constraints of three kinds of competences, each
later one relying on the preceding one: the competence
to identify the conflicts between stress pattern and
metre; the competence to find a solution to the conflict,
and the proper command of voice to carry out the solution.
When the performance of a deviant verse line is judged
rhythmical, we may assume that the reciter had command
of all three competences; when not, we may make only
more or less accurate guesses as for which one(s) of
the competences failed.
This work assumes, then, that when stress pattern and metre conflict in poetic rhythm, the reader may accommodate them in a rhythmical performance. Rather than in verse structure, the constraint for acceptability in versification is placed in the reader's "rhythmic competence", his ability or willingness to perform the verse line rhythmically, that is, in a way that both metric pattern and the linguistic stress pattern should be accessible to awareness at one and the same time. It suggests a cognitive mechanism that may render this feasible, and points out the principles of the vocal manipulations required. If the reader succeeds in such a performance, increased tension is perceived; if not--the verse line disintegrates and tension ceases. Halle and Keyser's notion of stress maximum in a weak position is a powerful tool to describe a very high degree of deviance in versification; but it does not necessarily render a verse line unmetrical. The existence of a corpus of about 60 verse lines with a stress maximum in a weak position in major English poetry suggests that such verse lines may be acceptable on some grounds. The fact that about two thirds of the instances occur in precisely the seventh out of four positions available for "violation" suggests that these deviances are not random. The approach advocated here presumes to explain the cognitive rationale of this distribution. Two further points are demonstrated: that experienced readers tend to agree upon the kind of performance demanded by such verse lines; and that these performances are in harmony with the expectations of the theory propounded here. Moreover, when alternative mappings of stress pattern to metric pattern are possible in a verse line, some highly experienced readers may prefer a mapping that involves a stress maximum in the seventh position to some other, perfectly "metrical" mapping under the stress-maximum theory. My detailed discussion of how experienced readers handle instances of stress maxima in weak positions is the test case of the validity of my challenge to the existing paradigma.
The first three chapters of this book give the general
theoretical framework of this study. Chapter 1 presents
the essentials of my original perception-oriented theory
of metre, indicating, in a synchronic perspective,
the theoretical problems which it set out to solve,
as well as placing differences between metrical styles
in a diachronic perspective. Chapter 2 bestows an operationally
definable psychological meaning upon the statement
"This is a rhythmical performance of this verse
line". It draws upon Gestalt Theory, speech research,
and adopts the limited-channel-capacity hypothesis.
The key word in its various sections is "simplicity".
Chapter 3 recapitulates the notion "rhythmical
performance" in an empirical perspective, and
makes a further distinction between delivery styles,
indicating the deployment of different articulatory
strategies entailed by them. It is argued that poetic
rhythm is inaccessible to empirical research, and one
can make only roundabout inferences about it. Empirical
research can be applied to what appear to be rather
trivial elements; but these elements may gain significance
in light of the theories expounded in the preceding
two chapters. In this way, distinctions that are tailor-made
for the enjambment could be applied, less straighforwardly,
to strings of stressed syllables and to stress maxima
in weak positions as well. This chapter also discusses
the Gestalt notion of "perceptual forces"
on the subphonemic, the syntactic and the vesification-unit
levels. The latter two levels would more properly belong
in Chapter 7, but the first level ("early and
late peaking") clearly belongs here, and the syntactic
level too has an empirical ingredient; so it is more
parsimonious to discuss the three levels here, together.
Each one of Chapters 4-8 is devoted to the rhythmical
solution of performance problems arising from one kind
of complexity or structural feature. Chapter 4 scrutinizes
the definitions of caesura, and explores its effects
on the perceptual dynamics of the line. Then it observes
in detail how leading British actors handle the issues
involved. Chapter 5 discusses at great length the theoretical
and perceptual problems concerning a variety of metric
configurations, in each of which there is a string
of at least two consecutive stresses. It discusses
the arising problems of performance and attempted solutions
in a wide range of delivery instances. There is also
a brief discussion of some theoretical problems concerning
the demarcation line between "metrical" and
"unmetrical". Chapter 6 is, in an important
sense, the touchstone for my challenging of the prevalent
paradigm in metrical studies. Halle and Keyser offer
"stress maximum in a weak position" as the
criterion for an unmetrical line. It is pointed out
in this chapter that there are at least 60 instances2
maxima in weak positions in major English poetry, and
that their distribution in the verse line is far from
being random. It is suggested that this distribution
is in harmony with the predictions of the present theory,
and further predictions are made as for the performance
patterns to be offered to pentameter lines with a stress
maximum in the seventh position by competent readers.
It is claimed that the performances of competent readers
of such lines are, indeed, in harmony with these predictions.
What is more, some very competent readers tend to have
recourse to such solutions even in verse lines in which
other solutions, perfectly metrical under the Halle-Keyser
Theory, would be available as well. The discussion
is preceded by an appraisal of the cognitive parsimony
of the Halle-Keyser Theory.
Chapter 7 is devoted to enjambment. Rather than reviewing
all the theoretical problems involved, this chapter
takes its departure from the controversy whether conflicting
intonation contours can be indicated in vocal performance.
The present study takes sides with those who answer
this question in the positive, and supports this judgment
by readings of experienced readers. These readers do,
indeed, have recourse to conflicting cues to indicate
discontinuation at the line ending and, at the same
time, continuation of the run-on syntactic unit. Chapter
8 faces the most disconcerting issue in our present
inquiry, bisyllabic occupancy of metrical position
or, in plain English, instances in which two syllables
must be assigned to one metrical position. Halle and
Keyser layed down the phonetic conditions in which
this can be done. English poets, even Donne in his
Satyres, seem to obey the Halle-Keyser rules in this
respect. The present work views the issue as a perceptual
rather than a phonetic problem. The conditions layed
down by Halle and Keyser facilitate the pronunciation
of the two syllables in such a way that the listener
hears two syllables, but is aware that there is only
one metrical position underlying them. So far we have
found that the overarticulation of word boundaries
was one of the most effective means for allowing the
listener to perceive the one-to-one correspondence
of the regularly alternating weak and strong positions
and the irregularly alternating unstressed and stressed
syllables; when this one-to-one correspondence must
be avoided, the rhythmical performance requires precisely
the opposite, that is, under-articulation of the boundary
between the two syllables assigned to one position.
Chapter 9 explores the ways in which music can throw light on poetic rhythm. There is a long tradition of metrists who assume that poetic rhythm is founded on equal or proportional time periods; some of them even use musical notation for rhythm. It is argued that all measurements contradict this assumption; even where measured time is significant, it does not signify such overall qualities as equal or proportional time periods, but rather such local qualities as stress or discontinuation. The present study subscribes to the rival research tradition, which assumes that poetic rhythm is based on an abstract mental pattern; as long as the abstract pattern is available to awareness, irregularities in the immediately observable linguistic units can be tolerated. While in music pause replaces a note, in poetic rhythm, with a few exceptions, pause is perceived as an event intruding upon the verse line as a whole, and forces the line to reassert itself in the listener's perception. Even very long pauses are tolerated, if the integrity of the verse line is reinforced by a variety of vocal manipulations. Paradoxically enough, it has been found that it is rather the diatonic aspect of music that may have a significant contribution to the perception of poetic rhythm: in some instances, cadential intervals between syllables may enhance the perception of metric boundaries. The short excursus on Hungarian poetry in Chapter 10 demonstrates that the same strategies found in the performance of English poetry are used, in a different theatrical tradition, to solve considerably different problems that arise in Hungarian poetic rhythm. The Appendix places the present study in a much wider methodological perspective. On the one hand, it raises the problem of reductionism in interdisciplinary studies: it argues that problems in poetics cannot be reduced to the "more basic" sciences. On the other, it faces the problem how the perceived affects of poetry can systematically be related to poetic structures. It widens the scope of inquiry beyond metrics, to other issues concerning the sound effects of poetry, such as the emotional symbolism of sound patterns. It suggests that going out from poetics to phonetics or acoustics may, more often than not, merely multiply information and obscure rather than explain issues, and attempts to define the conditions in which reliance on these "more basic" sciences can account for the perceived effects of poetry. Empirical studies of poetic rhythm that make use of instrumental phonetics must meet these methodological conditions.
Halle, Morris and Samuel Jay Keyser (1971) English Stress:
Its Growth and Its Role in Verse. New York: Harper
Knowles, Gerry (1991) "Prosodic Labelling: The
Problem of Tone Group Boundaries", in Johannson,
Stig and Anna-Brita Stenström (eds.), Enlgish
Computer Corpora. Selected Papers and Research Guide.
(Topics in English Linguistics 3.) Berlin: Mouton de
Knowles, Gerry (1992) "Pitch Contours and tones
in the Lancaster/IBM Spoken English Corpus", in
Gerhard Leitner (ed), New Directions in English Language
Corpora Methodology, Results, Software Developments.
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 289-299.
Lieberman, Philip (1967) Intonation, Perception and
Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.
Miller, George A. (1970) The Psychology of Communication. Harmondsworth: Pelican.
Taylor, I. (1990) Psycholinguistics--Learning and Using
Language. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Tsur, Reuven (1977) A Perception-Oriented Theory of
Metre. Tel Aviv: The Porter Israeli Institute for Poetics
Tsur, Reuven (1997) "Poetic Rhythm: Performance
Patterns and their Acoustic Correlates". Versification:
An Electronic Journal Devoted to Literary Prosody (http://sizcol1.u-shizuoka-ken.ac.jp/versif/Versification.html).
Wellek, René & Austin Warren (1956) Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
1. Even the pedant Polonius occasionally allows himself to place a stress maximum in the seventh (weak) position--see below.
2. I have just discovered an additional instance when writing this synopsis, above, in the Polonius quote.
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