Poeticity as Rhythmicality: Why Invest in it? What are the Returns?

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Willie van Peer @Willie

:classical_building: Affiliation: University of Munich (Germany)

Title: Poeticity as Rhythmicality: Why Invest in it? What are the Returns?

Abstract (long version below): Poeticity is what we call the appearance of poetry, as contrasted with prose. It consists of a range of typical devices that form part of a tradition. This paper discusses the foundations of this tradition: why are these forms there in the first place? In contrast to the descriptive power –see, for instance, Preminger & Brogan (1993), what about the explanatory power of the study of these devices? The paper is part of an ongoing project, recently elaborated in Van Peer & Chesnokova (2023). I will discuss the nature of the project, as well as a pilot study, probing the differential effects of a story in poetic/prose form.

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:newspaper: Long abstract

One of the markers of poeticity lies in a range of repetitive devices, such as meter, rhyme, alliteration, strophic form, etc. Readers will immediately recognize a poem by its sheer stanzaic form, its rhyme scheme (if any), and a general rhythmicality, in the sense of periodicity of sounds and/or stress and/or length structures. Such devices are largely, if not totally, absent from spoken language or from written prose; see, for a definition of poetry along these lines, Ribeiro (2007). Most cultures have incorporated such forms of poeticity, in the sense that they created (often age-old) traditions in which such forms found expression. Poets know this and practice it. Readers know this and expect it. But why?
We possess ample documentation of such traditions in a descriptive sense. Until now, however, very little effort has gone into the explanatory part of poetics. Most approaches are based on (rather vague) assumptions, or idealized readers, or indeed upon a critic’s personal projections. The recent publication of Psychopoetics argues, however, that such approaches are insufficient as explanations. What is required, rather, is evidence-based research that independently demonstrates the effects of poetic devices on (different groups of) readers / listeners.
The clearest source of this view is to be found in Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 BCE). In it, the author states that “the diction becomes distinguished and non-prosaic by the use of unfamiliar terms, i.e., strange words, metaphors, lengthened forms, and everything that deviates from the ordinary modes of speech” (1458a20). This is an early outline of the concept of foregrounding; for an overview, see Van Peer et al (2021). It is an astonishing fact that he even outlines a methodology to test his idea: “To realize the difference one should take an epic verse and see how it reads when the normal words are introduced. The same should be done too with the strange word, the metaphor, and the rest; for one has only to put the ordinary words in their place to see the truth of what we are saying” (1458b15; p. 1334). He proposes, in other words, to manipulate texts, so that we can observe the different effects between poetic and prosaic texts. There are thousands of books about Aristotle’s Poetics, but this sentence has hardly drawn any attention. It is just a mere 23 centuries later that literary scholars have started to look at such evidence…
When it comes to rhythmicality, the present paper reports on an ongoing project, in which we look at the cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic effects of poetry; see Van Peer (1990). Previously we have looked at differences between reading poetry aloud vs. silently; see Van Peer & Chesnokova (in press). In the present paper, we used the beginning of a fairy tale by Alexander Pushkin in its prose translation into English and compared it to a translation into poetic form. We presented both forms randomly to readers and requested them to give us their responses on a 10-point Likert scale, to a battery of five items each, under four categories: cognitive, musical, rhythmic, and erotic. Statistically significant differences between the reactions of the groups will be reported, and results will be discussed and interpreted in the light of the above.

Preminger, A. & T.V.F. Brogan (1993), The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ribeiro, A. Ch. (2007), ‘Intending to repeat: A definition of poetry’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 65 (2): 189–201.

Van Peer, W. (1990), The Measurement of Metre: Its Cognitive and Affective Functions. Poetics 19: 259-275.

Van Peer, W. et al. (2021): Foregrounding. In D. Kuiken & A.M. Jacobs (eds). Handbook of Empirical Literary Studies. Berlin: De Gruyter: 145-176.

Van Peer, W. and A. Chesnokova (2023), Experiencing Poetry: A Guidebook to Psychopoetics. London: Bloomsbury.

Van Peer, W. & A. Chesnokova (in press), “The sound must seem an echo to the sense”. Experiencing oral and silent reading of Poetry. In Sandrine Sorlin & Linda Pilliere, Style and Senses. Palgrave MacMillan (in press)