Psychopoetics of Rhythm: Is Parallelism a Path to Pleasure?

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Willie van Peer @Willie

:classical_building: Affiliation: Univeristy of Munich

Title: Psychopoetics of Rhythm: Is Parallelism a Path to Pleasure?

Abstract (long version below):
Psychopoetics is the study of how we, individuals and groups, experience poetry. Its essence is evidence – also of the fact that structures in poetry, including parallelism, are there for a reason, as they produce an effect on readers. Thus, this paper will report the results of an experiment in which 141 participants read ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ by Cummings in the original and in the manipulated form, with the original parallelism deleted. We will discuss the statistically significant differences between the groups and then concentrate on principles of experiencing poetry and its rhythm: ‘soothing’, ‘slowness’ and ‘incantation’.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Psychopoetics is the study of how we, individuals and groups, cultures and societies, experience poetry (van Peer and Chesnokova 2022). Evidence is the essence of psychopoetics, as we believe that structures in poetry, including parallelism in its different forms, have an effect and that they are there for a reason. Repetition in poetry is not just repetition: it is meaningful, while it induces delight. The ‘pleasure principle’ lies at the heart of much poetic experience. When reading a poem or hearing a song, we are delighted when something ‘returns’, something that was there a few seconds ago.

A lot of typical poetic structures (rhyme, alliteration, meter, etc.) are forms of parallelism. Following Hopkins (1959: 84), “[t]he artificial part of poetry, perhaps we shall be right to say all artifice, reduces itself to the principle of parallelism.” It is so central to poetry that there have been (serious) efforts to define poetry just by the occurrence of parallelism or hyper-regularity. The clearest of such proposals is by Ribeiro (2007) who claims that ‘[a] closer look at the poems from literary traditions around the world will reveal that the history of poetry is one of texts whose universal and enduring characteristic is their exhibiting certain types of repetition schemes’ ( ibid. : 191). Metricality, for instance, is virtually absent from other genres, but highly prevalent in poetic forms. Although prosodic grouping underlies linguistic processing (also in bird song), the exquisite elaboration of metrical systems seems unique to poetry.

These are basic assumptions in the study of literature, but there is not much empirical evidence to support them. In their recent overview, Peskin & Hanauer (2023) list (when it comes to parallelism) only Menninghaus (2017) Obermeier (2013, 2017) and Van Peer (1990). We want to elaborate on these studies, by comparing reader reactions to (1) a heavily parallelistic poem and (2) a manipulated version of the same poem, from which all parallelism had been removed. The poem we used was ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ by E. E. Cummings. Next to a heavy regime of deviations (Chesnokova, van Peer 2016), it abounds in parallelism at all levels: phonological (rhyme, alliteration), lexical (repetition of words), semantic (oppositions of items), syntactic (repetition of patterns), etc.

The manipulated version of the poem, from which all forms of parallelism (phonological, lexical, syntactic, semantic) were systematically replaced by non-parallelistic phrasings, was read by 70 participants (both university students and staff members), while the original text was read by a control group of 71 participants. The respondents were invited to indicate the intensity of their reactions on a 7-point Likert scale that included a battery of 30 adjectives (e.g., musical, complex, moving, etc.) spread across 6 dimensions (aesthetic appreciation, aesthetic structure, cognition, emotion, social context and attitudes). The scales were taken from van Peer, Hakemulder and Zyngier (2007). The reactions were provided at three locations in the poem: after line 1; after the 6th stanza (roughly the middle) and after the whole poem. We decided not to test for individual scales, but for the six dimensions only. Cronbach’s alpha yielded results above .84 for the six dimensions. Out of a T-test for independent samples comparing the two versions, only one difference turned out to be significant: that for Aesthetic Structure (t = 3.16, df = 75, p = .002). This pattern was repeated when we inspected the reactions to the two versions at the three measuring points in the poem: only Aesthetic Structure yielded significant results, with p < .002 and .040 after the first and second measurement, but with a non-significant result after the third measurement.

We furthermore carried out a factor analysis on the individual scales, to see whether the results would correspond to the dimensions we had introduced ourselves on an intuitive base. Two factors emerged, which we labelled ‘emotion’ and ‘meaning’, thus casting a different light over our findings. When comparing reader reactions to the two versions of the poem, results turned out significantly lower for the manipulated version: p = .047 for the ‘emotion’ factor and p = .008 for the ‘meaning’ factor. Hence it looks as if parallelism does not only create to some aesthetic structure, but likewise provides some meaning and some emotional reaction in readers.

Needless to say, we realise the limitations of this research, e.g., the text sample (n = 1), the participants’ profile (predominately female, non-native speakers of English), but we believe that these limitations are easy to overcome in follow-up research, i.e., by extending the textual material on the one hand, and by probing different populations on the other.


Chesnokova, A. and W. van Peer (2016), ‘Anyone came to live here some time ago: A cognitive semiotics approach to deviation as a foregrounding device’, Versus: Quaderni di Studi Semiotici , 122, 5–22.

Hopkins, G. M. (1959). ‘Poetic diction’. In H. House and G. Storey (eds), The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins . London: Oxford University Press.

Menninghaus, W. et al. (2017), ‘The emotional and aesthetic powers of parallelistic diction’, Poetics 63. 47-59.

Obermeier, C. et al. (2013), ‘Aesthetic and emotional effects of meter and rhyme in poetry’, Frontiers in Psychology 4. 1-10.

Obermeier, C. et al. (2017), ‘Aesthetic appreciation of poetry correlates with ease of processing in even-related potentials’, Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience 16 (2). 362-373.

Peskin, J & Hanauer, D.I. (2023). A Life with Poetry . Amsterdam: John Benjamins

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. and A. Chesnokova (2022), Experiencing Poetry: A Guidebook to Psychopoetics . London: Bloomsbury.

van Peer, W., F. Hakemulder and S. Zyngier (2007), ‘Lines on feeling: Foregrounding, aesthetic appreciation, and meaning’, Language and Literature , 16 (2): 197–213.