Poetic conventions as cognitive fossils

Reuven Tsur*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Where do poetic conventions come from? I argue that they are active cognitive (sometimes depth-psychological) processes and constraints that became fossilized in time. I confront two rival approaches to conventions, the migration (or influence-hunting) approach, and the cognitive-fossils (or constraints-seeking) approach. The migration approach transfers the problem from one place to another, without trying to solve it. Consumers of poetry cannot acquire the meanings, emotional import and perceptual qualities of conventions by relying on conventional knowledge (that would be circular), only by relying on cognitive strategies acquired for adaptation purposes. Novel poetic inventions may become conventions when in the process of repeated social transmission they come to take forms which have a good fit to the natural capacities and constraints of the human brain. There are different degrees of fossilization. Such verbal devices as interjections, exclamations, vocatives and repetitions have emotive force owing to their relation to the right hemisphere of the brain. In Elizabethan drama interjections followed by repeated vocatives become a hackneyed convention. In the ballad "Edward" the same conventions turn into rigid formula, perceived as "ballad style" rather than expressive devices. The rhythmic processing of poetry is constrained by the limited channel capacity of the cognitive system. This has shaped a wide range of versification conventions in a number of languages and versification systems. Thus, in the majority of English iambic pentameter lines caesura occurs after the fourth position (out of ten). The influence-hunting approach attributes this to French influence. According to the cognitive-constraints approach, the limited channel capacity of immediate memory requires that of two parallel segments the longer should come last, both in English and French poetry. The influence-hunting approach has no answer to why French poetry should have placed the caesura after the fourth position in the first place, and why English poetry should have adopted this practice in a different versification system. Finally, I point out that going against those cognitive constraints may have its own expressive value too, even when it is an established convention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)496-523
Number of pages28
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2010


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