“Poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness.” ~ Aristotle, “The Poetics”
When it was mentioned in class the possibility of doing an annotation on Aristotle’s “Poetics,” I went home and dug out my pristine Dover Thrift Editions unabridged copy (bought on a whim two years ago at a book sale), and put it with the other books I would be reading over the semester.
Full-time graduate students, like myself, have a crushing load of reading to do in any given semester and so I admit I instantly liked the book if for no other reason than because of how thin it is. So attractive in its thinness, only 60 pages, skinnier than any of the other books I would be reading over the semester. I placed it with the other thin and attractive book about poetry I would be reading in the next fifteen weeks, the one by Robert Pinsky, entitled “The sound of Poetry” which is a scant 129 pages in all and the size of a postage stamp.
By the middle of January, less than two weeks into the class, the poet laureate Pinsky, with his “little book” had proven a swarthy and capable combatant; one who wielded syntax and lexicon with deadly precision. So naturally, I began to doubt the entertainment value of “Poetics” since it shared the same theme and all.
Books on poetry, it turns out, have all the complications and ramifications of books about post-colonial literature or linguistic texts with tree diagrams demonstrating the recursive nature of language. Certainly for what they lack in size, they make up for in density.
What the neutron star is to astrophysicists, critical essays on poetry are to English majors.
In other words, good poetry is rare, and rather serious business when it is discovered.
I started complaining about this fact to my Facebook friends a week before I actually opened the book. Everyone sympathized, fellow students and professors alike. One professor friend of mine even started a Bad English Majors group on Facebook in my honor for complaining about the canon.
So here we are in the middle of March and I have finally gained enough momentum and respect for poetry to approach (with my serious face) the first and most critically assessed piece ever written on the subject of poetry.
I guess two months of writing ghazals and sestinas, thinking about my own upcoming chapbook, feeling a kinship with Christian Wiman and being pushed by Jan to come to my own appreciation of form has finally made me mature enough for Aristotle. Maybe I am a late bloomer.
Aristotle first sets out in the essay an appeal to have a definition of what a poet is and what poetry should be. Evidently the word “poet” was synonymous with writer in the 337 B.C.E. world and Aristotle with the essay “Poetics” was seeking a re-definition of the word (2).
At the end of the essay Aristotle says what a poet is by definition of what a poet does, which is to imitate “things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be” (53).
The idea of “imitation” at first though, for me at least, was quite problematic. I was unfamiliar with Plato’s school of thought (Aristotle’s teacher) on imitation and felt a little out of my league at first and so I made a note in the margin to look up Plato’s obsession with imitation. However, that turned out not to be necessary.
Aristotle does indeed do a fine job of describing what imitation is by steadily and carefully building up to it for almost the entire essay. In fact, while the essay is about poetry itself, the organization of the essay is an example of how to construct a bullet-proof argument on nearly any subject.
Long before Aristotle comes out and says what imitation is and why good poetry or any good art for that matter will conform to the rules of imitation I find myself engaging with the text in margin notes with questions and connections that I notice Aristotle makes about poetry and the nature of language and art.
What is being imitated with poetry? Is it human emotions? Is it situational occurrences? (3). Between pages 4 and 5, Aristotle draws conclusions to the arbitrary nature of words and briefly and several hundred years before anyone else, delves into the nature of linguistics and etymology, espousing that words used to describe the same object varied from village to village and could explain “the number and nature of the various modes of imitation” (5).
Furthermore, it is synchronicity that Aristotle follows the brief section on linguistics and etymology with the concept of imitation being innate in regards to what most traditional Chomsky-linguists theorize is the innateness of language.
Aristotle portends that imitation in general lies deep in our nature and that the “imitation is planted in man from childhood,” that it is one of the differences between man and animal, that we learn our “earliest lessons” from it and that “no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated” (5).
After several pages into “Poetics” I am finding that Aristotle is slowly but surely defining what imitation is and why a good definition of it is crucial to re-defining what a poet is. And amidst it all, Aristotle is furthermore demonstrating how to build an academic argument, while showing specifically how a poet may go about writing the most satisfying work he can.
Further, while the essay does not ignore any of the major genres popular during the time of its writing (comedy, history, etc.), it mainly focuses on epic and tragic poetry. The poem pieces most referred to and familiar to most audiences, both ancient and current, are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and various versions of, but mostly Sophocles’ version of, Oedipus.
Aristotle uses the two poets to weave together what I find to be an extremely helpful treatise. “Poetics” is first and foremost a very well planned and decisive example of an academic argument.
First of all, the assemblage of the reasons why any old writer could not be a poet hinged completely on the definition of imitation. What’s more is the level of engagement I had as a reader in trying to decipher the concept of imitation; this device, in the end, proving rather essential for full persuasion to take place (academic arguments being akin to seduction perhaps?).
By the end of the essay I knew exactly what it was that makes a poet a poet, and exactly what a writer should do if he wants to write good poetry. Third, I had been satisfied completely with the definition of imitation and what that definition was capable of implying about any given work.
Aristotle, by using the specific examples of Homer and Sophocles (among others) as examples of poetic epic tragedy, solidifies the entire argument for the simple fact that whether I had actually read those works or not I would still be aware of their long-standing power as a modern reader.
Additionally, I am convinced this particular essay to be the quintessential how-to for poets wishing to write good tragic epic poetry and I have furiously marked the book up with lines, check-marks and stars to that end.