Aristotle’s Poetics: Why Poetry Matters

Aristotle (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Aristotle (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

The primary classical fine arts comprise painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry; the secondary arts are drama and dance. The adjective ‘fine’ refers not to the artwork’s quality within the discipline, but the purity of the discipline itself. The fine arts are aesthetic, rather than applied; thus they engage the intellect and meaning, without seeking practical application. The appreciation of aesthetic quality relies upon refined judgement, or good taste; hence, it establishes a differentiation of the fine arts from popular entertainments. This has an analogy in unencumbered scientific research, where the question is determined by the pursuit of knowledge; and by which pure research is distinct from popular science, where the question is set for purposes of commerce or entertainment.

Of the fine arts, the influence of Postmodernism, despite its increasingly isolationist tendencies, may have been best realized in music, such as in the work of Krzysztof Penderecki. This is indicative for poetry, for poetry relies not on the written word, but the spoken word, and the spoken word implies musicality. Drama and dance, closely related arts, rely on musicality as well for essential affect.

Krzysztof Penderecki (Courtesy:

Krzysztof Penderecki (Courtesy:

I am in the Sibelius camp, with its acceptance of the intrinsic value of and need for organic, structured, integrated style; and, its essential connection to nature. Sibelius subscribed to the formal logic that governs an inner interconnectedness that enables artistic synthesis. This demand is a direct descendant of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner; and it breaks away in Wagner and Mahler, to re-appear only once again in a major composer in many of the symphonic and string quartet works of Shostakovich.

Jan Sibelius (Courtesy: New York Times)

Jan Sibelius (Courtesy: New York Times)

Aristotle said that history is accidental, and is predictive of the fundamental nature and consequences of human behaviour and actions, but that its chronology teaches us little. The lesson, which contributes to the moral education of the human person, is the task of the poet. And the poet is guided by philosophy and metaphysics. This is why Shelley could assert that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. It is action, not character, that determines happiness or unhappiness. And that is why, in drama, moral character is included for the sake of moral action. The story and the moral elements are the means of tragedy, enabling its most important component, the construction of the plot; tragedy itself being “a representation not of persons but of action and life.”

This is also why in poetry the use of the first person should be restrained and judicious, and, where unnecessary, avoided. A story that centres on a single individual neither necessarily makes a unity nor, even in the carrying out of many actions, not necessarily accumulates into a single, meaningful action. Moreover, no matter the intended action, it is “probable that many improbable things should happen.” Yet the improbabilities do not necessarily impair the unity. In the representative arts, of which poetry is one, “the representation of an action … should concern an action that is single and entire, with its incidents so structured that the displacement or removal of any one of them would disturb and dislocate the whole [; for, if] the presence or absence of something makes no discernible difference, then it is no part of the whole.”

Percy Shelley's Grave (Courtesy:

Percy Shelley’s Grave (Courtesy:

To write tragic poetry, Aristotle admonishes, “you must be either a genius who can adapt himself to anything, or a madman who lets himself get carried away.”

Learning, wrote Aristotle, delights philosophers as well as ordinary individuals, even if the ordinary have “less capacity for it” —capacity, not capability. People like images, because they understand and discern what the image represents; and even if one is unacquainted with the representation, its elements, such as technique or colour, appeal. Representation, like melody and rhythm, come to us naturally; and because of this, “those with the greatest natural gift for such things by a gradual process of improvement developed poetry out of improvisation.”

The highly amorphous, generalized application over the last 40 years of what is termed Postmodernism has been a source of corruption of good taste, to the point of disappearance in its replacement by bad taste interpreted often as a requirement for art termed avant-garde. In parallel, the staging of poetry, which has become popular, “can be emotionally attractive, but is not a matter of art and is not integral to poetry.” Evocation of emotion by stage production is essentially a lesser order of artistry, as it largely dependent on the production. It is this that makes so many popular musical concerts vacuous. “What, indeed, would there be for the speaker to do if the required effects were evident without anything being said?”

I am of Aristotle’s view that the “best style is one that is clear without being vulgar.” It is excessive employment of exotic expressions or excessive paradox that hinder clarity. Foreign words result in gibberish; excessive metaphor obscures the actual facts rendered by “an impossible combination” of words or concepts. What is needed is a judicious mixture of these expressions: “common words will produce clarity, and the use of exotic expressions … will elevate the style above the vulgar.” In this regard, “the poet must be skilled in the use of metaphor”, the “one thing that cannot be learnt from others.”

Poetry, wrote Sir Philip Sidney, taking his argument from Aristotle in his own An Apology for Poetry, “is an art of imitation …, representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight.” For poetry, in its concern for the highest end of knowledge, stands “in the knowledge of a man’s self, in the ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing, and not of well-knowing only … the ending end of all earthly learning being virtuous action.”


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