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Poetry and Poetics


As a science of interpretation, poetics has consistently been concerned with delineating its proper field of study ("What is a poetic text?") and then subdividing it into genres ("What kind of poetic text is under consideration and what interpretive approaches does it select?").

Classical poetics.

Although classical writers on the subject of literary types failed to formulate a comprehensive system of genres, they did fix certain distinctions that would continue to play a role—first prescriptive, then descriptive—in the Western poetic tradition. To begin with, the term poetics as Aristotle defined it exclusively pertains to literary works composed in verse. The verse form, however, is a less important criterion than the notion of poiēsis, which perhaps would be best understood as "fiction." While it was common practice in antiquity to present scientific material in verse form, Aristotle decisively limited the term poetry to fictional representations. Homer is a poet; Empedocles is not (1447b). Prose, which was then restricted to oratory, historiography, and Aristotle's own manner of philosophical discourse, belongs instead to the realm of rhetoric. The fact that Aristotle neglected to account for the fictional use of prose, for example, in the fable, is already an indication of his general lack of comprehensiveness.

In a similarly broad move, Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) had divided all literary genres into two primary categories: poetic representations by way of described action, as in epic poetry; and representations by way of impersonated action, as in drama. When Plato was faced with the fact that Homeric epic in fact employs both modes of representation, the philosopher added the "mixed mode," where the related action alternates between straight narrative and re-created dialogue (392–394). The existence of what we would call lyric poetry (for example, iambic poetry, elegy, melic poetry, or choral odes) is vaguely acknowledged by Plato in Book 10 of the Republic, but only to be condemned as beautifully contrived falsehoods passed off as truth. Aristotle, whose explicit intention at the beginning of On Poetics is to give an account of "poetry in itself and its kinds or forms [ eidē ]" (1447a), summarily abandons a discussion of lyric composition by reverting to Plato's fundamental division between narration and impersonated dialogue.

This persistent lacuna, however, hardly played a role in the development of European poetics. The crucial point rather is that both Plato and Aristotle insisted that poetry is an art of representation or imitation (mimēsis). Placed alongside a nascent theory of genre, the idea of mimesis introduces the important issue of decorum (what is appropriate for certain characters to say or do in certain situations). An ancient concern for genre thereby anticipated one of the fundamental tenets of later formalism, namely that representational content is inseparable from representational form. With the identification and accumulation of more poetic forms in Latin treatises such as Horace's Ars poetica and Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, classical genre theory could be further codified to serve as a system of prescriptive rules for composition as well as for the critic's evaluation.

Neoclassicism and its critics.

The rediscovery of Aristotle's On Poetics in the sixteenth century gave rise to a fresh and impassioned interest in codifying a system of poetic forms. In addition to debates on the viability of particular "mixed forms," for example, Giovanni Guarini's scandalous defense of his tragicomedy, Il pastor fido (1590; The faithful shepherd), this period established the doctrine of the three "unities" of time, place, and action, which would have a decisive influence on dramatic productions well into the eighteenth century. Lodovico Castelvetro's seminal commentary on Aristotle's Poetics (1570) is the key source of much of the normative poetics promulgated by European Neoclassicism. Another high point is Nicolas Boileau's elaborate typology, outlined in his Art poétique (1674), where the fundamental categories of epic and drama (both tragic and comic) are joined by the pastoral poem, the elegy, the ode, the epigram, and satire. As is generally the case with neoclassical movements, the rationale for such divisions as well as the demand that each genre remain distinct from the others are proffered as self-evident and entirely natural. Twentieth-century critics of ideology, for example, Fredric Jameson, will argue that it is precisely this naturalness that indicates that all genre theories reinforce the hegemonic order. The hierarchies of generic explication and their attendant ideals of decorum dictate the relations between the high, middle, and low spheres and thereby have deep implications for societal and political organization.

Although Romanticism rejected the authoritarian conventions prescribed by Neoclassicism, poets of the late eighteenth century, particularly in Germany, seem to have recognized the importance of literary form in relation to content. Genre is how poetry specifically transforms the actual into the possible. Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), for example, developed an elaborate genre system to underwrite his experiments on the long Pindaric ode. In his fragmentary essay, "Über die verschiednen Arten, zu dichten" (c. 1800; On the different ways to compose poetry), he combines genre theory and a kind of ontological decorum by detecting a "proper" and "improper" tone in the constitution of the three major poetic modes: the natural, the heroic, and the ideal, which correspond respectively to lyric, epic, and drama. Literary genres became associated with the epistemological concerns opened up by the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Here, traditional approaches to genre-criticism contributed to new models for explaining how we give form to the world around us.

Contemporary issues.

Although the idea of using prescriptive norms for poetic composition had been entirely discredited by the close of the eighteenth century, this does not mean that theories of genre no longer contributed to discussions of poetics. Although Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) in his Aesthetics (1902) persuasively argued that all genre designations were mere abstractions disrespectful of the artwork's uniqueness, there has been no lack of theoreticians who have recognized the benefits of generic descriptions for the study of literature. Accordingly, genre criticism has yielded to notions of intertextuality, where, as in the famous remark by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), a poet's individual voice is determined only in relation to the preceding tradition of forms or conventions. Northrop Frye, who outlines an altogether elaborate system of literary archetypes in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), similarly approaches literary history with an eye toward broad, organizational patterns. Structuralist accounts, which in many respects respond to Frye's archetypal criticism, essentially replace the term genre with code. The work of Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gérard Genette, for example, demonstrates the continued usefulness of generic criticism, especially when the notion of genre assumes a more provisional and aspectual quality. Even postmodern theorists of écriture féminine (feminine writing), which explicitly claim to transgress all interpretive laws, as in the work of Hélène Cixous, should be regarded as perpetuating discussions of genre, however idiosyncratically. This is the case even when generic boundaries serve as the target of critique, as in theories of gender and sexuality, for example in the work of Judith Butler.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPoetry and Poetics - Genre, Interpretation, Poetic Function, Bibliography