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Poetry and Poetics

Interpretation

Since Aristotle, poetic theory has oscillated between two distince tendencies: the desire to formulate philosophical statement aimed at describing the essential elements of poetry; and the equally prevalent desire to make aesthetic judgments capable of evaluating a given poetic work. Both strands work together to define the basic project of interpretation.

Philosophy and aesthetic judgment.

Evident throughout Aristotle's Poetics is an oscillation between two distinct tendencies: the desire to formulate philosophical statements aimed at describing the essential elements of poetry; and the equally prevalent desire to make aesthetic judgments capable of evaluating a given poetic work. Aristotle assumes the twin roles of theorist and critic. Certainly the theoretical emphasis on mimesis establishes the criterion for critical evaluation. Once representation is posited as the defining term for poetry, the question that always arises is: How well has the artist portrayed the real? If one accepts Plato's ontological division between a realm of transcendent Forms and the physical reality that merely copies them, then poetic mimesis is a doubly weak version, being a mere copy of a copy, "two steps removed from Truth" (10.602c).

If, however, like Aristotle, one construes mimesis as something creative rather than passive, as something that represents human actions rather than physical objects, then one can judge how effectively the poet has presented a new reality—a possible world—albeit on the basis of the actual. Already, then, in this quarrel between Plato and Aristotle, one can see the divide, persistent throughout the centuries, between those who demand poetry's adherence to a referent in the world and those who appreciate poetry's capacity to be self-referential.

Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790) is the first sustained attempt to reconcile the claims of philosophical description with the declarations of subjective evaluation. By grounding the judgment of the beautiful entirely in a nonutilitarian, "disinterested pleasure," Kant arrives at his goal of a subjective universal, which solves the inevitable problem of any poetic theory: How can the unique qualities of a poem (poiesis singularis) withstand the abstracting, de-individualizing forces of conceptual understanding (mathesis universalis) ? Kant's aesthetics, which successfully delimits a space for a nonconceptual mode of philosophizing, thereby becomes a foundational text for Western poetics, first through Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Friedrich Schiller, and then in twentieth-century aesthetics devoted to the intricate relations between content and form.

Representation and expression.

Whereas the experience of the beautiful is firmly based on notions of representation, Kant's discussion of the sublime takes place precisely where representation breaks down. An increasing attention to the ancient treatise On the Sublime, falsely attributed to Longinus (fourth century C.E.), brought along a new understanding of literature not strictly as a mimesis of the external world but rather as an expression of something internal. The title of M. H. Abrams's extensive study The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) concisely marks the transition from a classical poetics of representation to a Romantic theory of expression, where, in the words of William Wordsworth (1770–1850), poetry became "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798). Accordingly, the trend at the beginning of the nineteenth century to emphasize expression over representation paralleled the privilege given to lyric poetry over epic. This new preference reflected the general turn to concerns about subjectivity, which had come to define the post-Kantian philosophical environment. As might be expected, the fresh subjectivism brought a rekindled interest in notions of affect, consciousness, and emotion, all of which acted as a corrective to what was now viewed as the excessively one-sided objectivism of the Aristotelian tradition.

Expressivist theories of literature extended well past Romantic schools and informed a good deal of twentieth-century poetics. Theories of the preverbal or nondiscursive origins of art belong to this tradition, be it in the psychoanalytic-semiotic investigations of Julia Kristeva or the nearly Heideggerian meditations of Maurice Blanchot, where the work of art is but the finite expression of an otherwise inaccessible, original experience. In this respect, Orpheus is Blanchot's paradigmatic poet precisely because Eurydice disappears in his backward gaze: what is always missing from the work of art is its origin.

Additional topics

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