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Poetry and Poetics

Poetic Function

The question of whether poetry is primarily representation or expression invariably hinges on the poetic function in language. What makes language literary? Is it possible to distinguish between a literary and a nonliterary use of language? Twentieth-century responses to these perennial questions differed from earlier discussions in that they tended to reformulate the matter by questioning the very tenability of a division between poetry and poetics. With an increased awareness of the rhetorical quality of all language—its "rhetoricity"—come fresh difficulties in discerning scientific from nonscientific discourse, concepts from metaphors, objectivity from subjectivity.

New criticism and formalism.

Common sense would assert that the distinction between poetry and poetics is obvious. The poet provides what the interpreter must study, appreciate, and even evaluate. The New Critics, who during the middle decades of the twentieth century governed the reading practices of English-speaking academia, reinforced this commonsense premise by stressing the creative, literary qualities of the primary material (for example, the poem) and the scientific, essentially nonliterary qualities of the commentary devoted to it. This theoretical partitioning already determines what may and may not be considered a poem. As is so often the case, theory produces its own object of study. Whereas other interpretive traditions would regard poetry as representing reality mimetically, or as an expression of some internal state, or even as a vehicle for knowledge about the world or humankind in general, the New Critics were concerned exclusively with formal properties. And it is this decisive emphasis that invariably characterized the exegetical activity of the interpreter as an altogether distinct mode of discourse. The activities of the poet and the poetician rested on two entirely different functions of language. Even when a single person happened to publish both poetry and works of criticism, the difference was maintained by keeping an inventive treatment of language separate from more utilitarian intentions. The crafted, somewhat opaque quality of the poem, which featured any number of figurative and stylistic devices, from metaphors and imagery to alliteration and rhyme, distinguished itself from the critical tools of poetics, which on the whole abstained from figurative language and instead gave the appearance of being unambiguous and immediately transparent.

The paradigm for establishing this firm boundary between poetry and poetics is derived from the belief that the text should be approached by a reader who remains utterly detached from it. Cleanth Brooks's "well-wrought urn," therefore, constituted an isolated and autonomous artifact, a tightly composed object wherein content is absolutely inseparable from form. Immanently coherent and dramatically structured by forces in tension, the poem presents itself as especially amenable to a highly professional explication. In a methodology that built on Kant's notion of aesthetic disinterestedness, the New Critical ideal prohibited any recourse to subjective opinion or impressionistic feelings. Poetry and poetics had to be sharply delineated so as to preserve the formal purity of the artwork from personal contamination, not only from the reader, but from the author as well. Biographical details, sociocultural context, or other historical circumstances were all excluded from consideration by the New Critics, for whom art subsisted on intrinsic qualities alone free from all extrinsic forces.

Similarly, but with a greater attention to linguistic patterns, Russian formalists such as Victor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Roman Jakobson held that the distinction between the nonliterary and the literary was of primary importance. Again, their mode of investigation was concerned entirely with intrinsic elements. In his seminal essay "Linguistics and Poetics" (1960), Jakobson defines the "poetic function" of language as that which promotes "the palpability of signs," which is to say that poetic language calls attention to its own medium. Whereas when one reads a nonliterary text it is necessary to look through the text, a literary experience is essentially an invitation to look at the text. The doctrine of the inseparability of form and content demands that the materiality of textual signs resist easy dissolution into immaterial sense. This adherence to the radically self-referential qualities of a poem was aimed at correcting the subjectivism of Romantic criticism, but thereby it also instigated denouncements from more politically motivated theorists, for example, from the Marxist Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), who attacked the formalists' neglect of the historical, social, and economic conditions of literature. For Trotsky—and this point would be championed by later Marxist critics—the formalist's act of sealing the poem off from life could be understood only as a grave shortcoming.


It was Jakobson's indebtedness to the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) that connected Russian formalism to various trends of literary and cultural analysis grouped under the name structuralism. The key methodological premise of structuralism is that theoretical investigation must attend to systems, as opposed to the manifestations of those systems. In Saussure's terms, analysis is concerned with langue ("the system of language," analogous to grammar) as opposed to parole ("actual expressions in the language"). The autonomous work of art should be subjected to an examination that will yield information about the system's operation. It is easy to see how this theoretical disposition would appeal more readily to the Russian formalists than to the Anglo-American New Critics, who had difficulties abandoning the idea of the poet as individual crafter. In sructuralism, the literary work of art is simply the creation of transpersonal or even impersonal systems wholly beyond the author's control. As a movement, it marked the deposing of the individual, which eventually developed into the antihumanist stance most popularly associated with Roland Barthes, who along with others announced the "death of the author." Interestingly, it is precisely this decentering of the individual artist that reconciled formalism with the demands of Marxist criticism: no longer the product of a single author working essentially in isolation, literature for the sructuralists came to be regarded as the result of cultural and social systems, which served as correlatives to the socioeconomic conditions scrutinized by Marxist theorists. The ideological criticism of writers such as Louis Althusser reinterpreted the author more specifically as a subject whose particular historical position serves as a conduit for the forces that maintain the hegemonic order of the state.

The work of Northrop Frye, which gives a different critique of formalism, owes more to Freud than to Marx. Still, Frye upheld the formalist principle of the poem's autonomy by keeping poetics (criticism, interpretation, or commentary) qualitatively separate from poetry. At the beginning of his Anatomy of Criticism, for example, he asserts, "There is a totally intelligible structure of knowledge attainable about poetry which is not poetry itself, or the experience of it" (p. 14). This distinction corresponds specifically to the difference between science and art. Science, the science of poetics, for example, deals exclusively with concepts or with the essence of poetry, both of which necessarily transcend the particularity of the object under investigation. The structure that makes poetry comprehensible is explicitly not poetry. The practice is similar to the model of psychoanalytic theory in that the wakeful scientist-cum-interpreter stands apart from the various distortions of the dream-work, in order to render the incomprehensible comprehensible. Accordingly, the singular experience of art must find its truth outside itself in the abstract categories of understanding.


The weaknesses of a demarcation between poetics and poetry along the lines of science and art are acutely recognized by literary theorists working in the wake of formalist and structuralist methods. First and foremost, any systematic division between poetry and poetics is based on the presumption that the particularities of a poem must be subsumed under the general concepts of theory if they are to communicate intelligibly. This view holds that abstractions alone give meaning to the singular event of the text. Invariably, these approaches lead to either a naïve optimism or a barren skepticism: the interpreter is either applauded for discovering and transmitting some hidden significance of a poetic work of art or denounced for proffering illusory interpretations that are merely subjectively imposed structures whose actual existence in the text remains highly questionable. On a more fundamental level, the distinction between a scientific poetics and a nonscientific (artistic) poetry relies on the untenable belief that poetic language can readily be separated from nonpoetic usage. As Jacques Derrida has shown, throughout the history of Western metaphysics philosophy persistently has made every effort to deny its participation in a language that it shares uncomfortably with poetic and literary texts. Philosophy tries to disavow a metaphorical use of language that necessarily compromises its aspirations to conclusions that are purely scientific, not contingent on history or culture, and therefore universally applicable. Deconstruction works to reveal that all language is metaphorical, that all science is art, that every poetics is poetry.

The dissolution of these barriers is already recognizable in the Greek word technē, which ambiguously denotes both science and art. Insofar as it is a technē, poetics shares with poetry the capacity to produce. Aristotle thereby brought out the artistic element of poetics as well as the scientific element of poetry, by considering both as modes of production. Just as Sophocles was responsible for producing Oedipus Tyrannus, so Aristotle saw himself as producing statements or judgments about it. Even in granting the fundamental distinctions between the scientific, investigative approach of one and the inventive, creative intent of the other, Aristotle suggests it is necessary to maintain this essential similarity.

That said, it is important to remember that although Aristotle does not posit poetry and poetics as opposites, he does in fact oppose poetry to history. It is history and not poetry that should be understood as the presentation of the particular. Poetry, by contrast, is philosophical, more interested in universals. If it is true that poetics performs a creative role comparable to poetry, then it is also true that poetry participates in the philosophical, abstracting project of poetics. In other words, Aristotle does not so much turn the philosophical project of poetics into poetry as transform poetry itself, in all its uniqueness, into a kind of philosophy. On this basis it is simple to see how Aristotelianism came to underwrite centuries of normative poetics. Precisely because poetics is a productive science, it has been capable of serving as a guide for the poet. Poetics operates not only in the realm of theory but in that of practice as well.

Romanticism may offer an alternative conclusion, namely that as production poetics itself should be construed as poetry. As Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) demonstrates in his study on the concept of criticism in Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829), both the artwork and the attendant theory must exhibit a creative impulse. Contrary to the formalist conclusion, Romantic theoreticians would deny the nonpoetic access to the poetic. In Lyceum Fragment 117, Schlegel adheres to the broadest ramifications of the word technē; when he collapses any distinction between art and science: "A critical judgment which is not itself a work of art has no citizen's rights in the realm of art" (p. 319).

For the historian and the poet do not differ by speaking either in meters or without meters.… But they differ in this: the one speaks of what has come to be while the other speaks of what sort would come to be. Therefore poiêsis is more philosophic and of more stature than history. For poetry speaks rather of the general things while history speaks of the particular things.

SOURCE: Aristotle, On Poetics, 1451b.

Hermeneutics, reception theory, and new readings.

The poetic response to poetry established by Romantic theory underpins one of the greatest achievements of Romantic philosophy, namely hermeneutics as elaborated by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). By emphasizing the role of the reader in the production of a text's meaning, Schleiermacher prepared the way for later theoreticians of reading, particularly those associated with reader response. Reader-response theory identifies, describes, and gathers together a variety of reader types into a general theory of reception. Wolfgang Iser, for example, overrides the New Critical neglect of the reader's role—once branded the "affective fallacy" by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley (1954)—when he grounds interpretation in the ever-shifting and inexhaustibly complicated experience of reading itself.

Deconstructive critics go even further. They radicalize the idea of the reader by voiding any promise of discovering a stable meaning within the text. Exposed to an apparently infinite universe of readerly forces, the poem or literary work puts into play textual energies impossible to foresee or control. At best, as Paul de Man has suggested, the literary critic may attend to the text's rhetorical properties: not what textual content might mean, but rather how meaning is produced. It is when such fresh and sophisticated investigations are focused on the construction of meaning that poetic theory becomes especially applicable to intellectual and political debates. Feminist criticism, queer studies, and postcolonial studies all build on rhetorical training in an essential way. The politically focused work of Susan Bordo and Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's advance in queer theory, and studies in postcolonialism sparked by theorists like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha all provide crucial approaches and speculative models to culture with its variegated materials. The political ramifications of poetic theory are no more clearly revealed than in Aristotle's formulation that poetry liberates us from the actual by presenting us with the possible. No longer in thrall to "what has come to be," we become open to "what would come to be." At least potentially, every poetics speaks in the optative mood.



Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Aristotle. On Poetics. Translated by Seth Benardete and Michael Davis. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine's Press, 2002. An updated and accurate translation, with useful notes on details of Greek terminology and syntax.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism." In Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 116–200. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Blanchot, Maurice. The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays. Translated by Lydia Davis. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1981.

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Jakobson, Roman. "Linguistics and Poetics." In Style in Language, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, 350–377. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1960.

Plato. Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford.: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Schlegel, Friedrich. "Critical Fragments." In Theory as Practice: A Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writings, edited by Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Wimsatt, W. K. Jr. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954. Features two preliminary essays coauthored with M. C. Beardsley.


Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. A critical survey of contemporary poetic theories.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Features exemplary deconstructive and rhetorical readings.

DoleΩel, Lubomír. Occidental Poetics: Tradition and Progress. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Discusses contemporary poetic theories in relation to the broader history of philosophy, linguistics, and semiotics.

Leitch, Vincent et al. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. A comprehensive selection of primary texts from antiquity to the modern day, with brief informative essays introducing each author.

Preminger, Alex, and T. V. F. Brogan, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. An excellent guide to key terms and topics throughout the history of the field, with good bibliographical references.

Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. 3rd rev. ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. First published in 1949, this study remains a standard work.

John T. Hamilton

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