Friday, December 19, 2008

Aimless Reading: The A's, Part 19 (Hellenic Interlude 1.1)

Aristotle
The Rhetoric and The Poetics


Can you tell I was educated by the Jesuits?

I am sure I also bought this in college, but I think I may have done so to read it on my own, thinking it might teach me something useful about writing poetry. It didn't, but it does have some useful ideas for thinking about poetry and poetics in the abstract. I imagine an orator might also find something useful in the rhetoric.

Here's a passage from The Poetics:

From what we have said it will be seen that the poet's function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse -- you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.

It's interesting that as late as Aristotle there is still some question about the distinction to be made between a historian and a poet, the two positions having at one time had a similar purpose, that is, to transmit the heroic deeds of the past from one generation to the next, utilizing rhyme as a kind of mnemonic to do so (were poets the original ISA's?).

It's hard to say, not reading Greek, exactly what Aristotle's position would be towards the function of poetry (or art, for that matter) in the modern era. He does seem to suggest that poetry looks toward the possible, i.e., the future or the new, which would be a very-avant-garde argument. On the other hand, he may not be suggesting the future so much as some kind of static concept of the universal -- that is, that what is probable and/or necessary is essentially unchanging, regardless of historical context. My nose tells me his position is closer to the latter.

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