Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Poetics by Aristotle

Last month, Simon of Savidge Reads blogged about Aristotle's Poetics. I was intrigued that, even though Simon isn't a classicist, he found this work of literary theory still relevant more than 2,000 years after its original publication. Another factor that swayed me is that the entire book is very short. The edition I read, a 19th century translation by Theodore Buckley, was only 67 pages... but I had to read some pages twice to get the meaning.

It is philosophy, so it isn't a light read, although it is manageable for the average person. The method I used was to switch back and forth between a few pages of Aristotle and a few pages of Kinky & Cosy comics. I passed a very enjoyable afternoon that way.

And what did I get out of it? There were some great passages (of course) and connections to books that I've read, and even a word for epic poetry -- épopée -- that I'd only encountered previously in the French lyrics of our Canadian national anthem. What are the chances that I'd read about a clepsydra in Five Bells by Gail Jones, and then encounter a water clock again so soon in Aristotle's advice to regulate a performance with a clepsydra?

Aristotle discusses things that continue to be debated, like the comparative merits of nonfiction versus fiction. "For an historian and a poet do not differ from each other, because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with metre, than without metre. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened. Hence, poetry is more philosophic, and more deserving of attention, than history. For poetry speaks more of universals, but history of particulars."

Another contemporary literary topic is whether or not episodic style has value. Aristotle is not a fan. He does, however, have high praise for Homer. Here is the way he shortens the Odyssey (spoiler alert): "a certain man wandering for many years, and persecuted by Neptune, and left alone. And besides this, his domestic affairs being so circumstanced, that his wealth is consumed by suitors and stratagems are plotted against his son. But driven by a tempest, he returns, and making himself known to certain persons, he attacks the suitors, and is himself saved, but destroys his enemies."

I was introduced to Aristotle as a character in Annabel Lyon's novel, The Golden Mean. It's lovely to follow this with Aristotle's own words, and to glimpse a bit of the ancient world through the eyes of a man who lived then. It was a time when writers used specific verse rhythms, depending on the type of poetry or drama that was being created. How different now, when even novelists who write in verse mostly eschew formal metres. What has not changed is the imperative to use words wisely. "But the greatest thing is to employ metaphors well. For this alone cannot be acquired from another, but it is an indication of an excellent genius; since to employ metaphors well, is to discern similitude."

My favourite quote: "Poetry is the province either of one who is naturally clever, or of one who is insane."

No comments: