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week 4

Section 001 / Fall 2004 / Susan Tichy / Tuesday 7:20-10:00 / Thompson Hall 106



classical poetics & imitation  / "imitation" in the Princeton  /  affective & formalist theories

Classical Poetics & Imitation

Please read these entries in the Princeton carefully.  The following notes may help you learn to read the Princeton essays for their most cogent points -- but don't substitute this gloss for the actual texts.  As stated there, the concept of poetics itself is a Greek invention, and all the fundamental premises and conflicts of poetic theory and practice in Western culture find their roots here. I have chosen this summary introduction (rather than, say, reading all of the Poetics) so that those who have never encountered these ideas at the root before can be introduced to several of the founding texts of European poetic theory. If you have never read Aristotle's Poetics you should do so at your earliest convenience.

p.205: "The earliest criticisms were not 'literary' or aesthetic but moral and philosophical, and the issues they raised were fundamental ones, as to the truth and moral value of poetry."  Very early on, a fundamental feud was laid between poetry and philosophy, which continues today among critics and within English departments.  Shall the practice of poetry be our chief "instruction" or shall the theory of literature?

As early as the 5th c. BC we find, in Pindar, the contradiction of describing poetry as something both inspired and crafted -- along with doubts about the morality of literature.  All could agree on generalities -- that the poet's job was to instruct -- but there ended agreement.  In Aristophanes' Frogs, for example, Euripides and Aeschylus conduct a dialogue in which [p.206] "Euripides is the advocate of fully instructing mankind about the nature of historical reality, however savage, repellent, or obscene that reality may be. Aeschylus is the proponent of inspiring mankind with illustrious and ennobling ideals that lead to higher levels of achievement and existence."

By the 4th century BC, Plato, "a born poet and lover of poetry who renounced it for the higher truth of philosophy" had raised the ancient feud to its climax.  "He tends to view poetry from two quite different, perhaps incommensurate, points of view: as "inspiration" and as "imitation."  Seen inwardly...poetry is inspiration or "possession", a form of poetic madness... The reality of the experience is unquestionable; its source and value remain an enigma."  Is it irrational? subrational? or perhaps divine?  Can Eros fly to Truth?  "Meanwhile, viewed externally, in its procedures and its product, poetry appears as mimesis or "imitation" and as such falls under the ban of excommunication or at least under rigid state control. Plato's utterances about poetry exhibit a deep ambivalence which has aroused fascinated interest, but also fierce protest, ever since."  Though deeply distrustful of the morality of mimesis, his own dialogues (as Aristotle points out) are forms of mimesis, and myths (definitely mimesis) often form the climax of a Platonic argument.

Aristotle, whom the Princeton describes as a "cooler spirit," was also devoted to poetry, and he found a way around Plato's challenge to the art.  He produced a new theory of poetic structure based on a new concept of imitation not as copying of ordinary reality but as a generalized or idealized rendering of character an action.  At the climax of the reading experience, then, is the reader's pleasure in learning, in drawing inferences, and developing insights.  Thus he asserts a philosophical dimension to mimetic art.  The structure or plot of the poem, the "mythos," is its most important element, not its versifying, and its purpose is the bodying forth of the essential truth about human beings. 

It is also important to recognize that Aristotle theorized that poetry imitates not men but the actions of men.  Since his discussions are based on analyses of drama and of epic verse, action is an essential element of his understanding of the art.

Listed in descending order of importance, the other elements of making a poem are: 

  • character portrayal (ethos) 
  • thought 
  • poetic language 
  • song composition
  • spectacle
Aristotle also argues that a poetic structure should be beautiful, which requires a) unity, b) symmetry of the parts with each other and with the whole, and c) proper length. (p.207)  As to diction, the first duty is to be clear.  And it must not be "low" (i.e. it should be elevated above the daily, and marked by metaphor and ornament.)

In response to Plato's condemnation of poetry for trafficking in dangerous emotions, Aristotle argues his famous theory of "catharsis," in which pity and fear, the emotions aroused by tragedy, lead beyond themselves to a catharsis and, presumably, to insight.

Aristotle's Poetics entirely ignores lyric poetry, a much younger genre than drama or epic. It is also unclear whether the Poetics was known to his contemporaries (other than his students) after his death.  It was not discovered by Renaissance scholars until the beginning of the 16th century.

In the Hellenistic Age (3rd-1st centuries BC) the center of literary activity shifted to Alexandria.  There, every scholar worth his salt was expected to dabble in poetry and in criticism.  From many squabbles, few of which survive, posterity has rescued two key concepts: the idea of the "classic" (a Latin word for a Greek idea) and the concept of "genre." 

 (p.208) Classicism is essentially a backward-looking view of art, postulating that the great age of literature is over, and that all great models are found in the past.  It is typified by lists of poets to be read and emulated. (Ah! the MFA exam list!) [And it may also manifest as an interest in purity of form.]

The idea of genre implies that poetry comes in various "kinds," each with its own appropriate subject matter, arrangement, and style, as well as its own supreme model.  The result of too much absorption in these ideas is an obsession with style and manner at the expense of other interests.

Questions over which the Hellenic period agonized: Which is more important, subject matter or expression? which is the purpose or function of poetry, instruction or delight? and which is more essential for the poet, native genius or art?  Obviously, these questions defined poetic debate straight through the Renaissance and thereafter--they largely define it today, if you ask poets and not theorists (--who would answer, respectively: 1) there's no such thing as either; 2) neither; 3) both are functions of linguistic conditioning).  Aristotle's assertion that the objects of poetry are the universals gets fairly short shrift in these debates.  Most agree that poetry is discourse about things.  (Except those who argue there is no such thing as things.)

The most significant transmitter of Hellenistic ideas to poets of the Renaissance was Horace, a 1st century AD Italian poet.  A sharp observer of people, Horace added satire to the fold, for its instructional value, though admitting it lacked "sublimity of style" as well as anything approaching "inspiration" in the Greek sense.  Elegance, polish, hard work by the poet-craftsman, and of course an appropriate style -- these are his basics. (p.209)  They gave to his Renaissance admirers a "proud belief that poetry is an honorable and exacting craft, fit to offer serious counsel and occupy a high place in the culture of a nation."

(p.210) It is important to remember that Classical Poetics was never a connected enterprise: only a few writers' works outlasted antiquity and many were not known to each other in their own times. Plato was preserved, but not studied in his entirety until the Renaissance, and Aristotle's Poetics survived by accident among another's writings.  Some works were known only in translation -- in Arabic manuscripts, for example -- or through surviving. commentaries. 

In the middle ages poetry was classed as a branch of grammar and its study could not flourish.  To early Renaissance humanists, Horace and Latin literature were the most admired, as they embodied values of Latin style in a literature of personal glory.  Plato was drawn gradually into the debates -- sometimes on the pro-poetry side, sometimes the other. The gradual dissemination of the Poetics in the 16th century marked the beginning of widespread poetic debate in Western Europe.

The Princeton lists early essays on Poetics, written under its influence, and Raffel's From Stress to Stress includes a few excerpts on meter from 16th c. British poets. Several are available on line, including:

Puttenham: The Arte of English Poesie

Sidney: A Defence of Poesie

The Princeton's entry under "Imitation" (p.574) is excellent.  Some points from it: 

The Renaissance inherited (and reinvented for itself) three concepts of "imitation":

  • the Platonic: a copying of sensuous reality
  • the Aristotelian: a representation of the universal patterns of human behavior embodied in action
  • the Hellenistic: the imitation of canonized literary models. 
These were complicated by deviations or revisions of the given ideas, such as:
  • the neo-Platonic idea that an artist can create according to a true Idea
  • the vulgarization of Aristotle's universals into social types belonging to a particular time and place
In whatever wavering definition, imitation was a cornerstone of poetic theory and practice until around 1770, when Romantic thinkers began to define it as a derogation of the poet's integrity.  (Re-read this passage of the Princeton when we get to Romanticism.) In the 20th century, new theories of imitation have dispensed with the idea of genre and with Plato's sensual basis.  They reside in Aristotle's camp and regard imitation as a structural concept.

The Princeton presents an interesting discussion of imitation in current literary theory (p.575), a discussion in which the ancient feud is assumed to be settled once and for all -- philosophy here is serenely convinced that poetry has been vanquished from the field. It is important to observe, however, that poets discussing actual, specific poems usually do so in terms easily traced to Classical Poetics and to Romanticism.

One fundamental complication remains, however. Imitation of models has the ironic effect of demonstrating the gap between the present and the past, thus opening up a rift which the concept of Imitation itself does not recognize. This contradiction was remarked on as early as the 16th century and has shaped debates ever since. If imitation of the model is impossible and perhaps even undesirable, what exactly are you doing when you attempt it?

Plato and Aristotle stand at the head of what we now would call affective and formalist theories of literature. 
  • Affective theories (such as Plato's) concern themselves with the affects of art on the audience or public and recognize the power of the text to move the reader. They tend to disregard imitation (or technique) as a source of that power. 
  • Formalist theories (such as Aristotle's) describe the methods and techniques of literature. They tend to regard imitation (and its affects) as "a cognitive function made possible by the closure of form."
This course, obviously, is based on formalist insights into the craft of poetry. However, the two theories (affective and formalist) tend to intersect each other continuously and ironically. The most ardent "affective" poet is achieving affect by using the technique he or she scorns to discuss, while the most ardent "formalist" has no basis for judging technique except by its affect. In fact, when trying to justify a poem for the sake of its superior technique, formalists frequently resort to arguing that the audience fails to see the work's merit precisely because they are seeking in the poem the wrong affect. The history of poetry's formal evolution is marked by such skirmishes over the kind of experience the reader should desire from a poem. This is most obvious in debates around apparently sudden innovations, such as Romanticism, Futurism, Anglo-American Modernism, or Language Poetry. 

Discourse Theory is one approach that attempts to account for both form and the role of reader or audience in the production of meaning in a poem.