Poetics is the theory and forms of poetry. That ought to be a reasonably straight-forward and acceptable definition excepting that it includes a form of the word being defined – something considered bad practice in providing definitions. So let’s get all the forms of the word out on display for consideration: Poetry. Poetics. Poesy. Poem. Poet. These are all inter-connected words revolving around a common concept. Poetry is the field; Poetics (or poesy) is the discipline or practice; a poem is the product; a poet is the individual practitioner.
Sources state that the term poetics comes from the Greek word poiein (or poein), meaning “to make”. It is a short hop from that Greek root to concepts of composition – literally the making of words and making of meanings. Presumably a scholar of Greek language could authoritatively explain how poiein breaks down into its root and suffixes. Where poiesis is the Greek word for bringing something into being , one finds that poie (or possibly poe) is the most probable Greek root for creating or making.
Clearly this etymology does not demonstrate the narrowing of poiesis to a specific focus on composing words in an artful way. That categorization is traceable to Aristotle. In his Aesthetics, the word Poetics is used for the section focused on dramatic literary theory. Aristotle’s work is, at least within European academic boundaries, an opportunity to establish a point at which the various forms of the word poem came to specifically indicate literary composition. Aristotle narrowed the definition of poetry from a broad sense of making specifically to using language to imitate.
For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit, imitate and represent various objects through the medium of color and form, or again by the voice; so in the arts above mentioned, taken as a whole, the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or ‘harmony,’ either singly or combined.
Also buried within Aristotle’s categorization is the seed of separating verse from prose – given that other sections of the Aesthetics deal with rhetoric and politics. Consider this short statement (drawn, as above, from the Internet Classics Archives translation by S.H. Butchser) which suggests that poetry is differentiated from other writing through forms;
there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.
Clearly, this is all a roundabout way to say…poetics is the field which encompasses the theory and art of verse composition. It is the making of words and meanings in an artful way.
The writing, reading or study of poetry is not a field which has generated great wealth for many people. Time spent on it is likely to leave a person vulnerable to painful, even when not mean-spirited, criticism. So why is poetry a good and valuable literary pursuit?
For Matthew Zapruder, “a poem presents itself as a kind of real-time movement of thinking, down the page, which the reader can enter, and follow. This can feel like something between watching a movie and listening to a someone think out loud.” This view of poetry can be an accurate description of a reader’s experience of a poem. This accurate description is not, however, limited to poetry. A substantially similar argument can be made for an essay or a grocery list. A strong defense of poetry requires presentation of features, functions or characteristics unique to poetry when compared with other written forms.
Poetry is a fundamental and continuous part of human language-based communication. In preliterate societies, poetry was used to conserve and communicate valued information. By rendering information in easy-to-remember and aesthetically pleasing forms, it was retained. Poetic devices and structural elements such as rhyme, rhythm, meter and layout continue to be used to increase retention and recall.
Poetry is a fundamentally social literary form. Poetry relies on established and shared word-meanings and cultural referents. It is collaborative to the extent that a poet must draw on the resources of the communal language in addition to their own personal craft and creativity to compose. Poets rarely own words – they borrow them from the communal language. When poets do create words, they typically draw on existing language and associations to build the new meaning they wish to convey.
Poetry is the most minimalist of literary forms. This is true in several ways. As implied by the preceding two paragraphs, poetry requires only 2 resources: language, a poet. Poetry is also minimalist in form insofar is it typically attempts to condense meaning into fewer, and better chosen words. Haiku is perhaps the most minimalist tradition of poetry.
Poetry is a key form of communication for the future. Despite academic, highly-stylized and experimental (avant garde) poetics, which tend to alienate people from poetry, poetry remains a leading literary form. The lyrics of popular music are a genre of poetry. Corporate slogans may be considered a genre of poetry.
The composition of poetry is a discipline which requires focus, precision, aesthetic judgement, imagination and an appreciation of the shared communal resource that is language. These are skills which support and develop communication skills. In a global cultural environment where more and more information is common and open (i.e. communal), the ability to convey information concisely, accurately and memorably becomes a competitive value.
References and Citations
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- Original draft: June 28, 2018
- Updated July 2, 2018
- Updated August 20, 2018
- Updated October 21, 2018