Poetry and Poetics

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In the fourth century b.c.e. Aristotle (384322) successfully founded the discipline of poetics both by accepting poetry as suitable for rational analysis and by setting up the main terms of debate that still define the field today. Issues of genre, representation, decorum, interpretation, aesthetic evaluation, and what might be considered the essence of literary language are all broached in Aristotle's remarkable treatise On Poetics. Moreover, since he described this art or skill (technē ) as concerned with what may happen as opposed to what has happened with possibility, probability, or necessity rather than mere actuality (1451b)the topic has been consistently attractive to philosophical investigation. Unmarred by the contingencies or accidents that characterize historiography, poetry may serve as a privileged area for philosophical reflection. Long before the eighteenth century developed a rigorous theory of aesthetics, Aristotle outlined the conceptual space wherein poetry and philosophy could enter into a fruitful and mutually enlightening dialogue.


As a science of interpretation, poetics has consistently been concerned with delineating its proper field of study ("What is a poetic text?") and then subdividing it into genres ("What kind of poetic text is under consideration and what interpretive approaches does it select?").

Classical poetics.

Although classical writers on the subject of literary types failed to formulate a comprehensive system of genres, they did fix certain distinctions that would continue to play a rolefirst prescriptive, then descriptivein the Western poetic tradition. To begin with, the term poetics as Aristotle defined it exclusively pertains to literary works composed in verse. The verse form, however, is a less important criterion than the notion of poiēsis, which perhaps would be best understood as "fiction." While it was common practice in antiquity to present scientific material in verse form, Aristotle decisively limited the term poetry to fictional representations. Homer is a poet; Empedocles is not (1447b). Prose, which was then restricted to oratory, historiography, and Aristotle's own manner of philosophical discourse, belongs instead to the realm of rhetoric. The fact that Aristotle neglected to account for the fictional use of prose, for example, in the fable, is already an indication of his general lack of comprehensiveness.

In a similarly broad move, Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) had divided all literary genres into two primary categories: poetic representations by way of described action, as in epic poetry; and representations by way of impersonated action, as in drama. When Plato was faced with the fact that Homeric epic in fact employs both modes of representation, the philosopher added the "mixed mode," where the related action alternates between straight narrative and re-created dialogue (392394). The existence of what we would call lyric poetry (for example, iambic poetry, elegy, melic poetry, or choral odes) is vaguely acknowledged by Plato in Book 10 of the Republic, but only to be condemned as beautifully contrived falsehoods passed off as truth. Aristotle, whose explicit intention at the beginning of On Poetics is to give an account of "poetry in itself and its kinds or forms [ eidē ]" (1447a), summarily abandons a discussion of lyric composition by reverting to Plato's fundamental division between narration and impersonated dialogue.

This persistent lacuna, however, hardly played a role in the development of European poetics. The crucial point rather is that both Plato and Aristotle insisted that poetry is an art of representation or imitation (mimēsis ). Placed alongside a nascent theory of genre, the idea of mimesis introduces the important issue of decorum (what is appropriate for certain characters to say or do in certain situations). An ancient concern for genre thereby anticipated one of the fundamental tenets of later formalism, namely that representational content is inseparable from representational form. With the identification and accumulation of more poetic forms in Latin treatises such as Horace's Ars poetica and Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, classical genre theory could be further codified to serve as a system of prescriptive rules for composition as well as for the critic's evaluation.

Neoclassicism and its critics.

The rediscovery of Aristotle's On Poetics in the sixteenth century gave rise to a fresh and impassioned interest in codifying a system of poetic forms. In addition to debates on the viability of particular "mixed forms," for example, Giovanni Guarini's scandalous defense of his tragicomedy, Il pastor fido (1590; The faithful shepherd), this period established the doctrine of the three "unities" of time, place, and action, which would have a decisive influence on dramatic productions well into the eighteenth century. Lodovico Castelvetro's seminal commentary on Aristotle's Poetics (1570) is the key source of much of the normative poetics promulgated by European Neoclassicism. Another high point is Nicolas Boileau's elaborate typology, outlined in his Art poétique (1674), where the fundamental categories of epic and drama (both tragic and comic) are joined by the pastoral poem, the elegy, the ode, the epigram, and satire. As is generally the case with neoclassical movements, the rationale for such divisions as well as the demand that each genre remain distinct from the others are proffered as self-evident and entirely natural. Twentieth-century critics of ideology, for example, Fredric Jameson, will argue that it is precisely this naturalness that indicates that all genre theories reinforce the hegemonic order. The hierarchies of generic explication and their attendant ideals of decorum dictate the relations between the high, middle, and low spheres and thereby have deep implications for societal and political organization.

Although Romanticism rejected the authoritarian conventions prescribed by Neoclassicism, poets of the late eighteenth century, particularly in Germany, seem to have recognized the importance of literary form in relation to content. Genre is how poetry specifically transforms the actual into the possible. Friedrich Hölderlin (17701843), for example, developed an elaborate genre system to underwrite his experiments on the long Pindaric ode. In his fragmentary essay, "Über die verschiednen Arten, zu dichten" (c. 1800; On the different ways to compose poetry), he combines genre theory and a kind of ontological decorum by detecting a "proper" and "improper" tone in the constitution of the three major poetic modes: the natural, the heroic, and the ideal, which correspond respectively to lyric, epic, and drama. Literary genres became associated with the epistemological concerns opened up by the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant (17241804). Here, traditional approaches to genre-criticism contributed to new models for explaining how we give form to the world around us.

Contemporary issues.

Although the idea of using prescriptive norms for poetic composition had been entirely discredited by the close of the eighteenth century, this does not mean that theories of genre no longer contributed to discussions of poetics. Although Benedetto Croce (18661952) in his Aesthetics (1902) persuasively argued that all genre designations were mere abstractions disrespectful of the artwork's uniqueness, there has been no lack of theoreticians who have recognized the benefits of generic descriptions for the study of literature. Accordingly, genre criticism has yielded to notions of intertextuality, where, as in the famous remark by T. S. Eliot (18881965), a poet's individual voice is determined only in relation to the preceding tradition of forms or conventions. Northrop Frye, who outlines an altogether elaborate system of literary archetypes in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), similarly approaches literary history with an eye toward broad, organizational patterns. Structuralist accounts, which in many respects respond to Frye's archetypal criticism, essentially replace the term genre with code. The work of Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gérard Genette, for example, demonstrates the continued usefulness of generic criticism, especially when the notion of genre assumes a more provisional and aspectual quality. Even postmodern theorists of écriture féminine (feminine writing), which explicitly claim to transgress all interpretive laws, as in the work of Hélène Cixous, should be regarded as perpetuating discussions of genre, however idiosyncratically. This is the case even when generic boundaries serve as the target of critique, as in theories of gender and sexuality, for example in the work of Judith Butler.


Since Aristotle, poetic theory has oscillated between two distince tendencies: the desire to formulate philosophical statement aimed at describing the essential elements of poetry; and the equally prevalent desire to make aesthetic judgments capable of evaluating a given poetic work. Both strands work together to define the basic project of interpretation.

Philosophy and aesthetic judgment.

Evident throughout Aristotle's Poetics is an oscillation between two distinct tendencies: the desire to formulate philosophical statements aimed at describing the essential elements of poetry; and the equally prevalent desire to make aesthetic judgments capable of evaluating a given poetic work. Aristotle assumes the twin roles of theorist and critic. Certainly the theoretical emphasis on mimesis establishes the criterion for critical evaluation. Once representation is posited as the defining term for poetry, the question that always arises is: How well has the artist portrayed the real? If one accepts Plato's ontological division between a realm of transcendent Forms and the physical reality that merely copies them, then poetic mimesis is a doubly weak version, being a mere copy of a copy, "two steps removed from Truth" (10.602c).

If, however, like Aristotle, one construes mimesis as something creative rather than passive, as something that represents human actions rather than physical objects, then one can judge how effectively the poet has presented a new realitya possible worldalbeit on the basis of the actual. Already, then, in this quarrel between Plato and Aristotle, one can see the divide, persistent throughout the centuries, between those who demand poetry's adherence to a referent in the world and those who appreciate poetry's capacity to be self-referential.

Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790) is the first sustained attempt to reconcile the claims of philosophical description with the declarations of subjective evaluation. By grounding the judgment of the beautiful entirely in a nonutilitarian, "disinterested pleasure," Kant arrives at his goal of a subjective universal, which solves the inevitable problem of any poetic theory: How can the unique qualities of a poem (poiesis singularis ) withstand the abstracting, de-individualizing forces of conceptual understanding (mathesis universalis ) ? Kant's aesthetics, which successfully delimits a space for a nonconceptual mode of philosophizing, thereby becomes a foundational text for Western poetics, first through Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Friedrich Schiller, and then in twentieth-century aesthetics devoted to the intricate relations between content and form.

Representation and expression.

Whereas the experience of the beautiful is firmly based on notions of representation, Kant's discussion of the sublime takes place precisely where representation breaks down. An increasing attention to the ancient treatise On the Sublime, falsely attributed to Longinus (fourth century c.e.), brought along a new understanding of literature not strictly as a mimesis of the external world but rather as an expression of something internal. The title of M. H. Abrams's extensive study The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) concisely marks the transition from a classical poetics of representation to a Romantic theory of expression, where, in the words of William Wordsworth (17701850), poetry became "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798). Accordingly, the trend at the beginning of the nineteenth century to emphasize expression over representation paralleled the privilege given to lyric poetry over epic. This new preference reflected the general turn to concerns about subjectivity, which had come to define the post-Kantian philosophical environment. As might be expected, the fresh subjectivism brought a rekindled interest in notions of affect, consciousness, and emotion, all of which acted as a corrective to what was now viewed as the excessively one-sided objectivism of the Aristotelian tradition.

Expressivist theories of literature extended well past Romantic schools and informed a good deal of twentieth-century poetics. Theories of the preverbal or nondiscursive origins of art belong to this tradition, be it in the psychoanalytic-semiotic investigations of Julia Kristeva or the nearly Heideggerian meditations of Maurice Blanchot, where the work of art is but the finite expression of an otherwise inaccessible, original experience. In this respect, Orpheus is Blanchot's paradigmatic poet precisely because Eurydice disappears in his backward gaze: what is always missing from the work of art is its origin.

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 languageits "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 (18791940), who attacked the formalists' neglect of the historical, social, and economic conditions of literature. For Trotskyand this point would be championed by later Marxist criticsthe 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 (18571913) 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 (18921940) demonstrates in his study on the concept of criticism in Friedrich von Schlegel (17721829), 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 (17681834). 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 roleonce 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.

See also Aesthetics ; Literary Criticism ; Literature ; Rhetoric .



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: 19131926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 116200. 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, 350377. 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