Poetic Thought for the Day (8/28/2014): Aristotle’s Poetics & Plot

I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.
– Aristotle, Poetics

Aristotle was one of the first to actually begin documenting the structure and types of poetry into what would become in standard parlance: Poetics. He examines its “first principles” telling us there are two causes for the origin of poetry. The first is imitation because we learn imitation and helps with learning; and, secondly, to have an easier time of seeing truths, he then identifies its genres and basic elements. His analysis of tragedy constitutes the core of the discussion. Of course ever since he wrote down his Poetics poets, philosophers, essayists, and just about everyone who has ever chimed in on it has diverged from this classic in one way or another.

I take that one line where he tells us “the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem” as my thought for the day. Almost all great poems seem to have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end or denouement. Yet, in this they can diverge drastically in language, rhythm, and melody. The plot is basically built out of a “structure of incidents” (actions). Key elements of the plot are reversals, recognition, and suffering. The best plot should be “complex” (i.e. involve a change of fortune). It should imitate actions arousing fear and pity (Aristotle). Thus it should proceed from good fortune to bad and involve a high degree of suffering for the protagonist, usually involving physical harm or death. For Aristotle actions should be logical and follow naturally from actions that precede them. They will be more satisfying to the audience if they come about by surprise or seeming coincidence and are only afterward seen as plausible, even necessary. Aristotle would also tell us that when a character is unfortunate by reversal(s) of fortune (perepipetia  known today in pop culture as a plot twist), at first he suffers (pathos) and then he can realize (anagnorisis) the cause of his misery or a way to be released from the misery.

After Aristotle set this out the world of poets, philosophers, and anyone else who thought they had an idea about plot has argued with this one major philosopher. Yet, they all start with him and his Poetics.

That’s my thought of the day!

Read it online right here: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html


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