Aristotle’s Poetics and Epic Poetry
As of May 27, 2011, I’ve revised each book of The Parliament of Poets through Book VII, since finishing the full rough draft of the entire epic in early February. Past the half way mark of revision feels very good and inspires me to want to push on through the rest of it during the next several weeks, perhaps before the end of the summer, a readable draft of the entire book.
It was as a young poet, holed up in some rental room or house, choosing to live in poverty in order to have the time to study and write, in Detroit or in the country, none of my family or friends understanding what I was doing, that I first read Aristotle’s Poetics, some thirty-five years ago. I reread it many times, or parts of it, going back to it through the years. It is the touchstone of the literary art.
Aristotle was right, in so many ways, nowhere more than when he wrote, in the Poetics, a useful critical work, rightly revered by poets for millennia, unlike the vapid theories that have been for decades the scourge of American and English poetry:
“So from these considerations it is evident that the poet should be a maker of his plots more than of his verses, insofar as he is a poet by virtue of his imitations and what he imitates is actions.” (Tr. Gerald F. Else)
The plot presents the most formidable challenge to an epic poet, selecting the incidents and structuring the chain of events, as well as the perspective on them, the hammer in the stonemason’s hand. After long decades of pondering and searching for the Idea, a dream in the night can come as from another realm. In contrast, one thinks of Ezra Pound’s plotless, rambling attempt at epic, and other modern efforts, without exception mere series of poems, pastiche, or mock epics, though there is no reason a universal epic for our time cannot include humor and delight along with wisdom. The great epics, East and West, need not bind our hands but guide them.
And beyond sophistry, Aristotle observes, “imitation comes naturally to us, and melody and rhythm too”; talking of already ancient epic, “the soberer spirits were imitating noble actions and the actions of noble persons,” which I have always read as the rare qualities of character exemplifying humanity at its best, ideally, for instance, as with Dante’s persona, his longing for Beatrice. Further, too, I should say, the language of an epic, in our lingua franca, must be carefully chosen if it is to have any chance of reaching a global readership, of speaking to people around the globe. While not condescending to their audience, the greatest epics were simple and direct, seeking to communicate with their listeners and readers.
Of the embellishment of poetic style, Aristotle writes,
“But by far the most important thing is to be good at metaphor. This is the only part of the job that cannot be learned from others; on the contrary it is a token of high native gifts, for making good metaphors depends on perceiving the likenesses in things.”
Similarly, anthropologists have argued precisely that the distinguishing attribute of Homo sapiens is the ability for symbolic thought and metaphor. I would add metaphor comprises many levels of language and form, shading into structural devices and image, grounded in sensibility, temperament, and in that regard Aristotle is correct that metaphor can’t be learned, but lived, lived into, is a way of thinking. The prerequisites for that journey presuppose a search of the highest order.
Epic problems and their solutions lead to mimesis, imitation of things, in one of three ways: “the way they were or are; the way they are said or thought to be; the way they ought to be.” Homer and Sophocles set the best example by “portraying people as they ought to be.” Epic poetry can do no less than strive to approach their standard and is ultimately judged by its own failure and success.
Aristotle’s Poetics are as universally applicable to the greatest epics of Eastern and Asian literature as they are to those of the Western Greco-Roman and English tradition, applicable to all of world literature.