• Nicola @ PoetSpot

Full Throttle Aristotle

Hello my lovely readers!

You've probably heard of this Aristotle guy, right? Ancient Greek philosopher? Student of Socrates? Probably on your World History tests in high school and/or college? Yup, that's the guy. We know about Aristotle because of his contributions to philosophy and science; however, we can actually thank ol' Ari for some of the ways in which we look at works of poetry today. Back in 330 B.C., Aristotle crafted a series of lectures based around literary theory called "Poetics". In these lectures, Aristotle identified and analyzed the six key components of literature, specifically drama and tragedy:

1. Plot

2. Character

3. Thought

4. Diction

5. Music

6. Spectacle

You're probably thinking, "Now wait a minute, Nicola! These components don't necessarily sound like they fit in with poetry." Let me remind you, dear reader, that during this time in ancient Greece a lot of the literature WAS poetry. Stories and plays were written in a form that are now known as Epic Poems, or an extraordinarily long narrative poem (here's looking at you, "Odyssey" and "Iliad"). So even though our poetry "looks" different than it did thousands of years ago, we can still apply what Aristotle is saying to our own poems today.

Let's start with Plot.

According to Aristotle, plot is "the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy". The same can be said for poetry! In order for a plot to be "whole", in Aristotle's terms, it needs to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The end also must not be thrown together willy-nilly, and let the poem end purposefully.

But can a poem have a beginning, middle, and end? Why yes!

Beginning of a poem: We are introduced to the speaker. The speaker has agency, and talks the reader through the narrative situation.

Middle of a poem: There is a shift or change in ideas, topics, or feelings. This is called the "volta."

End of a poem: The speaker comes to some sort of resolution. Everything going on in the narrative situation might not be entirely clear to the speaker, but it should end in a way that makes sense for the content and length.

Of course not every poem follows this format. This is just to show how poems can have a plot.

Up next, we have Character.

Here's where Aristotle and I don't see eye-to-eye. I'm getting heated just thinking about it, honestly.

In not so many words, characters according to Aristotle must follow four rules: they must be morally good, they must aim at propriety, they must be true to life, and they must be consistent.

1. Speakers in a poem do not have to be morally good. Because poems are based off of personal experience, they can be however they want. We're letting people live their lives in 2020.

2. When talking about propriety, Aristotle said, "There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate." I think every female character on Game of Thrones would like to disagree.

3. A poem can be true to life, true to experience, and true to self. But if you want to write your experience from the perspective of your kitchen chair, you should be able to do so as well. As long as it is YOUR experience (there's some leeway with docupoetics that we will touch on down the road).

4. Is anyone ever really 100% consistent? Characters (like the people they're based off of) are meant to grow and develop. But I guess you're not ready to have that conversation, are you Aristotle?

*mic drop*

Third and fourth go hand-in-hand: Diction and Thought.

Aristotle describes thought as the ways in which a writer proves or disproves a point to evoke an emotional response from the reader. So, what are you trying to say in your work? What kind of a response are you hoping to get from your readers?

Diction is broken down into eight essential parts: letter, syllable, conjunction, article, noun, verb, case, and speech. Because most of the storytelling and plays were delivered orally in ancient Greece, Aristotle is talking about spoken language here. Where are my spoken word poets? It's your time to shine! Utilizing the parts of speech, the choice of words and phrases, and enunciation in spoken word poetry all comes back to diction.

Fifth we have Music.

While Aristotle really doesn't go out of his way to really explain what he means by music, I'd like to think that he means the meter or rythmn of the poem. When a poem has a consistent, or near-consistent meter, the reader can follow the poem along in their head. Or it can be fun to read aloud as well! I'm specifically thinking of Carroll's "Jabberwocky" or Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death".

Last but certainly not least, there is Spectacle.

Aristotle really doesn't touch upon this one too much either surprisingly. However, context clues can tell us that he is talking about the magnitude of a poem. That awe-inspiring, goosebumps, eureka moment where the poet accomplished what they wanted to, and the reader can see it. A poet can build spectacle by utilizing all of the tasty little morsels above, and more aspects of poetics! Being able to identify these tools and use them in your own work will help you create that goosebumps moment for your reader. You may have even felt it yourself while writing! It will allow your reader to connect with you on a more personal level, and maybe even say, "Yeah, that's how it is for me too."


"A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language."

- W.H. Auden

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