Aristotle is always refreshingly plain on any subject. So it ‘s easy to forget he invented entire disciplines; the first known thinker to frame or classify a number of them. Which makes his clarity and brevity all the more remarkable. And all this in 350 BC.

Among his intellectual inventions was the first setting out of the principles of ‘Poetics’, covering drama, tragedy and a lost volume on comedy.

Here (fractionally abbreviated) he explains the origins and evolution of ‘poetry’:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes:

First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry, myth and tragedy played important roles in Ancient Greece. According to Nietzsche they were instrumental in maintaining the vitality and optimism of Ancient Greek culture. Poetry, myth and tragedy also captured the distilled essence of Ancient history. As Aristotle famously said:

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history. For poetry expresses the universal and history only the particular.

As I seek the ‘relevant complexity’ of reading and writing more, I’ve come to enjoy the turns of phrase of past times. I’m not arguing for Chaucer in the original – life’s too short. But the thundering prose of the King James Bible or a decent translation of Aristotle, for example.

Having learnt that ‘plot’ is everything in poetry, I largely fell for Aristotle’s ‘Poetics‘ based on one line:

The getting-up of the spectacle is more a matter for the costumier than the poet.

I’ve quoted this at work a few times, to point out the job at hand is to focus substance not spin; the reality not the presentation. But sometimes you really do have to get the right version of a great text – here’s a more leaden modern translation of my favourite ‘Poetics’ quote:

The production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.

Too much stage-machinist and not enough poet in this translation.

Drawing on Aristotle, I have concluded that the job of the poet, is to say something transcendent and universal about the human condition in no fewer or more words than are needed.

And this is liberating, inclusive and motivating – because it means we can all be poets. It’s less about the rhyme and more about the story, more how it makes you feel, than whether anyone else likes it. Poetry is for our own doing and doodling, not just the respectful reading and appreciating of others. If it works for you, it works full stop.

Csikszentmihilyi’s advice is to read a piece of poetry every day. Personally, I’d never much cared for poetry until more recent years. But, as he says and I’ve discovered, a poem is a simple and rewarding pleasure. It doesn’t take much. Just five minutes and a poem or two at bedtime; and mood and life can be subtlety and magically enhanced.

Perhaps poetry is less central to modern culture. But at it’s best it is an amalgam of both courage and skill. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti said in 1958:

Constantly risking absurdity, whenever he performs above the heads of his audience, the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime.

It also connects the sublime with the ridiculous in the human condition. In the words of Carl Sandburg in 1928:

Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.

But poetry can still bring happiness, fulfilment and an opportunity to develop our natural gifts – till our ‘rude improvisations’ give birth to our own poetry. It worked for the Greeks.


Required Reading:

Aristotle’s Poetics

Ingram Bywater’s masterful 1920 OUP translation free on Project Gutenberg, no stage-machinists here.

The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry

Great American and British poems of the last 500 years, curated by Christopher Burns.

Homer’s Odyssey

Yorkshire’s finest, Simon Armitage brings Homer’s epic Odyssey back to life with a modern classic of a retelling.


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