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A Simple Lesson from Poetics

Yesterday I re-read parts of Aristotle’s Poetics for a class I have, and as I was reading it I made a small discovery for myself. This is not a big earth shattering thing, but it’s a small realization that really opened something up for me.

First of all, it is astounding that a work created in 335 BC, 2351 years ago,  is still this potent today. The fact that Aristotle’s delve into tragedy  still very much defines essentially every piece of theater in one way or another, cannot be ignored. Poetics is a monolith.

I love Poetics (didn’t always, but I got there), yet, I think what can tend to happen to me when reading it, because this work is so monolithic, so insightful, and presents itself in a way that feels like a declaration of law, is that I forget that Aristotle is not making these decree’s in a vacuum.

Aristotle did not conjure these rules from nowhere. They did not fall from the sky. He did not descend from the mountain with stone tablets under his arms. Quite the contrary. What Aristotle did, at least in terms of process, was actually relatively simple (though no less impressive).

I think what’s important to note, is that Aristotle, in crafting these rules, is reacting to work that already exists. I know, that’s really obvious. But I think this (at least for me) is sometimes easy to forget. It is easy to forget that this work is critical engagement on the part of Aristotle.

All he’s really doing is observing a play, figuring out what it is attempting to do, finding out what tools it is using to go about accomplishing that goal, and then noting whether in his eyes it is successful in doing that. Then he does this with other plays. He cross-references. He finds the patterns. He notes the differences. From all that, he figures out how tragedy works. What it is and what it isn’t. He then synthesizes all of this into a well thought out set of rules.

That may seem like a lot, and I guess it is. But when I thought about it, all of this, this process of engagement, it’s nothing that we all can’t already do. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll venture to guess that no one will be matching what Aristotle did anytime soon (thought I suppose you never know) But I think it’s important to note that, while Poetics in itself might be a herculean task the likes of which may never be replicated, the process in which it was accomplished is something we can all do. Whether you buy into Poetics or not, the type of engagement it encourages should be applauded. It’s engagement we are all capable of, and that might be as valuable as anything to take from Poetics.




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