Poetics Part of a Larger Conversation: the Fertility of Myth and the Equivocity of the Between

Poetry is a myth, or crucial story, which is why Aristotle contrasted it to history. It inhabits the space between story and science, the matrix of the equivocal.

Myths —- or versions of them —- are sometimes written down. The written form of the myth of poetry makes it easier to talk about poetry in the abstract; we may call that ‘poetics.’ But poetics in this sense show up in the earliest Greek poems, in Homer and Hesiod.

The origins of Ancient Greek poetry did not include writing. The formal substance was myth—-story. See Gregory Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics (1990).

For us today mastering poetics is one of the jobs of the poet; and it involves making a lot of poems, so it’s easy to confuse the chicken and the egg.

Perhaps an analogy with popular music will help. A contemporary jazz musician studies music theory —- concepts about music— and learns a lot of tunes —- inside and out—- so even when he improvises he makes sense for those who know some of the tunes and how they work. The analogy with poetry is pretty close.

The Greek etymology of ‘poiesis’ means making and some people use that fact to claim that ‘making’ in the material sense is absolutely essential to poetry. Poetry is a made thing, they insist. From oral poetics we know that isn’t definitively true. If we need such a definition, perhaps we should say: Poetry is performance. Writing poems down isn’t essential. Poetics and poems share a lot of ground but remain distinct. To sum up: poetics is not restricted to poems or texts about poems. It is part of a larger conversation. So we say myth.

Myth is rooted in the sacred, the stories of gods and men. This dimension has been neglected if not denied in modern poetics. In the name of conceptual — categorical — clarity, the religious dimension may seem irrelevant. But in our contemporary awareness of the primacy of difference and otherness, a new caution has arisen. The value of ambiguity, double meanings, equivocity, polyvocalism and so on point to poetics. William Desmond speaks of the fertility of the equivocal as primary, original. Poetics has a new lease on life.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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