Poetics – Aristotle

I have visions of my mother seeing that I have read this and fainting, I thought I would share that image with you, at the idea of me reading something by Aristotle. I think before this last week or so the only reason I knew who Aristotle was was because my mother named one of our cats after him, see she is a classicist through and through. However recently I have been reading lots of books about how to write and why people write and the mechanics of it, both for myself as a writer and indeed as a reader. In the wonderful ‘Monkeys With Typewriters’, which I am loving reading on and off at the moment, Scarlett Thomas says that everyone should read Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ as the first, and possibly ultimate, book on writing, how to write, how books work and how to read them. So I thought I would give it a whirl.

9780140446364

Penguin Classics, paperback, c.335BCE (1996 edition), non fiction/literary theory, introduction and notes by Malcolm Heath, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Apparently Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ is the oldest surviving piece of dramatic theory on earth. That is quite something for a start really isn’t it? In twelve sections, which only span around 45 pages, Aristotle looks at, and indeed breaks down, how  and what creates the perfect play (and indeed these were in the days of c.335 BCE really acted books if you will) and why. He looks at genres, plots, characters, and language and its rhythm stage by stage – no pun intended.

I have to say I thought that I was going to be bored by this book. I couldn’t see how something about poetry would make me think about how I write (for work or for pleasure) or indeed how I read. I was wrong. What I didn’t understand, though have since discovered, is that ‘poetics’ actually translates as ‘making’ and so that is why many people say it is the first piece of literary theory. I can now see why, from the way he takes apart how characters function and plots work. I am sure we all think we know how these work already, and so it could be preaching to the converted, as we read ourselves (I know I was dubious) yet this gives a whole new slant and appreciation to the art of creating a story and one that has drive, plot and characters you empathise with.

Who knew a piece of theory could still be so relevant all these hundreds and hundreds of years later? Especially when he had no idea that novels or films (because the theories work on films too) would exist in the future though this is actually good in a way. You see I think there is always a slight danger with literary theory and with books like ‘Poetics’ that if you learn too much about the mechanics you don’t look at the machine, in my case books in general, in the same way again and so you might be put off reading. This isn’t the case with ‘Poetics’ though, how could Aristotle ruin something he didn’t know of? Plus I think he had the utmost respect for the Arts and a good old yarn itself, if done well admittedly.

I have to admit that some of the book did occasionally go over my head. It isn’t a book you can just read from cover to cover and I certainly advise, like with any book actually, you read the introduction and notes afterwards and then read it again – which at 45 pages is easily done. Some of his thoughts still don’t quite make sense to me, but then Aristotle was an incredible philosopher and I am… well… not. Plus I do think this is a book that I will revisit and gain more from each time I re-read it now and again, in fact I should have called this post ‘Poetics; First Impressions’ really shouldn’t I?

9 Comments

Filed under Aristotle, Literary Theory, Non Fiction, Penguin Classics, Review

9 responses to “Poetics – Aristotle

  1. The little I’ve read of Aristotle (for study) put me off, because some of his views were rather prejudice, but this book sounds alright. Interesting that there’s a book on writing that’s that old!

    • I think in this one his views very firmly stick to writing and all the aspects of it so he doesn’t get to be particularly prejudiced, not that I knew he was too be honest. it is just a very interesting book on what makes a good plot and characters for an audience, not that he knew it at the time.

  2. Simon, you’ve convinced me to read Aristotle. Here’s a book suggestion for you in return: The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon. It’s about Aristotle tutoring a young Alexander the Great, and it is something like Song of Achilles, which I know you liked.

  3. gaskella

    I’m sure your mother will be hugely impressed Simon🙂
    I should read more classic classics too, but am more likely to read books like ‘The Golden Mean’ which is in my TBR piles – thanks for the reminder Lindy.

    • She hasn’t mentioned it alas. I think it has gone under the radar, though I am planning on dropping it randomly into the conversation when she would least expect it next time I dine with her.

  4. I used to read literary theory now and then, but haven’t in a long time. I confess that I’ve never read Aristotle. It does sound like a section or two of this one would be very worthwhile.

    • It is so short CB that I think you would devour it in a sitting but also, and just as wonderful too, want to return to the book every now and again. I have read it twice in a few weeks now.

  5. Pingback: Is It Time For Me To Head Back To The Ancient Classics? | Savidge Reads

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