The Music and Language of Good Drama: Reflecting on “The Poetics of Aristotle – I”

Aristotle by Nick in exsilio

About a week ago, I messaged a former professor of theater from Hanover that I was completing a short story I thought could be adapted as a play.  He offered me some helpful recommendations – one of which was to read “The Poetics of Aristotle” (Butler translation).  Through the magic of the Internet, I found it for free as an e-book at The Project Gutenberg.

I was also pleasantly surprised that this classic work is divided into 26 easily digestible sections.  My plan is to reproduce them here, adding brief reflections on how this wisdom might impact my work and close with a few questions for you to consider how it might influence yours.

The Poetics begins…

I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each; to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.

“Poetry” here equates more broadly today to drama on stage or screen.  The principles contained in this work could equally apply to a play, a movie, even an operatic production.  They will certainly help me as I consider adapting my short story trilogy into a script and/or screenplay.

Poetics continues –

     Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic: poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however, from one another in three respects,— the medium, the objects, the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.

A few definitions would be in order here for those who either haven’t studied theater or, like me, can’t remember what they learned 30 years ago.

Epic Poetry – long poems, typically derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation.

Tragedy  – A type of drama in which the characters experience reversals of fortune, usually for the worse

Comedy – A type of drama in which the characters experience reversals of fortune, usually for the better

Dithyrambic (adj. form of dithyramb – a wild choral hymn of ancient Greece, especially one dedicated to Dionysus; a passionate or inflated speech, poem, or other writing.

As I reflect on these, I would say my story is a tragi-comic epic poem (that may have dithyrambic elements).  It looks like I have my hands full.

Back to Aristotle –

For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit, imitate and represent various objects through the medium of colour and form, or again by the voice; so in the arts above mentioned, taken as a whole, the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or ‘harmony,’ either singly or combined.

Thus in the music of the flute and of the lyre, “harmony” and rhythm alone are employed; also in other arts, such as that of the shepherd’s pipe, which are essentially similar to these.  In dancing, rhythm alone is used without “harmony”; for even dancing imitates character, emotion, and action, by rhythmical movement.

I’m no musician (though I did write part of a country song that appears in the story), but music plays a central role in the trilogy – from beginning to end.  You will find there everything from Biblical psalms to country classics (gospel and secular), to early rock-in-roll, folk, 80s alternative, and contemporary Christian. I have sketched out at least one dance scene and I may have some live musical performance.

More than just music in the conventional sense, however, the rhythms and cadence of the language need to harmonize for the piece to gel.  I’m happy to say with a little research today, I found just the right Bob Dylan lyrics to match the action of the scene I was writing (it wasn’t too difficult – Dylan has written more than Moses and Paul combined).

The Poetics goes on to say a little about “prose” (which, I believe, would be like a technical treatise today) and distinguishes it from “poetics”.  It then concludes this section with –

There are, again, some arts which employ all the means above mentioned,  namely, rhythm, tune, and metre.  Such are Dithyrambic and Nomic poetry, and also Tragedy and Comedy; but between them the difference is, that in the first two cases these means are all employed in combination, in the latter, now one means is employed, now another.  Such, then, are the differences of the arts with respect to the medium of imitation.

Since my work is principally tragi-comic, I take from this that I need to employ three essential ingredients  – rhythm, tune, and metre.   Yet, I can focus on them one at a time.  Again, at the risk of being pedantic, some (modern) definitions –

 rhythm- the effect created by the elements in a play, movie, or novel that relate to the temporal development of the action.

tune –  manner of utterance : intonation; specifically, phonetic modulation.

metre/meter – systematically arranged and measured rhythm in verse.

Thus far in my writing, I have focused on dialogue (with only a few gestures and setting comments added) and background music.  While I may want to add more description later, right now the dialogue is driving the action.  I’m not sure I understand the significance of the “tune”, but I by setting the story in mostly Southern Indiana within my lifetime, I have an ear for the dialect.  As for meter, I am intentionally repeating particularly meaningful phrases (like refrains) to connect the story together.

Now, it’s your turn….

How are you demonstrating “poetic” elements in what you are currently writing?

(image above – “Aristotle” from Nick in exsilio, some rights reserved)

8 thoughts on “The Music and Language of Good Drama: Reflecting on “The Poetics of Aristotle – I”

    • Okay, I looked at your poem. Is “metre” roughly the same as “beat”. Is her use of regular meter the reason you can sing many Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”? Maybe I get it after all.

  1. I’m not sure, Tony, about Emily Dickinson poems being sung to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” But you could well be correct. Please look at the first line of my poem. “Many” is unstressed, “faces” is stressed, “from different” is unstressed and “places”, which rhymes with “faces,” is stressed. I then try to repeat this pattern or flow or metre in other lines of “Seeking.” Does this help?

    • Yes, I think I get it. Basically, you establish a pattern with unstressed and stressed syllables that you maintain throughout the poem. I no expert, but this is exactly what is done with classic country and western music. Not the modern trendy Vegas country, but the classic stuff like Hank Williams, Sr.

      • Oh, yes, and so well expressed, a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables is, I think, a cogent explanation of metre. And w.r.t. C&W music, I too am far from being an expert but I do admire the music and life, tragically short though it was, of Patsy Cline.

  2. …and speaking of Bob Dylan, check out the metre on “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Whenever I listen to it I think it must have influenced a lot of rap artists, although I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like it.

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