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)