- Jonathan CullerJonathan CullerDepartments of English and Comparative Literature, Cornell University
The term poetics designates both a field of study and the practice of a particular author or group of authors. Aristotle’s Poetics, the most important work of literary theory in the Western tradition, undertakes to describe in systematic fashion the major forms of literature, the components of each, and how these elements contribute to the effects desired. Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that there is a comprehensive structure of knowledge attainable about poetry, which is not the experience of poetry, but poetics. Such a poetics treats literature as an autonomous object of knowledge, whose major genres or forms it seeks to analyze. This is an explicit poetics; but we also speak of the poetics implicit in the work of an individual writer, or of a group of writers, or of the literature of an era, as in The Poetics of Dante’s Paradiso, or even The Poetics of Postmodernism, which focus on the characteristic techniques, compositional habits, and ways of treating subjects in the literary practice under consideration. As the latter title indicates, the term poetics is used even when the literature treated does not include much poetry. Poetics can be distinguished from literary history, in that it focuses on literature as a system of possibilities rather than as a historical sequence or a practice in history, although categories from poetics will be important for any study of the evolution of literature. In literary theory, poetics is set apart for concentrating on intrinsic characteristics of literature as a system, as opposed to treating it as a phenomenon to be explained in social, historical, economic, or psychological terms. Poetics is particularly distinguished from hermeneutics or interpretation, in that it does not attempt to determine the meaning of literary works but asks how they function: What are characteristics of different literary genres and their constituents? How do their various elements work together to produce the effects they do for readers? Many contributions to the theory of literature can be seen as contributions to poetics, insofar as they try to explain the nature of literature and describe some of its major forms, even if they are presented as arguments about the literary practice of a particular period or literary mode. Western poetics begins with Aristotle, whose poetics is based on drama: literature is defined an imitation of action, in which plot is central. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, by contrast, foundational poetics have been drawn from lyric poetry and have focused on affect and expression rather than on representation. In the history of Western poetics mimesis has remained fundamental, despite changes that, from time to time, treat literature as the expression of the experience of the author or the attempt to create certain experiences for the reader.