How can you read Poetics? Let me count the ways.
You can read Poetics as a student of history: the history of literature, and the history of thinking about literature. Or you can read Poetics as a contemporary writer seeking advice on what constitutes good literature. Given that Poetics is just 40 pages long – 26 succinct chapters, organised in logical sequence – you can read it anyhow, but you should read it somehow.
Poetics commences by discussing two genres of literature written in verse (thus its title): (a) epic poetry, the highest literary genre of a former age, and (b) tragic drama, the ditto of Aristotle’s age. Some of this preliminary discussion may be irrelevant to the modern writer strictly seeking writing advice: for, given the delimited themes of Classical/Hellenistic tragic drama, this genre’s dramatic devices are also limited. Aristotle explains, and ranks in a hierarchy, types of plot (simple vs. complex), and dramatic devices such as “recognition” of one character in his/her true identity by another. Aristotle’s discussion of these tropes will interest students of history; but has little technical relevance to mainstream contemporary writers practising the tropes of various contemporary genres.
Most of the rest of this treatise is relevant to contemporary writers: e.g. Aristotle’s stipulation that unity of plot is indispensable. How does the writer know whether an incident/subplot is relevant to the plot as a whole? Poetics offers a test still relevant: “A thing whose presence or absence makes no difference to the whole is not an organic part of the whole… Episodic plots are the worst: where episodes succeed one another without any connection.” Aristotle opposes subplots in general: “The ‘double plot’ is reckoned the best by spectators, but that is ignorance. In reality, the ‘single plot’ is the best.” This privileging of singularity characterises many leading classical Greek thinkers: from idealist Plato to pragmatist Aristotle. The idea that, in a good story, any subplot should either further the main plot, or find the nearest exit – remains a valid principle.
Some of Aristotle’s other axioms may irk contemporary readers wary of attempts at classifying artworks – and characters – as ‘high’ or ‘low’. But, judgment suspended, you may discover useful principles here: and reword them in politically correct language. Aristotle’s observation that ‘high’ (more noble) characters tend to animate tragedy, and ‘low’ (less noble) characters comedy – holds true for literature written down to our age.
While studying Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in secondary school, we watched several filmed dramatisations. One ongoing debate in our literature class was whether protagonist Willy Loman should be tall or short. The idea was that tragedy is something that can befall only a noble character, with above-average attributes and aspirations (represented in visual media via height – but also, and very commonly, via beauty). Even in our democratic age, when we pretend that one’s origins don’t matter***, one’s character still does: making one more or less suitable as a tragic protagonist. This axiom, which Poetics captures, continues to underlie contemporary understandings of the relationship between plot and character across literary genres.
(***In reality, where and to whom one is born does still matter, strongly influencing outcomes from achievement to criminal behaviour to life expectancy. Access to opportunity remains shockingly unequal on every geographical scale from continent to neighbourhood.)
Aristotle explains this link between high characters and tragedy. The emotions central to tragedy are pity and fear: and only some characters can inspire these particular feelings. For “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune; fear, by the misfortune of one who is like ourselves.” ‘Unmerited’ misfortune cannot befall a vile character: thus the requirement for a tragic protagonist to be a higher type. The character must also ‘like ourselves’ – he must have both good and bad. Thus Aristotle’s further edict: “The archetype of tragedy is a man whose character is between the two extremes of goodness and badness; more precisely, with more good than bad. His misfortune is caused not by vice, but by error or frailty.”
But all this analysis of high vs. low characters flows from Aristotle’s axiom that pity and fear are the emotions central to tragedy. Why not other emotions? Aristotle briefly dispenses with the candidate emotions of terror and shock, observing that a work foregrounding these emotions doesn’t fit the tragic genre. This distinction, too, has persisted: in the two millennia since Poetics, ‘Horror’ and ‘Drama’ have developed along well-demarcated trajectories.
The poet’s subject is life itself; the poet’s art lies in imitation. “The poet must imitate life, but ennoble it.” Here’s another principle that’s persisted: though in popular more than in literary art, with the latter being more accommodating of protagonists not conventionally likable or admirable. Explicitly, Aristotle’s prescription that the writer ‘ennoble’ character mean that he/she must elevate character. Implicitly, the reader draws the connection to Aristotle’s other edict that ‘a good plot is singular.’ Just as a good plot is singular, a character in a work of art cannot be shown in the full variety that characterises real-life human beings. The reader then interprets the edict about ‘ennobling’ a character in a dual sense: (a) elevating the tragic protagonist above the average of real human beings; and (b) ‘ennobling’ in the sense of highlighting those characteristics relevant to the plot, and suppressing or muting others.
Nobility, in this sense of ‘being marked by one, or a few, cardinal traits,’ remains characteristic of effective characterisation in contemporary literature. You and I would find it easy to describe, in one or two words, a character from a well-written novel. The same task, applied to a real person – whether lifelong spouse or casual acquaintance – becomes much harder. This, in a modern sense, I take to be the relevance and of Aristotle’s edicts on the singularity of a good plot and the ‘nobility’ (clarity and focus) of a good character.
Aristotle admits the necessity of good staging, and of the interludes of dance and music prescribed in the highly ritualised festival-time setting in which classical Greeks produced play. But he warns the writer against relying for dramatic effect exclusively on spectacle, stage wizardry, and ‘scenes of suffering.’ The emotions of pity and fear should, instead, “flow directly from the plot itself.” Another sound recommendation: don’t avoid ‘colour,’ but remember that the main interest of your story must come from the story itself.
In its fleeting length, Poetics offers and explains further rules still useful to contemporary writers: (i) outlining the plot before commencing composition; (ii) visualising every scene, including characters’ relative positions (a much easier task for classical Athenian dramatists, who couldn’t afford more than two or three main characters onstage simultaneously, besides the chorus); and (iii) experiencing a character’s emotion before composing his/her lines.
On this latter note, Aristotle briefly evokes the persistent association between creativity and madness: “Poetry implies either a happy gift of nature, or a strain of madness. In the one case, a man can take the mould of any character. In the other, he is lifted out of his proper self.”
It is to the sane writer, with his/her ‘happy gift’ for the poet’s art of imitation, that Aristotle makes his recommendation of putting themselves into a character’s shoes before writing about them.