Sometimes, going back to basics is a good idea. That’s why, every once in a while, I pull from my shelf my beloved sister Judy’s faded copy of Aristotle’s Poetics and dip into it. This version has a great introduction by Francis Fergusson, a professor who taught and wrote about drama for decades. The Poetics, which was written in the fourth century B.C., is “the most fundamental study we have of the art of drama,” says Francis.
Aristotle wrote his concise classic based on watching great Greek dramas firsthand and then trying to see for himself what the writer was aiming at and how he put his play together. In a way, it’s a handbook on human psychology and because of this, it’s a terrific tool for anyone writing poetry, drama, fiction, screenplays — any work of artistic imagination that is driven by plot and characters. While some of the language can be a bit challenging, our friend Francis is a great guide. And Aristotle himself is a forceful writer.
One key question the Poetics asks is where do literature and drama spring from? Why did these unique forms of human expression arise? What needs do they serve? In a nutshell, he thinks they spring from two instincts in human nature: 1) our need for imitation and 2) our need for harmony and rhythm.
By imitation, he means that we derive pleasure from recognizing what an artist is striving to present — it satisfies our need to know and understand our own experience through the experience of others. Imitation focuses on the intellectual and moral content of a work.
Harmony and rhythm, in contrast, refer to the pleasures of form — the enjoyment and appreciation we get from the way in which a work of art is constructed — and the sense of wholeness and completion that a well-crafted plot and a well-told story offers.
Imitation, harmony, and rhythm: Something to muse upon as we go forth and write.