Poetics by Aristotle: An essential read

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

A bust of Aristotle (384-322 BC), the early Greek philosopher and scientist. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A bust of Aristotle (384-322 BC), the early Greek philosopher and scientist. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Poetics by Aristotle is “the first surviving work devoted to literary criticism”. I was first told it was essential reading (to the point of it being an embarrassment not to have imbibed every page already) by an eccentric, older lecturer in my first week of university. I promptly descended the stairs of what was then the bargain basement of Hodges Figgis, picked up a 99 cent copy, printed on tissue-like paper, offering no introduction or explanatory notes.

Let’s just say, I didn’t get it. I had a bookmark on page three for years.

These days my Oxford World Classics edition, with its wonderful introductory essay and related excerpts at the back, is a stalwart of the two bookshelves I allow in my office, which are made up solely of favourites and necessities – because why not surround oneself with the best?

Poetics is included because that lecturer was correct – it’s an essential read, at least for anyone interested in the history of ideas, or the history of literature, or in tracing how we find ourselves here, now, with narratives as we understand them in the West (those consisting of beginnings, middles, ends, with character-types and plot twists).

Aristotle, by being the first, set down the start-point of the paradigm, which stretches like a scrawled, inky rainbow all the way across our conceptual skies to the present day. And there is, I think, no way of getting over that rainbow – forgive me – without knowing it thoroughly. By this, I mean that there’s no way to “make new” without first learning the old.

I read Poetics not because I subscribe to Aristotle’s thoughts on mimesis or the merits of art versus philosophy – nor do I happen to agree that women are inferior. I respect Aristotle’s thoughts and views and am happy, at times, to respectfully disagree. Disagreement is, for me, constructive rather than upsetting.

Aristotle shows me the way things were back then, how art was structured and conceived of and thus allows me to glimpse what, now or in the future, it could be.

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