April 30, 2009

Poetic instincts

The English word poetry comes a real workhorse of a Greek word. Poesis means something like "making" and is by no means restricted to works of literature. The word shows up in all kinds of prosaic (no pun intended) contexts in the Greek language and is kind of like the Spanish word hacer, which also means to make.

It's interesting how a word of such broad usage in Greek came to have such a limited meaning in English, but I'll think about that tomorrow, as Scarlett O'Hara said.

Anyhow, the philosopher Aristotle believed that the source of poetry in the English sense of the word has its origins in human nature itself:

Poetry in general seems to have spring from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Note: he uses imitation in the broadest possible sense, which would include narrative. Both Aristotle and Plato seemed to view all arts as imitative--even music, which is something I never quite got. He goes on...

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for "harmony" and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Not too shabby. From the viewpoint of 2,400 years later, he seemed to nail it. Narrative or story seems to be hardwired into human nature and the universal sense of rhythm, which manifests itself differently in various times and places, seems to grow out of our biological heritage. Nature is one big rhythm band after all.

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