AskDefine | Define poetics

Dictionary Definition

poetics n : study of poetic works

Extensive Definition

Poetics refers generally to the theory of literary discourse and specifically to the theory of poetry, although some speakers use the term so broadly as to denote the concept of "theory" itself.


Scholar T.V.F. Brogan identifies three major movements in Western poetics over the past 3000 years, beginning with the formalist, objectivist Aristotelian tradition. During the romantic era, poetics tended toward expressionism and emphasized the perceiving subject. The 20th century witnessed a return to the Aristotelian paradigm, followed by trends toward metacriticality, or the establishment of a theory of poetics.
Eastern poetics developed primarily with reference to the lyric, as opposed to the mimetic George Lakoff and Mark Turner give an example of their theory of the mechanics of using extended images, not just as local figures of speech, but to create the large-scale structure of a poem.
The example they use is Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death."
Lakoff and Turner point out that we have standard metaphors in everyday speech, not especially for poets. One such metaphor, DEATH IS A JOURNEY, uses our idea of “journey,” an example of what Lakoff and Turner call a “schema.” The journey schema has “slots,” or blanks that we fill in. Mandatory slots for the journey schema are for departure point, destination, and traveler. Some optional slots are means of transportation, roadmap, roadblock, and driver or conductor.
DEATH IS A JOURNEY is a commonplace metaphor we construct from the journey schema. The schema even leaves tantalizing blanks we don’t know how to fill: What is the destination? It also suggests questions: Will the person come back? Will we meet them again when we make the same journey?
The structure of Dickinson’s poem is the way she assembles related metaphors that are not completely compatible. She maps different things to the journey schema. In the first line, LIFE IS A JOURNEY but, starting in the second line, DEATH IS A JOURNEY. She couples these two by plugging the moment of death into the “destination” slot of LIFE IS A JOURNEY, but into the “departure point” slot of DEATH IS A JOURNEY. This incompatibility is not to be viewed as a flaw. The ambiguities from multiple metaphors, along with the unanswered questions they create, are regarded as keys to the poem's creation of meaning and to its emotional effect.
The third stanza is complicated by further images:
  • The mention of the children playing recalls again the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. We travel from childhood to adulthood to old age.
  • The mention of the grain suggests the metaphor LIFE IS LIKE THE SEASONS. We start in spring. We grow, then we ripen, then we’re harvested and winter comes.
  • The mention of the setting sun suggests the metaphor LIFE IS LIKE A DAY. We start in the morning, then we go through the day, and then evening comes, and finally night falls.
These three metaphors make the same action — life — take place in three different time frames: a day, a year, a lifetime. Dickinson tucks these time scales into the journey of death that’s supposed to be eternal. Thus, in the last stanza, she resolves the poem conclusively in another metaphor: DEATH IS A FINAL DESTINATION.

Notes and references

Further reading

  • How Does a Poem Mean?
  • Discovering Poetry
  • Metre, Rhythm, and Verse Form
  • A Poet's Guide to Poetry
  • Poets on Poetry Original texts from 8 English poets before the 20th Century and from 8 20th Century Americans.
  • A Poetry Handbook
  • Rules for the Dance
  • The Sounds of Poetry
  • Figures of Speech
poetics in Bulgarian: Поетика
poetics in Danish: Poetik
poetics in German: Poetologie
poetics in French: Poétique
poetics in Korean: 시학
poetics in Norwegian: Poetikk
poetics in Finnish: Poetiikka
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