What is poetics?

How is it useful to me?

How do I describe my unique voice?

1) What is poetics?

“The aim of literary criticism, to parody Marx, is to describe writing; the purpose of poetics is to change it.” Robert Sheppard, The Necessity of Poetics

Aristotle’s Poetics (Greek: Περὶ ποιητικῆς, c. 335 BCE) is the earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory and the first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory. In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls “poetry” (a term which in Greek literally means “making” and in this context includes drama—comedy, tragedy, and the satyr play—as well as lyric poetry, epic poetry, and the dithyramb).

Since that time poetics has focussed on the writing of poetry and come to its current definition:



  1. The art of writing poetry.
  2. Writing that deals with the art of poetry or presents a theory of poetry or literary discourse.

It has been of particular importance in Western poetry in the creation of new movements and significant changes to the Canon. Poetics is often misunderstood and confused with literary criticism. It is a completely different form of discourse.

Let’s look at a few examples of well known poetics:

  • ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ Robert Frost
  • ‘It is life that we are trying to get at in poetry.’ Wallace Stevens
  • ‘Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound – long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which is like instrumental colour in music. Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life.’ Basil Bunting
  • ‘The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.’ Dylan Thomas

Robert Sheppard – The Necessity of Poetics

In the essay, Sheppard offers a variety of different ideas on the theme (my notes in italics):

  • Poetics are the products of the process of reflection upon writings, and upon the act of writing, gathering from the past and from others, speculatively casting into the future.

In other words, poetics states how your writing relates to all the writing that has gone before and will come after – you position yourself in relationship to the Canon (see also T.S Eliott on tradition)

  • Poetics is a writer-centred, self-organising activity.

Poetics is a way for the writer to understand what they are doing and to plan their future course.

  • Poetics is a way of letting writers question what they think they know.

By stating why YOU write, what you expect the reader to feel, how you fit into the poetic landscape you may find that your work is doing something unexpected/not doing what you had hoped

  • Poetics, to take it back to Aristotle, where the category began, is distinguished from theoria or praxis, theory or practice, in the primacy of its activity of making. Poetics is the active questioning, since that time, about how does, how should, how could, art be made. 
  • Poetics is a secondary discourse, but is not “after the event”; it doesn’t simply react to making. The making can change the poetics; the poetics can change the making. 
  • Poetics is born of a crisis – the need to change.
  • Poetics has a history as long as writing, because writing has always changed
  • Poetics may be textually specific; or it might not be so focussed, not least of all because the “examples” of which it speaks may not yet (and may never) exist.
  • Poetics is a prospectus of work to be done, that might involve a summary of work already done.
  • Poetics “answers” are provisional, its trajectory nomadic, its positions temporary and strategic.
  • Poetics is more concerned with form than with content, but will not respect that boundary.
  • One reason to make your poetics public is to test it, to build a community of writers, or of risk. But the manifesto may be its gateway or its trap.
  • Poetics may mismatch the writing that results. It is not necessarily a ground plan.
  • Some poetics contain a goodly portion of gobbledegook; it may be a strategy to get texts moving, to get the writer creatively into spaces that otherwise might not be accessed, or to divert attention away from the creative act.
  • Poetics steals from anywhere.
  • Poetics can never offer readings of the writer’s literary works. He or she cannot read his or her own work as a critic.
  • Poetics, of necessity, makes its practitioners creative readers as well as writers.
  • Poetics doesn’t always call itself poetics.
  • Poetics is mercurial enough for writers to not know that they are producing it, to think that they are constructing something else: a letter, a preface, an apology, a defence, an essay, a memo, a diary entry, even an art work, a manifesto, a job application, a lecture, a description of somebody else’s poetics, a conference paper, a witty aphorism, an anthology, an editorial, a biography of the mind, a questionnaire, being tape interviewed, having a drink, making comments between reading texts to a creative writing group, dreaming, reading a book, summarising Western metaphysics on the back of an envelope, pillow talk . . .
  • Writers who say they have no poetics should logically find no continuity between any of their existent texts, but also no change. That they do is the inauguration of the discursive practice of poetics.


Returning to the definition of poetics, what does the poetry do to the reader?

Does the poetry seek to shock/provoke, provide an example of beauty, seek to illustrate a ‘truth’, a moment of intense communication, experiment with sound/language on a formal level, offer a mirror or give voice to the silenced?

Does the poetry engage with contemporary social/political issues, or ignore them?

Does the poetry speak to an elitist, small audience (less than 500)? Or does it speak to/strengthen communities?

What drove the poet to make this work?


2) How is it useful to me?

Those who have attended visual arts school will know that artists are required to present a ‘credo’ or poetics with each new piece. Why they made it, how, what they expect it will do to the audience, how it will fit into the existing body of art past/present, how it challenges/changes/expands on this, how it fits into the existing marketplace. This is one reason visual artists are much more able to engage with a greater audience, critics and consumers (i.e. state the ‘value’ of their own work)

Benefits of having a poetics/stating it:

  • If you don’t know where you are, you won’t know where you’re going or when you get there. Or, you may not realise that you are repeating the same collection over and over again.
  • If you are trying to change the poetic landscape this gives you the opportunity to re-write it and alter it.
  • It forces your readers/critics to read your poetry within the framework you have set. If you are trying to do something radically new, it minimises the chances of being misread – even if you are misread it will be within the framework you have selected. Poetic manifestos and credos have been the cornerstones of many major forces of change.

(The negative side is that if you make a claim and don’t live up to it, you’re open to attack with nowhere to hide).

  • It can be seen as a gift to your reader,  a guiding hand into new territories.
  • It allows you to build a community of poets who have the same beliefs – this may be important if you are seeking to alter the existing poetry landscape.
  • It may inspire you to take a new creative direction and can be a creative impulse on its own.
  • It is a gift to other poets/artists in exploring the why and how of your method of making art (it is always specific to you and your work which is its central beauty).
  • It allows you to understand the value of your own work and helps others to see it.

Nathalie Teitler