CriticaLink | Aristotle: Poetics | Guide to Book I

Aristotle begins his discussion by establishing a general definition of poetry–a broad category including all forms of literary production and performance recognized in Aristotle's time–and by distinguishing among different genres of literary production and performance.

The essential feature of all forms of poetry is they are all modes of imitation or mimesis. Artistotle identifies three aspects in which poetic genres can be distinguished from each other: the medium through which they present their imitation, the objects of imitation, and the mode or manner of the imitation. The remainder of Book I is devoted to a discussion of the different media of imitation; Book II treats the objects of imitation and Book III discusses the mode of imitation.

The Medium of Imitation
The three basic media which Aristotle recognizes are rhythm, language, and harmony. He proceeds to categorize different arts based on the medium or media they use. Music combines both rhythm and harmony, while dance uses only the rhythmical movement of the dancers to convey its message.

When Aristotle turns to the arts that use language alone, we glimpse a formative moment in the history of literary genres. Aristotle addresses the phenomenon of texts written expressly as texts, without musical accompaniment, and acknowledges a certain indecision about how to categorize the different kinds of texts of this nature. Later in the Poetics he will provide an extended discussion of the epic, using Homer's work as an example, which will resolve some of the problems he indicates here.

Aristotle's description of the problematic of classification is one of the first formulations of a set of questions that continues to occupy literary theorists: what is literature? what is the nature of the "literary"? how do we distinguish between "literary" and "non-literary" uses of language?

Book I concludes with a brief mention of those genres which use a combination of the three media. These include dithyrambic poetry (lyric poetry performed in song and dance as a tribute to the god Dionysus), nomic poetry (also choral lyrics, performed in praise of Apollo and other gods), and the dramatic genres of tragedy and comedy, in which the chorus conveys the elements of the play's text in song and dance.