Nick Mullen

English 490

Dan White

Midterm Oct. 99

Aristotle and Fish:

Successful Poetic Compositions Based on Plot, Interpretation, and Definition


Aristotle discusses the art of poetry, its species and their character, and how it is necessary to construct plots if the poetic composition is to be successful. This poetic composition may have distinguishable characteristics from the writer's intent and from one reader to the next. This paper will describe three components for writing poetry and prose: plot (experience), interpretation, and definition by giving examples of the supporting relationship between Aristotle's text Poetics and Fish's essays Is There a Text in This Class? and Interpreting the Variorum.

Aristotle and Fish describe how words and plots are necessary to construct a meaningful composition. "Meaning is embedded in the artifact," writes Fish (p.978), and Aristotle discusses the importance of plot to describe actions, which, he states, are imitations of character. (p.49) Aristotle talks extensively about how the reader identifies to words, specifically detailing verbs, nouns, compounds, metaphors, letters, syllables, inflection, and sentence. In describing metaphor and its relationship to plot, for example, he writes, "Metaphor is the transference of a name from the object to which it has a natural application." (Aristotle, 57)

The words and plot create a meaning in the reader's mind based on the reader's own experience, interpretation, and definitions. Plots, sequence of events, and story line create a meaningful composition through experience, interpretation, and definition, which shapes one's new understanding. Fish writes: "(It would have been) necessary for the student to bring him along in a way that was finally indistinguishable from the way she would bring someone to a new knowledge, that is, by beginning with the shape of his present understanding." (Fish, 317) The result is new meaning or knowledge brought about by the reader's own interpretation.

Aristotle discusses tragedy, plots, spectacle, character, metaphor, and diction as specific parts of poetry and prose that help construct a successful plot.

"We must not seek to cling exclusively to the stories that have been handed down and about which our tragedies are usually written. It would be, indeed, to do this since the well known plots are known only to a few, but nevertheless please

everyone. . . . If the poet happens to write about things that actually occurred, he is no less the poet for that. For nothing prevents some of the things that have actually occurred from belonging to the class of the probable or possible, and it is in regard to this aspect that he is the poet of them." (p. 49)

Fish supports the species of a plot through experience: "[To make a problem of understanding significant], we regard it as evidence of an experience and then specify for that experience a meaning." (Fish, 978) In other words, Fish and Aristotle construct plots in order to create a common and meaningful experience for the reader.

Aristotle further writes about the sequence of events that create a plot and the importance of this sequence in unifying the experience:

"A plot is a unity not, as some think, merely if it is concerned with one individual, for in some of the many and infinitely varied things that happen to any one person, there is no unity. . . . Necessarily, then just as in other forms of imitation, one imitation is of one thing, so also, a plot, since it is an imitation of an action, must be an imitation of an action that is one and whole. Moreover, it is necessary that the parts of the action be put together in such a way that if any one part is transposed or removed, the whole will be disordered and disunified." (Aristotle, 48)

Plot, sequence, and unity are further a part of imitation (interpretation) and tragedy, as described in Poetics. Imitation is considered, by Aristotle, in all three components of composition being discussed here: interpretation, experience/plot, and definition. He discusses the importance of imitation using poetry, music, art, prose, rhythm, harmony, and dancing to create a meaningful plot (improvisation). "Since imitation is given to us by nature, as are harmony and rhythm (for it is apparent that meters are parts of the rhythms), men, having been naturally endowed with these gifts from the beginning and then developing them gradually, . . .finally created the art of poetry from their early improvisations." (Aristotle, 44) "Tragedy is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude. It employs language that has been artistically enhanced. . . That is, accompanied by rhythm and harmony and song." (Aristotle, 46)

Plot and imitation are further evidenced throughout Aristotle's text: "Plots are divided into the simple and the complex, for the actions of which the plots are imitations are naturally of this character. (Aristotle, 49) He goes on to say: "An action, as has been defined, continuous and unified I call simple when its change of fortune arises without reversal and recognition and complex when its change of fortune arises through recognition or reversal or both." (Aristotle, 49)

To further create a meaningful composition, Fish supports Aristotle in emphasizing the importance of definition and language embedded in experience (plot): "An infinite plurality of meanings would be a fear only if sentences existed in a state in which they were not already embedded, and had come into view as a function of some situation or other." (Fish, 307) Aristotle addresses language of the poet: "A speech is a compound, significant sound some of whose parts are significant by themselves," (Aristotle, 57) He is describing how both definition and interpretation influence the meaningful composition. He further writes, "A speech is a unity in two ways. Either it signifies one thing or it is a unity through the joining together of many speeches." (Aristotle, 57)

Fish concludes that a meaningful composition can be created communicating the writer's intent and that the reader will understand that intent:

"We see then that (1) communication does occur, despite the absence of an independent and context-free system of meanings, that (2) those who participate in this communication do so confidently rather than provisionally and that (3) while their confidence has its source in a set of beliefs, those beliefs are not individual specific or idiosyncratic but communal and conventional." (Fish, 321)

In other words, a poetic composition, which Aristotle describes as art (Aristotle, 42) and Fish as interpretation (Fish, 306), can be meaningful and have common understanding. This is despite pluralistic language and different interpretations based on the experience one brings to the text.