Wednesday, March 21, 2007


The relation of beauty (of an image) to its model is such that beauty is in the image as well as in what it is an image of. From this one may conclude that beauty is two-fold... an image is said to be beautiful when it is well painted, and also it gives a good representation of the object.
- St. Bonaventure

According to Bonaventure, then, beauty involves both construction ("well painted") and mimesis ("representation of the object"). Aquinas later specified three elements of such beauty : integrity (wholeness, perfection), proportion (consonance), and clarity (brightness). As Heywood Maginnis points out (in his book Painting in the Age of Giotto), there is another element which underwrites all these and which the two Scholastics do not mention : invention, or originality.

As is well known, the logical architecture of Aquinas stemmed from Aristotle. I noted in an earlier essay ("Art and Ethos") how the Chicago Critics of the mid-20th century drew on two important Aristotelian approaches : first, his method of empirical analysis, which begins with the unique integrity of individual objects, and distinguishes carefully between the object itself and the different tools of analysis and classification used to investigate its various aspects; second, his concept of aesthetic form (in the Poetics) - which can be understood as the opposite of the current received notion. For Aristotle, the form of the poem is the configured whole, the conceptual-intelligible shape or trail left by the action represented (in dramatic poetry, this would be the plot). Nowadays we tend to assume that form involves the rhetorical surface aspects of the poem : diction, figuration, stanzaic design, etc. For Aristotle, such verbal surface is the matter (the building materials). What we today tend to call content (the subject-matter, the plot) is what Aristotle thinks of as form. Applying this Aristotelian perspective was one way the Chicago Critics tried to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, the New Critics, and to ground poetics on a broader critical foundation.

What would happen if these various elements were combined and applied in a sustained way toward contemporary poetry? They imply a sort of sculptural sense : substantial, dimensional. Concept and action shape the wholeness of the form; language, rhetoric and design contribute to that wholeness, but they don't identify or define the work. Applied retrospectively to the "golden age" of the early Moderns (American poetry from Whitman and Dickinson to about 1950), they would foreground the unique excellences (and limitations) - the particular originality and quiddity represented in the work of those poets.

In contrast, today's poets and critics seem to inhabit a sort of Flatland environment. Differences in style and approach are assigned (by both poets and critics) to the historico-genetic development of rival groups and schools. The mannerisms of each school fulfill the same role as brands do in marketing - quick identifiers, amenable to snap evaluation. Style and form are surface elements - artificial literary dialects, as a matter of fact, which can be absorbed by osmosis in the various MFA programs tending in one direction or another.

And what would happen to poetry, if such "sculptural" elements were part of the poet's awareness and practice? The Aristotelian concept of integrity as a "whole action" - a complete conceptual/enacted gesture - brings to mind the live sculpture of dance. But the masks of stylistic dialects - what we think of as opposing trends or schools in American poetry - are insufficient in themselves; the masque should be informed by plot, and by plot's thematic resonance.

If we think of the poem as a three-dimensional object, and the poet as a maker rather than a performer, then our concept of the poet's social role begins to shift as well. If we relegate the surface elements to the poem's matter, and think of the poem's formal integrity as its thematic-mimetic wholeness, its conceptual gesture - then we are starting to move in the direction of rhetorical moderation. That is, the surface elements of style and manner are moderated, subsumed and synthesized by a more general aim. The poet's literary-mimetic action is analogous to other kinds of social action, and participates in the spheres of shared history and culture. This sounds obvious; but it does not seem so obvious how current (and contrary) assumptions about the role of the poet (ie. as an inspired medium of aesthetic self-expression, or as an experimental participant in collective stylistics) fulfill the architectonic, thematic gesture as outlined by Aristotle and the Chicago School.

A 3-D poetics, in which form equals (narrative or conceptual-thematic) plot - by way of a middle style, capable of absorbing and reflecting all kinds of discourses and events - would confirm affinities between the artistic gesture of the poem and the multifarious aspects of the world. The aim of the poet as maker would be to frame such makings, so as to explore and engage that world as fully and accurately as possible.