Aristotle begins with a loose outline of what he will address in The Poetics:
a. the different kinds of poetry and the 'essential quality' of each
b. the structure necessary for a 'good poem'
c. the method in which a poem is divided into parts
d. anything else that might tangentially comes up in his address of the above topics.
But before he begins tackling these topics, Aristotle first seeks to define poetry. Poetry, as Aristotle defines it, is first and foremost a 'medium of imitation,' meaning a form of art that seeks to duplicate or represent life. Poetry can imitate life in a number of ways, by representing character, emotion, action, or even everyday objects.
Poetry, as Aristotle defines it, includes epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and music (specifically of flute, and lyre). What differentiates these kinds of poetry is the nature of their 'imitation.' He notes three differences.
1. Medium of Imitation
In general, poetry imitates life through rhythm, language, and harmony. This is more pronounced in music or dance, but even verse poetry can accomplish imitation through language alone
2. Object of Imitation
Art seeks to imitate men in action - hence the term 'drama' (dramitas, in Greek). In order to imitate men, art must either present man as 'better' than they are in life (i.e. of higher morals), as true to life, or as 'worse' than they are in life (i.e. of lower morals).
Each author has his own tendencies - Homer 'makes men better than they are,' Cleophon 'as they are', Nichochares 'worse than they are.' But more important is a general distinction that Aristotle makes between forms of drama: comedy represents men as worse then they are, tragedy as better than they are in actual life.
3. Mode of Imitation
A poet can imitate either through:
a. narration, in which he takes another personality (an omniscient 'I' watching the events 'like an observer')
b. speak in his own person, unchanged (the first-person 'I')
c. presents all his characters as living and moving before us (third-person narrator)
Continuing on from imitation, Aristotle turns to the anthropology and history of poetry. As Aristotle sees it, poetry emerged for two reasons -- 1) man's instinct to imitate things and 2) the instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm.
Once poetry emerged, it evolved in two directions. One group of poems imitated 'noble actions,' or the actions of good men. A second group of poets imitated 'the actions of meaner persons' in the form of satire. The former evolved into tragedy, the latter into epic poetry, then tragic drama.
Tragedy began as improvisation and evolved over time, through the contribution of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and others into its natural form of dramatic plot, dialogue, and iambic verse.
Comedy began as an imitation of characters 'of a lower type', meaning a representation of a defect or ugliness in character, which is not painful or destructive. Comedy was at first not taken seriously, but once plot was introduced in Sicily comedic theater, it soon grew into a respected form.
Epic poetry, finally, imitates men of noble action, like tragedy. But epic poetry only allows one kind of meter and is narrative in form. Moreover, tragedy usually confines itself to a single day, whereas epic poetry has no limits of time. Ultimately, all the elements of an epic poem are found in tragedy, but not all the elements of tragedy are found in an epic poem.
The Poetics begins quickly and efficiently, unlike a number of Aristotle's other works. Instead of laying out an argument for why the subjects merits such a discussion or an overall thesis for his investigation, he immediately lays out an outline for his work - types of poetry, structure, and division - and begins his systematic analysis.
As one critic notes, "The preliminaries are over in ten lines... Nothing is said about the purpose of the discussion, what Aristotle hopes to accomplish by it; next to nothing about method, or the views of others on poetry. But above all we miss something that stands as preface to every major work of Aristotle's [best work], namely some general statement by way of orientation..." (Else, 2). In other words, Aristotle usually presents a 'notion of the forest,' before he begins to look at the trees. But not in the Poetics.
The first three chapters of the Poetics are action-packed - nearly every line needs to be carefully dealt with, since Aristotle presents a myriad of definitions, concepts, and categories. But the first major issue is to understand involves the term 'Poetics' - what does Aristotle mean by it? Simply put, 'poetry' to Aristotle is not the final product, but the art of creating poetry. To understand this art, we must first grasp a number of important concepts.
The first is 'imitation,' which is a word used often in the Poetics. 'Imitation,' as a concept, refers to an artist's primary motivation to duplicate or capture life in some form. Imitation, furthermore, is an innate instinct, says Aristotle, that is 'implanted in man from childhood.' We use imitation not only for entertainment, but also for learning - by seeing the fortunes or misfortunes of another, they can internalize experience through vicarious living.
Aristotle also uses imitation to differentiate between tragedy and comedy. In the former, poets reveal men as better than they are - hence the tragic 'hero.' It is in this representation of man as 'better' or of 'higher morality' that we ultimately find catharsis, the release at the end of a tragedy. In comedy, however, a poet presents man as worse than he is - plagued by some defect or ugliness which ultimately takes the reader into a satiric worldview. Comedy ultimately works in a similar way to tragedy, but with opposite effect: in a tragedy, we grieve over the fate of a man who must suffer for his flaw, perhaps touched by the possibility that we too might possess this flaw. But in a comedy, we laugh at the hero's flaw, comforted by the fact that it is not ours.
Indeed, comedy and tragedy both have a moralizing effect on the audience. This is less evident in comedy, perhaps, since "comedies tend to be about bad behavior and people doing ugly, immoral, or ridiculous things." The critic Goucher explains how Aristotle solves this problem: "[Aristotle] accepted that the primary object of comedy as imitation: imitation of low characters - not morally bad, but ludicrous, ugly but not painful or destructive. He defended comedies' mimetic representation of ludicrous behavior because it would incite audiences to avoid its imitation" (Goucher 1).
Aristotle's definition of epic poetry may confuse the reader, so it is worth illuminating precisely what he means. Epic poetry is like tragedy in that it reveals man to be better than he is - but it is narrative in form, depending either on an omniscient first-person narrator, a third-person narrator, or a first-person narrating hero. A tragedy, meanwhile, involves the dialogue of two or more characters. Additionally, tragedy and epic poetry differ in length -- tragedy is confined usually to a single day, in the efforts to reveal a quick devolution of the hero. Epic poetry, meanwhile, often continues for a man's full lifetime. Ultimately it seems that tragedy grew from epic poetry, so we find all the qualities of the latter in the former, but an epic poem need not contain all the elements of a tragedy.