A Note on Poetics

This week we will be working with a distinction between two kinds of textual work: poetics and hermeneutics.1 This distinction is described well by a professor who teaches at Cornell University, Jonathan Culler, in his elegant little book Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction:

Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved. (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with this particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?) Hermeneutics, on the other hand, starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations. (61)

Most literary criticism will draw on the resources of both kinds of work when working on a text. We might be reading a short story, for example, and  identify (or sympathize) with a character we might discuss how that identification would determine the meaning of the story (hermeneutics or interpretation). At the same time, we might discuss how the language of a story creates associations that undermine a narrative point of view or how a controlling metaphor reinforces gender associations (poetics).

When you are interpreting a text to determine what a text means you are involved in hermeneutics. This kind of writing in literary studies, as Jonathan Culler reminds us, comes out of law and religion, fields in which people are working to establish authoritative legal or religious interpretation to guide action (Literary Theory 61). The other interpretive project is poetics. This kind of writing, associated with linguistics and contemporary rhetoric, sets out to examine how texts are made, as well as to account for how the structure of a text (a sonnet, for example) achieves the effects that it does. Culler describes this basic distinction well. “Taking meanings or effects as the point of departure (poetics) is fundamentally different from seeking to discover meaning (hermeneutics)” (61).

Remember that attention to how the text is put together (poetics) will help you make a persuasive case; in fact, your interpretive writing will be in part judged by how well you reach your interpretive conclusions—what you are able to do with the elements of the text you highlight and use to support your conclusion.

Note The term poetics is used to talk about the theory or principles of making poems and, more broadly, in reference to the aesthetic principles of any subject or inquiry (Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space comes to mind.) Poetics also refers to a body of writing that elaborates on these theories and principles, such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” or William Carlos Williams’ “The Poem as a Field of Action.” The term hermeneutics refers to principles employed in the interpretation (or exegesis) of religious writing or in the field of law (“legal hermeneutics”). The work often discussed in accounts of the hermeneutic tradition include Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Hans Georg Gadamer and E.D.Hirsch.

Work Cited Jonathan Culler,  Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.