The Aesthetic and the Poetic

May 1, 2015 – Culture

The aesthetic and the poetic have had a close relationship throughout history, with poetics having often been seen as a subfield of aesthetics. They can be viewed as opposite ways of thinking about the arts, but are also intertwined and overlap. Aesthetics is predominantly understood as being interested in what visual art is, while poetics on the other hand is understood as being interested in poetry. However both are simply different modes of seeing and thinking. Neither should be concerned with a particular art. Both aesthetics and poetics should be open to a cross over between arts. This essay proposes a particular poetics using theories developed by the philosophers Georg Gadamer and Richard Kearney.

As noted above the aesthetic is related to the visual. The aesthetic deals not just with beauty, but with the sublime, the grotesque and the uncanny. Aesthetics is seen as a philosophy of taste, it tends to detach itself from understanding art on a deeper level. There seems to be two kinds of views on aesthetics. Firstly aesthetics has been seen as the enjoyment and pleasure received from objects and secondly as a type of knowledge received from objects.

The philosopher Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method (1960) writes about aesthetics as a type of knowledge. He explains what he believes the aesthetic experience leaves out ‘what it ignores are the extra-aesthetic elements that cling to it, such as purpose, function, the significance of its content’. Gadamer then proceeds to explain why aesthetics is a type of knowledge. It could be suggested though, that what he begins to reveal is a form of poetics rather than aesthetics. He crosses over from one to the other when he begins to see artwork as a being that acts and that changes the person who experiences it. He is no longer dealing with the surface of the artwork or the viewer as consumer of the artwork. Gadamer embroils the viewer into the process of the artwork. In Truth and Method Gadamer leaves aesthetics and enters into poetics. However this is an example of how aesthetics and poetics overlap forming a grey area. Regardless of this grey area, aesthetics views art as passive or static, as something to be looked at, not to engage with, while poetics sees art in a different light, as participatory.

Plato and many other thinkers throughout history believed poetry to be a productive act.  According to the philosopher Richard Kearney in Poetics of Modernity: Toward a Hermeneutic Imagination (1995) this productive act produces ‘something beyond itself’. This ‘something’ is Being itself. The poetic act produces possibilities or potentials for being. Producing poetic things such as poems or paintings is the production of variations on how we as human beings might be. The philosopher Martin Heidegger believed our being-in-the-world can be seen as a possibility rather than just an actuality, we can exist in past, present and future. The poetic act enables us to imagine this past, present and future.

The poetic act seems linked to the act of imagining. Imaginations relation to the poetic act was discussed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who wrote on the phenomenological imagination. Kearney in Poetics of Imagining: Modern and Postmodern (1998) speaks about imagination, ‘Phenomenology* formally disclosed its [imagination’s] function as a dynamic and constitutive act of intentionality that imagination was fully freed from its inherited conceptual constraints’ (1998, Kearney, p.13). The imagination is a conscious and intentional act. The poetic is the potential of what this act could be. Phenomenology allows imagination to be ‘a power capable of intending the unreal as if it were real, the absent as if it were present, the possible as if it were actual’. If the imagination is the power, then the poetic is the capability of this power. The poetic is the dynamic act constantly in flux, constantly projecting potential images and producing possibilities in your mind.

This difficulty in detaching the poetic from imagination can be helped by reducing the amount of different imaginations the poetic can be attached to. Kearney speaks about how Gaston Bachelard divides the imagination in two, into the Material Imagination and the Dynamic Imagination. The dynamic imagination is the kind associated with the poetic. The dynamic

‘harbours within itself a certain diversity or contradictoriness; and this means that it foments movement and becoming even as it approaches mobility and rest…It strives continually to subject matter to motion…all forms are furnished with perpetual movement. One cannot imagine a sphere without having it turn’.

This dynamic will-to-movement is the part of an imagined image or thing that makes it poetic. The poetic is the will-to-movement.

When an artwork is experienced it isn’t static, a viewer reacts to an artwork, therefore the artwork must act, it isn’t just the artist that acts. The poetic act once freed from its creator still must act through the artwork or the poem. Gadamer describes the artwork as a being that plays. This suggests that the poetic act has a life of its own beyond the individual who set it in motion. When a viewer or a reader experiences an artwork or a poem, they take up the poetic act and imagine the art as they want to. The image is the genesis of the poetic act. This poetic imagining is perpetual, as the artwork or poem could be experienced countless times in a plethora of different ways. ‘The movement of playing has no goal that brings it to an end; rather it renews itself in constant repetition’. Thus the poetic act is unending.

Thus, the poetic can be concisely defined as a dynamic unending act constantly in flux that projects potential images and produces possibilities – it is both a will-to-movement and the movement itself of an image in the imagination.

  • * ‘Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object.’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Words: Róisín Power Hackett

Image: Conor Nolan and Emma Simpson