What is an aesthetic? Part 1

When one poet asks another poet what his/her aesthetic is, this meaning of aesthetic seems to be the one used (taken from the OED):

The philosophy of the beautiful or of art; a system of principles for the appreciation of the beautiful, etc.; the distinctive underlying principles of a work of art or a genre, the works of an artist, the arts of a culture, etc.

In contrast to the term “poetics,” this is a term more interested in taste, as beauty is its focus and motivator.  Consider these two definitions of poetics (again, both from the OED):

The aspect of literary criticism that deals with poetry; the branch of knowledge that deals with the techniques of poetry. Also: a treatise on poetic art, spec. that written by Aristotle.


The creative principles informing any literary, social or cultural construction, or the theoretical study of these; a theory of form.

While the terms poetics and aesthetics are not synonymous in themselves, there is some overlap between them; it seems to me that the former is interested in the functions of poetry while the latter is interested in that function generating beauty or beauty generating function.  While the term poetics does not ascribe a motivation nor goal to writing, aesthetics does.

I have heard fellow poets say, “I write to create beauty,” and, “Don’t we all write to find beauty?”  Sorry to sound like a kindergartener avoiding cooties, but something about this turns me off.

I wish to not be harsh, but such statements feel like a way of not really saying anything or saying something that inherently brings in some issues.

Not only does this sound too utopian in the sense that there is an underlying hope of unity under the banner of Beauty, but on the other hand it also privileges itself as actually capable of finding or making beauty (as implicitly compared to other things/activities).  What it is is Utopian in the sense of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia: the idealized harmony suffers absurdities; it is ultimately nonexistent.

I think that believing beauty can be “identified”—really, distinguishing one thing from another as having certain qualities that are “beautiful”—is a sad segregation with little, if any, authority.

What isn’t beauty?!  Anything could be said to be beautiful (which, perhaps, is a beauty in itself).

Beauty is subjective, is broad, resists captivity in a category of tangibles.

To simply say that one bases one’s writing on beauty is to either risk naïveté that such a statement can actually convey a sensible/meaningful assertion or is an exercise in a poetics of pure whim/of disinterest in making an assertion (as using the word “beauty” provides no specific meaning that can provide enough sense and strength to create an assertion).

Because there is a subjectivity to “beauty,” there is a subjectivity to “aesthetic.”  Although a tangible meaning is evasive, “aesthetic” is still a usable word.  It can be used, for example, in the sense that it creates a beauty or is motivated by a beauty rather than the beautiful.  Yes, still vague, but with less of a segregating quality, less of a forceful “authority” of having identified “the beautiful.”

There are many beauties.  It undermines their distinctions to consider “the Beautiful.”

But back to the triggering subject of this post: one poet asking another poet what his/her aesthetic is.  We can think of this as a way of asking, “What is your poetics?” without requiring a treatise; it is also a way of politely, respectfully conveying that in whatever writing it is that the other does, certainly it has beauty in its own right.

It is understood that there are many aesthetics; this implies understanding that there are many beauties.

My thoughts are not finished (this is part of a series), but what are your thoughts on this?  What have I overlooked or underlooked?

Make sure to continue on to Part 2 and Part 3