A Conspectus of Poetry: Part II

Critical Inquiry 4 (2):373-396 (1977)

Abstract
When the activity depicted in a poem involves a succession of moments, it may take one of two possible forms: simple or complex. A simple activity is like a straight line; that is, it involves progression in a single direction, then in another. This changing of course, so to speak, is called a turning point or reversal. Every complex activity contains at least one such turning point; and it is possible to have a good many turning points if the action is long enough, as in an epic like the Odyssey, which in fact is full of reversals, for Odysseus or his men or those whom they encounter are always getting into danger and then out of it, or else doing something and having to produce an opposite effect to the one intended; and of course all such things are reversals. . . . Generally speaking, we feel emotions more powerfully when they come upon us unexpectedly. Unexpected good fortune seems even better than it is, unexpected misfortune even worse, by comparison with what we had expected: consequently we respond with greater emotion. Since reversals always involve something of the unexpected, the complex form of activity offers more possibility of emotional power than the simple. The reversal must be unexpected if it is to be effective, and also...it must be probable; the complex activity must therefore always contain an apparent or on-the-surface probability, which founds our expectation, and the real probability, which defeats it. The real probability must be more probable than the apparent, for otherwise we should not accept it; and it must be hidden , for otherwise we should expect it as the more probable. Part I of a "Conspectus of Poetry" appeared in the Autumn 1977 issue of Critical Inquiry. Elder Olson's contributions to Critical Inquiry are "The Poetic Process" and "On Value Judgments in the Arts"
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DOI 10.1086/447942
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