Recently, I've been thinking a lot about mistakes and errors. In everyday usage, these can be interchangeable, but for our purposes, they do refer to two distinct ways to get something wrong. Let's let Aristotle explain:
Within the art of poetry itself there are two kinds of faults—those which touch its essence, and those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something, [but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the error is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a wrong choice—if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, for example, or in any other art—the error is not essential to the poetry.
So: capacity versus choice. An error touches the essence, a mistake does not. "I didn't see that coming" (capacity of vision) versus "I should have seen that coming" (choice of where to cast your gaze). When I taught in Bangladesh, this distinction was particularly salient as I tried to figure out whether my students' misuses of English stemmed from not knowing the rule (an error) or from forgetting or ignoring the rule (a mistake).
This became even more complicated with my poetry students. What is an error in English might not touch, as Aristotle puts it, the essence of the poem. In yesterday's post, I printed two poems by one of my students. The idioms are not always standard. She writes, "I want to leave here but I had lost myself in deep of darkness."
Would a native English speaker use this idiom instead of "in the depths of darkness?" Or, in the first poem, the line "steal my accompany" instead of "companion," when referring to the shadow stolen by the sun? Probably not, and so much the worse. There is something essentially right about using "accompany" as a noun for "that which accompanies me," given that "accompaniment" sounds too cold and still and "companion" too warm and human. The poem is cool; the shadow is between thing and being.
A poem and a mistake. My students knew exile. Not only were they away from their homes, among sudden peers of many different faiths, nationalities, backgrounds, but some of them had spent part of their childhood as refugees. We read lots of poems about exile and foreignness. For them, language was already estranged from habit and custom. It would be an error to think there is no room for a mistake in a poem.
Originally from Atlanta, Amy McDaniel is the author of the poetry chapbook, Selected Adult Lessons (Agnes Fox Press). Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in The Agriculture Reader, h_ngm_n, RealPoetik, Tin House, Alimentum, Saveur, PANK, and elsewhere.