Culture Magazine

The New Critics: Beyond Understanding Brooks and Warren

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
It goes without saying that the New Critics have had a strong influence on the practice of literary criticism in the American academy. Obviously thought it is, I’m saying it anyhow. But their influence on me has only been indirect. I’ve only read bits and pieces of their work, and that pretty much after I’d learned my basic critical craft.
After reading Nicholas Gaskill’s excellent article, The Close and the Concrete: Aesthetic Formalism in Context (NLH 47, Autumn 2016, 505-524), I’ve decided to take a closer look, but not at their theoretical and methodological writing. They gained their purchase on the American academy through pedagogy that was embodied in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry, a collection of poems and notes intended for the undergraduate classroom. Accordingly, I picked up a copy of the first edition, published in 1938. This particular copy had belonged to one Eleanor Duncan and was printed in 1944, near the end of World War II and thus subject to “regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials”.
The book opens with a “LETTER TO THE TEACHER”. Here’s how that letter begins:
This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are:
1. Paraphrase of logical and narrative content. 2. Study of biographical and historical materials. 3. Inspirational and didactic interpretation.
Of course, paraphrase may be necessary as a preliminary step in the reading of a poem, and a study of the biographical and historical background may do much to clarify interpretation; but these things should be considered as means and not as ends. And though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem in itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.
When, as a matter of fact, an attempt is made to treat the poem as an object in itself, the result very often is, on the one hand, the vaguest sort of impressionistic comment, or on the other, the study of certain technical aspects of the poem, metrics for instance, in isolation from other aspects and from the total intention.
The phrase, “should be considered as means and not as ends”, that’s Kant, no?
What I hadn’t quite realized until I read Gaskill’s article, though it seems obvious in retrospect, is that the New Critical effort is one of cultural and conceptual construction. They are attempting to create what it means to “grasp the poem as a literary construct” as though that had not been done before, as though, prior to the second quarter of the twentieth century, no one knew how to do that.
Really, no one knew how to do that? You mean we’ve been saying, singing, intoning, writing, and reading poems for millennia and we didn’t know what they were? How silly.
Well, yes, no, and its complicated. But what the New Critics seem to have been up to is creating “the” proper way to render a poem into discursive prose. It’s a tricky thing they’re attempting. Brooks and Warren begin their letter by observing the “temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering.” And so they offer rules and tips and tricks for how one is to properly study a poem. How do they prevent others from using their advice as a way of creating a new and more sophisticated substitute for the poem itself?
When, two or three decades later, literary critics talk of their explicit written critical interpretations as mere reading, are they not offering them, in effect, as substitutes for the poem itself? As soon as the question is asked it’s obvious that they’ll answer “of course, not, we’re just calling attention to the poem itself.” Well, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. I’m not at all convinced.
As Gaskill notes (513):
We have reached a real riddle for literary criticism: if a poem is an experience and thus cannot be grasped through any statements about it, and if criticism seeks to understand the meaning of the poem, how can critics achieve their purpose? How can they elucidate the poem through statements about it? And how are their claims verified? The New Critics were not always clear on these points, and yet to understand their approach we must remember that they did not see themselves as engaged in the business of interpretation, where interpretation means forming beliefs about what a poem means. Instead, as Brooks states in the very first of his formalist “articles of faith,” published as “My Credo” in the Kenyon Review (1951), “literary criticism is a description and an evaluation of its object.”
Gaskill ends that paragraph by observing, “Good criticism, like the ladder of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, should serve its purpose in getting the reader to an experience of the poem, and then be kicked away.”
Well, yes. That may be so. But however did literary culture manage to survive and even thrive without critics providing prose ladders?
I’m not at all sure to what extent “good criticism” actually leads the reader, or even the critic for that matter, to a richer experience of the poem. But I don’t believe that that is why critics write criticism. They may believe that, even sincerely so, but they write criticism because they like to write criticism. What value does the criticism have in itself? What knowledge does it afford us above and beyond whatever value it has in bringing us “closer” to the text? I’m quite sure that has value, so why not make that the point of criticism rather than getting closer to the text?
That’s not a problem for me, because I long ago stopped trying to believe that I wrote criticism as a way to bring me closer to the poem. I’m not in the business of writing Wittgensteinian disposable ladders. I write about poems – and novels and movies – because I am fascinated by them, by how they are built, and how they work. Can’t say that I much understand either of those things, but I’m working on it.
And so I have a much different approach to form. At the beginning of his article Gaskill observes (505-506):
Poems of fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter and following a particular rhyme scheme can be identified as sonnets; texts that have a particular kind of form—usually “organic” or “dynamic”—can be classed as “literature,” and so on. In either case form refers to an aspect of an object capable of being abstracted from the particular and yet helpful in coming to know something about that particular. We can call this type of form, arrived at through generalization, logical form. But when literary critics speak of the form of a particular work, they aren’t speaking of logical form; after all, the whole point is to designate something peculiar to this work and this work only. We can call this type of form, approached through the method of close reading, aesthetic form—and it is the development and utility of this kind of form that I wish to explore in this essay.
At first glance it would seem that I am interested in logical form, rather than aesthetic form. Yet when you look at my practical criticism, at my work on “Kubla Khan” or “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, to name the most obvious examples, I pay far more detailed attention to the poems themselves than the devotees of aesthetic form [1]. How is this possible?
Well it’s possible because I’m not pretending – to myself or anyone else – that my criticism is something to be thrown away in a return to the text itself. My criticism is an attempt to figure out how these things, these texts, these poems, how they work. I am utterly fascinated by literary texts. If, in the process of examining them, my writing somehow leads you to a richer experience of the text, that’s fine. But that’s secondary.
I note as well that I have something available to me that was not available to the New Critics: a rich set of disciplines devoted to the study of language and the mind. For the most part literary critics have ignored that work. To be sure, in the last 20 to 30 years we’ve seen critics looking at the newer psychologies; but those are still niche disciplines. They are not mainstream.
Mainstream criticism is still operating in the shadow of those new critics. Oh, there have been revolutions and coups; academic literary criticism likes to think it has put that old New Criticism behind it. In some ways it has, in some ways it hasn’t. The trick for the academic literary critic is to proclaim something new while never really moving out from under the shadow cast by the New Critics. As long as critics insist that writing interpretive studies is mere reading they are operating within the ambit of the New Critics. It is time that criticism move beyond such pretenses.
In the introduction to his 1975 Structuralist Poetics, Jonathan Culler imagined a type of literary study that “would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning” (p. xiv). But that never really happened, not even for Culler himself. That possibility had emerged by the beginning of the decade (the 1970s) and had disappeared by the end.
It’s time we gave poetics a chance, a poetics based in part on the new psychologies [2]. In this poetics form is the object of empirical inquiry, an inquiry that starts with description. In this it is a bit like biology, which starts with detailed descriptive understanding of life forms. It is through descriptions that one begins to understand what it is that must be explained, and gains clues on how to do that.
Of course, such a poetics is not utterly new. It’s been going on here and there for years, but always underground, in the background. It’s time to come above ground.
[1] “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003, URL: Downloadable version:
Talking with Nature in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison." PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004, URL: Downloadable version:
[2] This is my primary statement of such a poetics: Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2006, Article 060608, URL: Downloadable version:

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