Jul/Aug 2009 Reviews & Interviews

The Game We Play with the Game We Play

Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism
Ed. Garrick Davis.
Swallow Press. 2008. 332 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8040-1109-9.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! R. P. Blackmur's "Lord Tennyson's Scissors: 1912-1950," the final essay in Praising It New: the best of the New Criticism, is a classic. It begins with a commonplace:

Poetry is a game we play with reality...

Of course, in 1951, when the essay was first published, this was not a commonplace at all. It has become one because the thought is so rich with implication that it became a part of our shared way of thinking about poetry.

Like all of our games poetry is fun to talk about. From such talk entire industries of commentary have sprung up around other of our favorite games. The teams and/or individual players shop for and hire the better private analysts, as well. By virtue of this critical machinery, the quality of the games and players rapidly improves. Athletes, for example, come to have less body fat, greater size and astonishing agility. Rules of the game are updated to provide the most entertainment and impact possible to the spectator.

This being the case, it might do well to remember, the next time some natural wit from among our poetry acquaintance rediscovers Blackmur's observation, that without analysis and commentary the game tends to reach its limited potential quickly and to settle into mediocrity if not perish altogether. It begins to become popular not because of its excellence but because pretty much everyone has the necessary talents to play. The audience drifts away and the players begin to "play for themselves".

For his part, Blackmur goes on to explore some of the implications of his deceptively simple observation for sixteen closely reasoned pages:

and it is the game and the play—the game by history and training, the play by instinct and need—which make it possible to catch hold of reality at all.

He first establishes why the game is vitally important and then analyses recent play: which plays offered entertainment and impact, which did not, and what specifically separated the two cases. Judgments as to the appropriateness of the content of a poem could be permitted in only the most extreme instances. He was a critic, not a politician or a philosopher. Or, for that matter, a poet: while he had on his critic's cap the poets did the creating, he did the commentating.

In Blackmur's day the commentary industry around this game of playing with reality was called the New Criticism. In his forward to Praising It New, William Logan provides the standard history in a nutshell:

New Criticism was created by a divided and often embattled group of American poets (they were almost all poets) born between 1888 and 1907—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanthe Brookes, W. K. Wimsatt, R. P. Blackmur, Yvor Winters and Kenneth Burke, less a close knit family than a quarrel of cousins and perfect strangers. To them may be added their precursors and influences, the expatriate poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, the English literary critic I. A. Richards, and Richards's brilliant student William Empson.

The most fruitful years of the movement, Logan goes on to inform us, fell between 1913 and 1963, an age dominated by science and modernist literature.

In his introduction, Garrick Davis, the editor of Praising It New, places at the beginning of his own version of that history a slim volume published in 1920 by the then minor poet T. S. Eliot. The volume was entitled The Sacred Wood and the author's forward to the second edition would advocate for critical standards with a (for him) unaccustomed directness:

...when we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing.

Poetry was to be defined as "excellent words in excellent arrangement and excellent meter." These pronouncements were quite radical for the time, and would remain so, over a decade later, when they served as a point of departure for the New Criticism. Davis quite appropriately sees Eliot's influence as crucial. Two selections from The Sacred Wood begin the anthology.

Eliot had his influences, in turn, and one is mentioned in passing in Praising It New: his professor, at Harvard, Irving Babbitt. Garrick Davis tips his hat to Babbitt as an innovator in his own right and indeed he was. More importantly, however, the radical pronouncements found in The Sacred Wood mark a partial but definite break with the then greatest American literary critic. In a later chapter, Eliot would point out that Babbitt had never been "primarily occupied with art" though he credited him with being "on the side of the artist." It is this break, then, that would influence the New Critics to come.

While Babbitt's anti-Rouseau-ism would remain with Eliot for life, it would not hijack his critical or creative work as it had his mentor's. The Sacred Wood was intended to establish him upon an independent footing. Babbitt and his allies, he suggested, were too intent upon determining the effect of an author's moral development upon the text. Eliot would be a literary critic. He would evaluate poems rather than biography.

This departure from Babbitt is likely to have taken on the particular character it did due, at least in part, to another influence. In 1910 Professor Joel E. Spingarn delivered an address, at Columbia University, entitled "The New Criticism." (Ironically, a book by the same title, published some thirty years later, by John Crowe Ransom, would be credited with officially launching the New Criticism.) The 35-page address was published in the following year. Sociological and psychological criticism only take one away from appreciating the poem itself, the author averred. It was an open attack upon English departments throughout academia:

We have done with the race, the time, the environment of a poet's work as an element of criticism. To study these phases of a work of art is to treat it as an historic or social document, and the result is a contribution to the history of culture or civilization, without primary interest for the history of art.

Regarding living poets, as well as historical, they were to be freed from the strictures of "abstract classifications of poetry":

Every poet re-expresses the universe in his own way, and every poem is a new and independent expression.

The measure of a poem was how much the reader enjoyed reading it. In the place of the old critical apparatus, Spingarn offered up a single critical standard quoted from Goethe:

What has the writer proposed to himself to do? And how far has he succeeded in carrying out his own plan?

Somehow, for all Spingarn is not supposed to be a genuine forefather of the New Criticism, the Goethe quote would be cited again and again, over the decades, as one of its first principles. The Columbia professor's rejection of the critical methods associated with Hippolyte Taine, in particular, and his rejection of Irving Babbitt's New Humanism would prove to be shared by the New Critics as well.

"The New Criticism" was republished in Spingarn's Creative Criticism: Essays on the Unity of Genius and Taste (1917). Babbitt panned the book in a review in The Nation. The ensuing dust-up between the supporters of Spingarn and of Eliot's mentor became a cause célèbre provoking comment throughout the literary world. A selection of essays bearing upon the controversy features yet another reprinting of Spingarn's "The New Criticism": the 1924 volume Criticism in America, Its Functions and Status. Also among those essays are Babbitt's review and two selections from The Sacred Wood.

When Eliot reissued The Sacred Wood, in 1928, his preface to the second edition amplified and expanded upon the differences with Babbitt that he had so diplomatically worded in the first edition—the preface, that is to say, which contains the quotes so influential for the later New Critics. Although he could only disagree with most of Spingarn's "expressionist" tract, he did agree that criticism should address the poem itself—not the poet or his or her contexts.

The history Garrick Davis provides in his introduction to Praising It New shares the same names as Logan's. Add representative names from the later generations of the New Critics (Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Hugh Kenner), and a single surprise (J. V. Cunningham), and they are the names of the authors of the 27 essays which appear in Praising It New. "It has often been remarked," Davis informs his reader,

that the New Critics do not hold together as a group, sharing as they do such disparate aims. Yet they were all united against certain deplorable tendencies in their time: principally, the use of extra-literary criteria in the judgment of poetry.

They shared one more trait with Eliot and Spingarn, as well: a tendency toward widely divergent views as to the implications of the first principles of the New Criticism. The best of the New Critics were independent thinkers. It was that independence that kept the movement vital for so many years and that eventually caused it to come apart into multiple disciplines some of which survived to compose the first fragments of today's still incongruently fragmented Contemporary Theory.

Among the luminaries, listed by Davis and Logan, who are not represented by essays in Praising It New, is I. A. Richards. (A note explains that there was insufficient space to include essays by the British New Critics.) It is not uncommon to find him forwarded as the actual father of the New Criticism. Richards was formally trained in philosophy and psychology and brought the idea of "close reading" to English literary criticism. Careful line-by-line analysis would become the essential method of the New Criticism, but, for Richards, literary criticism was properly a form of proto-psychological analysis not yet mature enough to be systematic. Poems were value statements to be evaluated scientifically, they were psychological data.

Richards was among the first prominent figures in England to forward T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" as the exceptional poem of its times. In hisPrinciples of Literary Criticism (1924) he declares that "Mr. Eliot is one of the very few poets that current conditions have not overcome". The "current conditions" referred to are those which accompanied the growing domination of modern life by the methods of science. For some years, Richards' volume was perhaps as famous as the poem it praised.

In light of this, Eliot felt it necessary also to assert, in his 1928 preface, that "certainly poetry is something over and above, and something quite different from, a collection of psychological data about the minds of poets, or about the history of an epoch". This can only be construed as a direct reply to Richards. The New Criticism, it is clear, was shot through with deep fissures even before it officially existed.

In spite of this, the 27 essays collected together in Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism display little evidence of in-fighting. Each New Critic writes as something of a lone voice. When one or another takes issue with the prevailing state of things the "they" he takes issue with is vaguely understood to be an unconverted majority of academia.

Many of the essays are now quite famous. Ezra Pound's "How to Read" was seed-work to two generations that would still be able to wield words like "great" and "canon" with an ease that is reflected in Praising It New. Each of the selections from Eliot is a classic of the genre. His "Hamlet and His Problems" introduced a new term into our literary vocabulary that is still both quietly powerful and provocative:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

From the titles of Wimsatt and Beardsley's two contributions to this volume critical theory received both "The Affective Fallacy" and "The Intentional Fallacy".

These terms are not historical artifacts. Wimsatt's and Beardsley's are still points of departure for many of the signature issues of Contemporary Theory. The fierce contemporary reaction against Eliot, his objective correlative, and all that either stands for, has kept them more vivid still. The persistent demonization of them attests to the enormous potential they retain to affect readers and dominate discourse.

Words such as "beauty" and "inspiration," on the other hand, went out of use as the New Criticism emerged. (The strongest argument against Spingarn as forefather is that he freely used many such "romantic" words against which the New Critics recoiled.) Beginning with Ezra Pound's call (in "How to Read") to "apply to the study of literature a little of the common sense that we currently apply to physics or to biology," science suggested the proper methods and ends of literary criticism. The terms of the New Criticism are more "terms" in the sense of a physics equation than any that went before. The critic's personal predilections and emotional responses were valid only insomuch as dispassionate analysis bore them out.

As a group, however, the New Critics could only be ambivalent toward the omnipresent influence of science upon the English speaking world and its cultural products. When T. S. Eliot wrote (in "The Waste Land"),

A crowd flowed over the London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

...he was describing industrial laborers on their way to work. They are "dead" because science (in the forms of industrialization, urbanization) has taken the quality of their inner lives from them. Science had wounded the Fisher King and the land had been laid waste for it. As in the Grail legends, the questing knight—the poet—must first survive the great waste land before, emerging on the far side, he is fit to begin his journey to heal the king thus healing the once fruitful land over which he rules.

I. A. Richards freely admitted, in Principles of Literary Criticism, that, for all he found the poem compelling, the overall point of "The Waste Land" eluded him. Eliot's blunt rebuke of his methods must have confused him still more. From the poet's point of view, Richards' scientific approach to poetry criticism was just one more symptom of the desacralization of the soul. Men such as Richards had failed to cross the waste land, they had succumbed.

Being a much larger and younger country than England, the two great wars being fought on the other side of vast protective oceans, and the New Criticism being dominated at first by Southern Agrarians, the crisis portrayed in Eliot's early poems was not ratified in America with the same sense of determination as his critical pronouncements. As a result, the selection from Delmore Schwartz, in Praising It New, seems shockingly out of place in the volume. In Schwartz's "The Isolation of Modern Poetry," written in 1941 (the same year that the New Criticism officially took its name), the reader finds all the seeds of a new poetry and a new criticism that will inevitably replace Modernism and the New Criticism.

Schwartz was resoundingly an urban poet and critic. (Definitions must be stretched just a bit in order to find in him a New Critic.) While he did not actively seek, he certainly accepted the end of Modernism and the New Criticism and looked forward expectantly to what would replace them. "On the one hand," he informs the reader:

...there was no room in the increasing industrialization of society for such a monster as the cultivated man; a man's taste for literature had at best nothing to do with most of the activities which constituted daily life in an industrial society. On the other hand, culture, since it could not find a place in modern life, has fed upon itself increasingly and has created its own autonomous satisfactions, removing itself further all the time from any essential part in the organic life of society.

As an American urban critic, he does not find the rush and clangor of industrial society an imposition. He is already announcing the inevitability of the decoupling of poetry from all tradition prior to Baudelaire (and most since), already deriving the causes of the reader's shortened attention span, rejecting the idea of difficulty.

Equally suggestive is what Schwartz does not offer his reader. He sees a brilliant future after Modernism:

If the enforced isolation of the poet has made dramatic and narrative poetry almost impossible, it has, on the other hand, increased the uses and powers of languages [sic] in the most amazing and the most valuable directions.

What these "uses and powers of language" are he does not so much as hint. More to the point, his thesis implies that the end of that "enforced isolation" (of that "monster," the cultivated man—whatever precisely that might mean) brings an end to that kind of remarkable progress.

In the following paragraph he does at least provide an example of one of his alleged "valuable directions". He finds a new school of poetry quite promising:

...a new school of poets has attempted to free itself from the isolation of poetry by taking society itself as the dominant subject.

This "school" can only refer to W. H. Auden and his circle or to a handful of New York Trotskyite hangers-on who had managed, during the 1930s, to publish a few forgettable poems in the Partisan Review. More likely he is expediently conflating the two.

But Auden's reputed Marxism exhibited all the ferocity and dedication of an invigorating tea-table conversation and had ended, such as it was, well before Schwartz's essay. And Schwartz's point put more bluntly (in private but never in his published work) was that Trotskyite poets would be replacing Modernist, Marxist theory replacing the New Criticism. A decidedly Modernist Auden, however, dominated English language poetry for the 20 years following (years during which, incidentally, Schwartz descended into drug and alcohol addiction and paranoia).

Nevertheless, all that Delmore Schwartz leaves unsaid in "The Isolation of Modern Poetry," it turns out, rises near to the level of prophecy. Those Trotskyite hangers-on did, in fact, constitute the initial expeditionary force of Post-Modernism. Meanwhile, the Marxist university professors who had taught them were patiently writing the books and the course prospectuses that would eventually arrive at Contemporary Theory. As for Post-Modern poetry, itself, it has gone in every direction and no direction: Beat, Confessional, Aquarian populist, Black Mountain, Writing Program, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, late-Beat, neo-Dada, Open-Mic populist, neo-Formal, Internet populist, Performance Poetry, Rap, and so on. It is arguable that, outside of compelling cries of psychotic suffering (Plath, Sexton, et alii), however, and of a miniscule portion of the flood of alternative-lifestyle poetry ("Howl"), the only evidence of a general growth in the powers of language have been an enormous increase in the use of bad-boy shock-effects and the power of political injunction.

It would not be unreasonable to say (if we may back up just a bit) that I. A. Richards is as much a forefather of Contemporary Theory as the New Criticism. As work days grew shorter, conditions better and world wars a thing of the past, the sense of cultural crisis expressed in Eliot's "The Waste Land," and the Agrarians' vague sense of unease at their genteel rural existence fading into history, were swept aside for the enticements of urbanization. Delmore Schwartz's "The Isolation of Modern Poetry" appearing as it did (as if out of nowhere the facts had suddenly become inescapable) belies just how inevitable it had been that the New Critics' ambivalence toward the scientific method, and its vast cultural implications, would meet with an overwhelming reaction.

While this can only gratify us as small-d democrats, the side effects are only too predictable. Everyone is a poet. Each poet's politically correct poem is inherently equal and sacred. More and more poetry has become jejune and ephemeral. All of this, and more, constitutes a sign that a golden age of proletarian poetry is well underway.

The critical apparatus of Contemporary Theory has less and less creative material to explore in part because it has never been about creativity. Its feedback to the poetry community has been proscriptive far more than prescriptive. Theory doesn't exist to support poetry, poetry exists to support theory. A poem under study is an artifact, a datum, a symptom, perhaps even a "crime," but rarely a poem. The recipe for the successful poem contains step by step instructions on what ingredients not to include and what consistency not to beat them to.

The poetry of the canon—much of it strangely attractive to the untrained reader—too often survives as a group of texts to be deconstructed in order to show by what faults they do not strictly and intrinsically conform with late-20th century progressive mores. Poems historical and contemporary become the "texts" that William Logan stridently decries in his forward to Praising It New:

...in the classroom what you tend to get is a professor who counts penis symbols… To look back at the New Critics is to indulge in a nostalgia for the days when books were books and not "texts" (when critics natter on about "dialogic intertextuality" in Batman, my eyes glaze over).

New cultural material does not come to us from exceptional individual works of poetry (or other arts). That is a destructive myth created by a cultural elite in order to maintain control of the levers of power. It "emerges," authorless, from the great collective thought process of the 6 billion people (more or less) who populate the planet in our contemporary times. This admirably explains (and celebrates) the unprepossessing quality of most poets' individual work as well as why poets don't get paid for poetry but for teaching popularized versions of the insights garnered by Contemporary Theory.

Yet there are other visions of democracy than Marx's and William Logan takes the occasion of his forward to Praising It New to reject a highly politicized Contemporary Theory in favor of "arguments about poetry won almost a century ago, arguments worth winning once more." Presumably he thinks that democracy will gain considerably into the deal. The more discreet editor of the volume, Garrick Davis, for his part, muses (in a prepublication interview) that the New Criticism will not be taught unless there are anthologies such as his own to supply the course materials.

Few poets or critics, in any generation, under any banner, are prepared to accept that there is no individual author, that all is collectively owned. And that is only one of the many major fault lines running through the territories claimed by Contemporary Theory. As Marx himself pointed out, the proletariat will find it difficult to resist a return to the very system that "oppressed" it. The temporary authoritarian state that he thought essential, in order to prevent such a "regression," however, is not available to Contemporary Theorists.

The vast majority of poets have internalized popularized versions of Contemporary Theory's foundational work in women's and minority (including gay and lesbian) rights. That constitutes a remarkable and permanent achievement. Otherwise, the world of the poet barely knows that the world of the academic theorist exists. Any seeming correspondence between them is coincidental, reflecting the rise of a brand of populism, over the past 40 years, which Marx would have considered a gross parody upon his Communism. As the result, Poetry goes trading across its oceans in innumerable small skiffs and Theory across its in a great galleon empty of cargo.

Although these observations on Post-Modernity admit of more than a few gratifying exceptions, it is disheartening to imagine the present situation continuing indefinitely. Davis and Logan, while they do not wish to turn back the clock per se, realize that the past is always prelude to whatever the next stage of progress will be. In Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism, Garrick Davis offers poets and students an exceptionally well chosen selection from the theoretical essays of the New Criticism in hopes that it will remain an available influence. They are far more interesting than such essays generally tend to be—a strength of the best of the New Critics and one that will continue to serve them well with both an academic and a general audience.


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