Harvesting the Waste Land: An Anthology of New Criticism

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Looking back on the 1930s from the perspective of middle age, Robert Lowell described it as a time “when criticism looked like winning.” The years of Lowell’s apprenticeship were the golden age of the New Criticism, the intellectually rigorous, closely analytical style of reading that grew up alongside modernism in poetry. The New Critics — John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur, Yvor Winters, and their cohorts and disciples — were mostly poets themselves, and they came to maturity just as the difficult masterpieces of Eliot and Pound — the honorary founders of the school — were revolutionizing the way poetry was written and read. All these poets turned to criticism in order to explain to themselves, and to the reading public, what modern poetry had become: an art that, in Tate’s words, “demands … in its writing and in its reading all the intellectual power that we have.”

Just how seriously the New Critics took poetry, and how much subtlety and conviction they brought to reading it, can be seen on every page of “Praising It New” (Swallow Press, 332 pages, $18.95), an excellent new anthology of the New Criticism, edited by Garrick Davis. Mr. Davis, too, is both a poet and a critic — before joining the National Endowment for the Arts, he was the founding editor of the online magazine Contemporary Poetry Review — and his introduction and notes testify to the zeal that the New Critics still inspire in their intellectual descendants. This zeal is all the greater, perhaps, because an interest in the New Criticism is so completely unfashionable in the academy and the institutional poetry world. Among professors, the kind of close reading they practiced has long since given way to the phantasmagoria of theory — structuralism, deconstruction, New Historicism, and so on. Among poets, the taut ironies the New Critics valued have been displaced by other values and habits — from the confessional onslaught of John Berryman and Sylvia Plath to the postmodern diffuseness of John Ashbery.

Perhaps that is why an interest in the New Criticism functions, among poets, as a kind of password — a pledge of high ambition, intellectual seriousness, and defiance of trends. As a rule of thumb, a poet who is familiar with Tate’s “Reason in Madness,” or Ransom’s “The World’s Body,” or Winters’s “Primitivism and Decadence” is more likely to be worth reading than one who is not. At the same time, I would be surprised to find a poet in 2008 who reads the New Critics without some measure of inner resistance. Indeed, Lowell’s wry formulation suggests that even in the 1960s, the self-conscious solemnity of the New Critics, their belief that poetry was a battlefield and theirs the “winning” side, seemed a little out of date.

Today, when baffling masterpieces such as “The Waste Land” and “The Cantos” are ensconced at the very center of the canon, it is hard to recapture just how embattled the New Critics must have felt. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were not yet the authoritative figures they seem today, the oracles of a Delphic poetry. On the contrary, Ransom and Tate and Winters were on the margins of academia and of publishing; their storied little magazines (the Kenyon Review, the Southern Review) had only a cult readership. The first section of “Praising It New” is devoted, appropriately, to their broadsides against what they saw as the monolithic philistinism of American literary life.

Ezra Pound sets the tone in his 1929 essay “How to Read,” which begins: “Literary instruction in our ‘institutions of learning’ was, at the beginning of this century, cumbrous and inefficient. I dare say it still is.” Allen Tate is more than happy to confirm the diagnosis in “Miss Emily and the Bibliographer,” another classic essay, whose title refers to a Faulkner character who kills her lover and hides his body in her bedroom. Tate finds in this story a gruesome metaphor for academic literary scholarship, which would like to kill the living body of literature in order to hug its corpse closer. “It is better to pretend with Miss Emily that something dead is living,” Tate writes, “than to pretend with the bibliographer that something living is dead.”

The only cure for this living death, as the New Critics saw it, was to elevate the status of criticism within the academy, by turning it into a rigorous intellectual discipline. They despised the newspaper reviewer and the impressionistic critic as much as the dry-as-dust professor. It is sometimes said that what the New Critics wanted was to turn criticism into a science, but this is not fair. They were, in fact, suspicious of the modern tendency to make science the standard of all knowledge, and insisted that poetic knowledge had its own validity. But it is true that they wanted criticism to become more objective, more technical, and more precise. The well-trained critic should be a professional with a set of tools at his disposal, able to take apart any text, no matter how difficult or avant-garde, and show how it worked. This was Ransom’s demand in “Criticism, Inc.”: “Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be taken seriously in hand by professionals.”

Several essays in “Praising It New” show how valuable this sort of professional approach could be. “Texts from Housman,” an early essay by Randall Jarrell, is an inspired choice: Free of the wisecracks and personality-mongering that made Jarrell famous, it is simply a very close reading of two ostensibly simple poems by A.E. Housman, showing how much linguistic and emotional complexity lies under the surface. Hugh Kenner’s “Some Post-Symbolist Structures” is still more of a tour de force, ranging through centuries of French and English poetry to demonstrate the suggestive power of Mallarme’s and Yeats’s distortions of syntax. Jarrell and Kenner are working with poems at opposite ends of the spectrum of difficulty, but each of them make use of the technique of close reading that the New Critics invented.

The greatest literary critics, however — Johnson, Arnold, Coleridge, Eliot — have more than just a technique. If that was all they brought to their encounters with literature, we would not return to their criticism again and again, in the way that we return to poems themselves. In the best criticism, the technical merges with the ethical; skillful reading is the preliminary to thoughtful experiencing and judging. Criticism, to be truly literary, must finally be about life, the way literature is about life.

And it is here, in their ethical bearing, that the New Critics now appear to least advantage. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley write, in their seminal essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” that “Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.” But to know if a machine works, you must first know what it is meant to do; and the New Critics too often bring to the poem a straitened definition of purpose. Their keyword is “tension” — one of Tate’s best essays, not included in “Praising It New,” is called “Tension in Poetry” — and they often seem to see conspicuous strain as the surest sign of poetic virtue. This strain must be evident in the language of the poem — in irony, paradox, and ambiguity, the New Critics’ sacred trinity — but also in the attitude of the poet, who they like to see stoically bearing up under the almost impossible burden of existence. Yvor Winters, the most moralistic and provocative of the New Critics, says quite plainly what many of his peers imply: “The spiritual control in a poem … is simply a manifestation of the spiritual control within the poet.”

This yearning for control is something the New Critics learned from and shared with T.S. Eliot, who concluded “The Waste Land” with the Sanskrit exhortation “Give — sympathize — control.” It was a natural attitude for poets to take in an era of social and spiritual crisis; it was especially tempting, perhaps, to men of letters eager to prove their toughness in a country where poetry was usually considered a genteel or feminine pursuit. But it led the New Critics to turn their criticism into a kind of moral melodrama, whose flavor can be sampled in the absurd peroration of Allen Tate’s essay “Is Literary Criticism Possible?”: “Literary criticism, like the Kingdom of God on earth, is perpetually necessary and .. .perpetually impossible. … Like man’s, the intolerable position of criticism has its own glory.”

Eliot, whose criticism is the text on which much of the New Criticism is a commentary, was never guilty of such bathos. The poet seemed to pass judgment on his epigones in advance when he wrote, as early as 1917: “When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement.” Yet the New Criticism is too good and too serious to be dismissed as advertisement. It deserves to be remembered, instead, as the scaffolding on which the monument of modernism was raised.


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