Brooks and Warren's successful textbook Understanding Poetry (1938) introduced ways to discuss, analyse and appreciate difficult poems to an expanding population of US undergraduates (Understanding Fiction followed in 1943). Ransom's essay 'Criticism, Inc.' proposed that a 'more scientific, or precise and systematic' literary criticism establish itself in academia (Ransom, 1938, p. 329). He got what he wanted; by 1951 Jarrell and others complained of an 'age of criticism'. Bringing modern poetry into the academy, these poet—critics made possible the careful, formal, American poets of the early 1950s, pre-eminent among them Richard Wilbur; they also laid the grounds for the later presence in universities of poets paid to teach the writing of poetry. The New Critics' importance as editors rivals their importance as educators: Ransom's tenure at the Kenyon Review (1938—58), which he founded, made it a major venue for poetry and criticism. Blackmur and Winters at Hound and Horn (1927—34), Brooks and Warren at the Southern Review (1935—42) and Tate at the Sewanee Review (1944—6) proved almost as influential.
Sometimes Empson, or Ransom, seems out to introduce new ways of reading poetry; at other times the same critic seems out to codify, transfer or render explicit the already-existing practices of some (best or most-sophisticated) readers. Partly for this reason, New Critics' influence on subsequent poets can seem tacit or even invisible. (Is a poet who learned to read Yeats as Blackmur would influenced by Blackmur, or only by Yeats?) Nevertheless, New Critics helped found an implicit programme and theory for the best American poets who came of age before and during the Second World War, poets with common assumptions who nevertheless 'consistently avoided stating a systematic poetic doctrine' (Travisano, 1999, p. 4). The four major figures in this constellation - Berryman, Bishop, Jarrell and Lowell - display throughout their careers 'elective affinities, mutual influence, and parallel development' (ibid., p. 225). For all four, poems represent persons who describe and enact psychological dilemmas; good poems require closure, incorporate contrasting tones or complex symbols, suggest tragic or unresolvable dilemmas, and evoke moral sentiments only through symbols. Their early poems often adopt seventeenth-century models, whose use marks their clearest debt to New Critical thought.
Brought up in aristocratic Boston, Lowell (1917-77) left Harvard in 1937 to study with Tate in Tennessee, famously camping out in a tent on Tate's lawn. His first published work derives obviously from Tate's. The far more powerful Lord Weary's Castle (1946) takes much of its material from New England past and present, its baroque, forceful style from early Milton, and its agenda from Catholic beliefs and Christian eschatology. The book made Lowell the leading poet of his cohort; to call it (as it is often called) a near-perfect realization of American New Critics' hopes should not diminish its latter-day appeal. 'The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket', a seven-part elegy for a drowned sailor, draws on Thoreau, Marian iconography, 'Lycidas' and Moby-Dick to create scenes where 'Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids / Seaward', 'the gulls go round the stoven timbers', and 'The Lord survives the rainbow of His will'. 'Mary Winslow' sets its tenderness for Lowell's dead cousin beside his rage at her social world:
The bell-rope in King's Chapel Tower unsnarls
And bells the bestial cow
From Boston Common; she is dead. But stop,
Neighbor, these pillows prop
Her that her terrified and child's cold eyes
Glass what they're not: our Copley ancestress,
Grandiloquent, square-jowled and worldly-wise,
A Cleopatra in her housewife's dress;
Nothing will go again. The bells cry: 'Come,
Come home,' the babbling Chapel belfry cries:
'Come, Mary Winslow, come; I bell thee home.'
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951) used similar rhetoric in overwhelmingly sad dramatic monologues. Its speakers included a meditative Canadian nun, a New York City widower tormented by his Catholic wife's suicide, and an old New Englander 'Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid': where Tate's Aeneas recalled a once-graceful Troy, Lowell's old man can only dream that 'Trojans are singing to their drunken God, / Ares. Their helmets catch on fire'. Lowell would abandon the modes of his first two books in the psychoanalytic, autobiographical work of Life Studies. The lessons of his early work may be discerned faintly even in his poems of the 1970s, sometimes as rules to be consciously violated, sometimes as tropisms toward interpretative difficulty, and toward strong, sudden closure.
Berryman (1914—72) preserved throughout most of his work a liking for allusion and ambiguity, creating ever more clearly personal vehicles for those qualities. The poems of The Dispossessed (1948) sound like Yeats, or else like puzzles, as in the wintry forest of the title poem: 'My harpsichord weird as a koto drums / adagio for twilight, for the storm-worn dove / no more de-iced, and the spidery business of love'. Berryman's major work, the series of eighteen-line poems called The Dream Songs (1963, 1968), track the psychological travails of Berryman's alter ego 'Henry' and a never-named friend who calls Henry 'Mr Bones'. Emotionally tumultuous and verbally acrobatic, the several-hundred-poem sequence puts Berryman's darting, polyse-mous obliquities to purposes ranging from ribaldly comic to intimately diagnostic:
Henry lay in de netting, wild, while the brainfever bird did scales; Mr Heartbreak, the New Man, come to farm a crazy land; an image of the dead on the fingernail of a newborn child.
If the Dream Songs are 'confessional poetry' they are also informed (like Life Studies) by New Critical senses of achieved difficulty, tension and complex form. Berryman's essays, collected in The Freedom of the Poet (1976), cover Yeats, Pound, Whitman, Eliot, Ransom and Hardy, as well as American fiction and Renaissance drama.
In contrast to her peers, Bishop (1911—79) largely avoided writing criticism, declaring in 1950 that 'The analysis of poetry is growing more and more pretentious and deadly. After a session with a few of the highbrow magazines one doesn't want to look at a poem for weeks, much less start writing one' (Ciardi, 1950, p. 267). Bishop's debts to Hopkins and to George Herbert, and her preference for symbol, impersonality and suggestion, all link her aesthetic to New Critical interests. Clear in her first volume, North and South, the 'New Critical' elements of Bishop's style reappear transformed in the contained violence of 'The Armadillo' (1957). The poem follows a Brazilian holiday's 'frail, illegal fire balloons'; as some rise towards 'the kite sticks of the Southern Cross', others fall on an alcove of animals, setting the creatures on fire:
The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone, a glistening armadillo left the scene, rose-flecked, head down, tail down, and then a baby rabbit jumped out, short-eared, to our surprise. So soft! a handful of intangible ash with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry! O falling fire and a piercing cry and panic, and a weak, mailed fist clenched ignorant against the sky!
Jarrell (1914—65) studied with Ransom at Vanderbilt and Kenyon, and modelled his early prose on Empson's. Notably informal and apparently unsystematic compared to his teachers and peers, Jarrell became the best commentator on the literary climate they had produced. (Poetry and the Age (1953) includes his best-known essays; ampler posthumous volumes of prose include No Other Book (1999) and Kipling, Auden & Co. (1980).) Jarrell found his poetic style while writing about the Second World War, in which he served (though never overseas). 'Eighth Air Force' (1948) (which Brooks examined in detail) considers the ambiguous collective guilt of the Allied airmen who bombed Europe from Britain. Watching bomber crews who 'play, before they die / Like puppies with their puppy', Jarrell asks 'shall I say that man / Is not as men have said: a wolf to man?' The taut stanzas (three rhyme twice each on 'man') and the disturbing conflict among allusions (barracks jottings jostle quotes from Pontius Pilate) suspend and weigh Jarrell's contradictory attitudes. Another war poem, the five-line 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner', became a classroom favourite.
Jarrell's poems present themselves less as constructed objects than as occasions of speech, by persons, apprehended in time: often they are lonely persons who hope for response. Desiderata of tension, polysemy and closure reappear in Jarrell's later work as protagonists search for terms in which to relate past to present experience and thereby imagine a coherent self. At the end of 'The Player Piano' (1965) an old woman comes to remember, out of her ungoverned life, one scene of ironic control and composure:
The piano's playing something by Chopin And Mother and Father and their little girl
Listen. Look, the keys go down by themselves! I go over, hold my hands out, play I play -If only, somehow, I had learned to live! The three of us sit watching, as my waltz Plays itself out a half-inch from my fingers.
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