Stephen Burt and Jennifer Lewin

'Never have poetry and criticism in English been so close together', Allen Tate wrote in 1955, as they were at the height of the largely American movement now called the New Criticism (Tate, 1968, p. 214). In the late 1920s, after the upheavals of High Modernism, some younger critics who were also poets began to explain the principles which had emerged from their tastes. These principles helped generate new approaches to literature and especially to poetry, concentrating on close verbal analysis; new journals and textbooks arose to propagate them. By the late 1940s a few of the New Critics' students had become major poets themselves, quietly fulfilling certain New Critical goals even as they rejected others.

The term 'New Criticism' (rarely embraced by those it covers) began life as the title of a 1941 book by John Crowe Ransom (J. E. Spingarn's 1911 book of the same name has nothing to do with the movement). Ransom's study examined the critical practices of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot and Yvor Winters, with shorter segments on William Empson and on R. P. Blackmur; it then called for an 'ontologi-cal critic' who would describe the special nature of poetry and the structures of individual poems. As Cleanth Brooks wrote later, uncareful readers soon 'assumed that Ransom was the primal New Critic and that his former students and friends were the others' (Community 1). Writers who invoke the New Critics normally refer to a loosely allied group whose core included Ransom himself, Tate, Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, along with Empson and Blackmur. Winters worked on the group's de facto intellectual margins, as in a different way did F. O. Matthiesen; both combined criticism of modern poetry with studies of nineteenth-century American writing. Others sometimes called New Critics proved important to literary theory, but not directly to twentieth-century poetry: these included René Wellek, William Wimsatt, Austin Warren, Monroe Beardsley, and the ambitious left-wing thinker Kenneth Burke. All these thinkers' 'one common element was [their] special concern ... for the rhetorical structure of the literary text' (Community 2). New Critical ways of reading helped to shape the American poets who emerged in the 1940s, among them Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman and Randall Jarrell.

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