The New Criticism and poetic formalism

In the early 1920s, a group of brilliant young poets initiated what would become one of the most important movements in twentieth-century American literature: the New Criticism. The oldest of these poets, John Crowe Ransom, had been teaching at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, since 1914. Along with another Vanderbilt instructor, Donald Davidson, as well as undergraduate students Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, Ramsom founded a literary magazine, The Fugitive. The members of Ransom's circle - who contributed both poetry and critical essays to the magazine - called themselves "Fugitives."

The Fugitives began as a group concerned with producing and publishing good poetry, and their magazine — which ran from 1922 to 1925 — was an important literary publication that included in its pages poems by many of the leading writers of the day. In the course of the decade, however, the focus of the group shifted from the study of poetry to an exploration of the intellectual and artistic problems of Southern writing, and to a still broader examination of the economic and social issues facing the rural South. By 1930 the Fugitives were calling themselves "Southern Agrarians," and were making the argument that the South's distinctiveness lay in a predominantly agricultural society which stood as a bulwark against the industrial materialism and consumerism of the Northern states. I'll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930) was a collection of essays by twelve Southerners, including Ransom, Davidson, Tate, and Warren.

At the same time that they were turning their attention to regional issues, Ransom and the other Fugitives were also leading a movement to legitimize a different kind of criticism from that currently practiced in most English departments in the United States. Influenced by the critical essays of T. S. Eliot and by the books of English critics I. A. Richards and William Empson, Ransom and the other Fugitives increasingly turned their attention to the actual texts of poems instead of the biographical information surrounding their composition. This "close reading" of poetry — often performed by critics who were poets in their own right — was a departure from the kind of historical and philological study that had dominated the field. In 1937

Ransom published an essay entitled "Criticism, Inc," which argued that literary criticism "must become more scientific . . . precise and systematic." The following year, two of Ransom's former students - Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks - published what would be the single most influential book of the New Critical movement: Understanding Poetry. That book, and its companion volumes Understanding Fiction and Understanding Drama, codified many of the New Critical ideas into a coherent approach to literary study and revolutionized the teaching ofliterature. Ransom himself published two highly influential volumes of essays - The World's Body (1938) and The New Criticism (1941) - the latter of which would give the movement its name.

In the 1930s, most of the New Critics left Vanderbilt and spread their ideas to universities across the country: Ransom went to Kenyon College in Ohio and founded The Kenyon Review; Warren and Brooks both went to Louisiana State University, where they founded The Southern Review; and Tate went on to teach at Princeton, New York University, and the University of Minnesota. The New Critical mode, propelled by influential books of criticism like Brooks' The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) and W. K. Winsatt's The Verbal Icon (1954), would dominate the academic study of poetry until the end of the 1960s. The success of the New Criticism during these years is not difficult to explain: as Terry Eagleton suggests, the New Criticism evolved at a time when American literature programs were struggling to become professionalized, and when the study of English Literature was attempting to compete with both the sciences and the social sciences as an academic discipline. The New Critical methodology, with its emphasis on the close reading of short poems, provided a "convenient pedagogical method of coping with a growing student population," particularly in the period following World War II.1

Though each of the New Critics pursued a somewhat different set of ideas about poetry, the fundamental nature of their inquiry followed similar lines. In general, the argument of the New Criticism was that the most successful works ofliterature displayed an "organic unity" which could best be discovered through an understanding of their words, images, figures of speech, and symbols. The New Critics insisted on treating the poem as a self-sufficient verbal object (the "well-wrought urn" or "verbal icon"), and in recognizing, in the words of Ransom, "the autonomy of the work itself as existing for its own sake." They warned against critical practices that distracted the reader from the poem itself, such as the "intentional fallacy" (the idea that a work should be judged according to the intentions of its author) and the "affective fallacy" (the idea that a work should be judged according to its emotional effects on the reader). Finally, they avoided readings that relied on biography, psychology, or historical and social context.

According to the New Critics, the primary focus ofthe reader should be on a poem's verbal construction, and especially on its use of such elements as "tension," "irony," and "paradox" in achieving an equilibrium of opposed forces. Ransom's more particular version of this argument was that a poem consists of two basic elements - structure (its argument or logical discourse) and texture (its imagery, rhythm, sound, and diction). In order for a poem to be successful, these two elements should exist in a sort of dramatic tension. The primary methodology of the New Criticism was the close reading or "explication" of the poem, which would reveal the complex interrelations of meanings and ambiguities within the text.

The New Criticism was highly successful in training a generation of readers in the methods of close literary analysis. But in creating a new critical orthodoxy it also limited the range of possible responses to poetry, and as a result engendered an academic poetry establishment that was conservative in its literary tastes. The spirit ofexperimentation that had characterized the modernist era was replaced by an often rigid and unimaginative brand of literary formalism, and during the Cold War the New Criticism provided a convenient means of avoiding an engagement with current social and political issues. Many poets of the 1950s and 1960s conceived of their work as a rebellion against what they saw as the highly conventional poetic practices of the New Critics and their followers.

The formalist mode of poetic writing can be divided into three generational moments. The first of these moments was that associated with the New Criticism of the 1920s and 1930s; the second included the formalists of the generation who emerged in the 1940s and 1950s under the influence of the New Critics as well as Eliot and W. H. Auden. A third wave of formalist poetry, identified as the "New Formalism," began in the 1980s and lasted until the end ofthe century. This chapter will be concerned primarily with the first of these generations, and to a somewhat lesser extent with the second and third.

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