Today, the study of literature itself is seen as “obsolete and dead.” This is, in large part, because the study of literature has moved away from the techniques of New Criticism, particularly the close reading, and turned to post-structural approaches, which are often highly ideological. Unfortunately, these approaches often fail to train students to either read or write well (many of its founding texts are incomprehensible) and encourage “originality” (which often consists of nothing more than pairing a theoretical text with a source text to make a prefabricated argument) over careful, rigorous engagement. Minds, furthermore, tend to be closed, not opened, by such pedagogy.
In the October issue of Poetry, Peter Quartermain offers what is billed as a new critique of New Criticism. New Criticism came to dominate English departments in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Reacting to critics such as Irving Babbitt, who, John Crowe Ransom argued, viewed literature primarily as an expression of morality, the New Critics argued that the principal goal of the critic was to make sense of the aesthetic values of a literary work through a close examination of its words and form. In Understanding Poetry, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren write that “if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry,” and not “logical and narrative materials,” “biographical and historical materials,” or “didactic” document.
Quartermain writes that New Criticism’s practice of “identifying the tensions and paradoxes” of “self-sufficient, ahistorical, and atemporal” texts was unable to make sense of the New Poetry (Williams, Stein, Olson) because it wrongly limited the value of poetry to meaning. As poets turned away from the richly symbolic classicism of Eliot toward mere surface verbal play, New Criticism was rendered useless and obsolete—and it has remained so, at least according to Quartermain.
This isn’t a new critique, and Quartermain’s characterization of New Criticism as “ahistorical” is more than a little misleading. Writing in 1978 in response to the charge that New Criticism is “obsolete and dead and … wrong,” René Wellek argued in Critical Inquiry that New Criticism, rightly understood, is neither reductive nor ahistorical. He points out that the New Critics did not reject history itself, but history (and psychology for that matter) as the primary source of evidence for a literary work’s value and meaning. Brooks, for example, remarks that the critic “must know what the words of the poem mean, something which immediately puts him in debt to the linguist … and since many of the words are proper nouns, in debt to the historian as well.” Wellek writes: “In order to interpret the ‘Horatian Ode’ of Andrew Marvell correctly we must obviously know something of Cromwell and Charles I and the particular historical situation in the summer of 1650 to which the poem refers.” Furthermore, not only did the New Critics use history in understanding literary texts, they reinterpreted and revalued “the whole history of English poetry.” While not perfect, Wellek argues that New Criticism is nevertheless an effective, pragmatic tool for understanding “the specific nature of the aesthetic transaction,” “the implied attitudes of the author,” and “the resolved or unresolved tensions and contradictions” of a work.
The odd thing about Quartermain’s essay is that it actually proves Wellek right, for Quartermain relies on the very tools of New Criticism to show that New Criticism is useless. I would like to suggest that not only is New Criticism up to the task of engaging the avant-garde, it is also much needed in the classroom today, where students could benefit from its rigor and the value it places on objectivity and nuance.
Quartermain begins with an anecdote. In 1964, Cleanth Brooks described William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” as “quite inert.” I.A. Richards dismissed H.D.’s “The Pool” “as an example of ‘badness in poetry’ because it is a ‘defective communication.’” Various teachers Quartermain encountered at university are boring and pedantic in their application of New Critical methods. Hence, he concludes, New Criticism must be flawed, unable to deal with the New Poetry that was more interested in doing something rather than meaning something.
Quartermain is right that many New Critics rejected the work of Williams and Stein because the poems they wrote seemed to lack ambiguity and depth. This is because these poets (and those that followed) were writing, in part, against New Criticism, which had become, in the hands of certain professors or critics, stifling and boring. But does this mean that New Criticism itself is flawed? Or is it that many of the New Critics simply erred in their application of its methods?
To prove the former, Quartermain turns to Williams’s poem “Between Walls.” The rub? He uses the New Critical technique of the close reading. The poem, Quartermain writes, baffles “the New Critical demand that a poem lead to something conclusive and definable”:
Like many traditional lyrics, Williams’s short poems begin in medias res; there’s not an ounce of preparation, no warm-up for the reader, no thematic or social setting of the scene. The language is blunt, even if the bluntness is somewhat tempered by subordinate clauses.
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
The language is close to journalism: flat and plain, in blunt facticity. It is, if we add punctuation and ignore the line breaks, indistinguishable from prose. Any attempt to explore the connotations of “green” or the contrast between its suggestiveness and the sterility of the cinders on which the glass lies, leads only to the banal—the poem registers a syntax of attention, of perception. It is a noticing. To read the syntax as “the hospital where nothing will grow” leads us away from the poem into fruitless and irrelevant speculation, since there is a straightforward and easily sorted syntax available, even if the sentence itself seems pointless and the poem seems to “lead nowhere.”
I quote at length to show that this is a textbook close reading. Here Quartermain pays careful attention to textual clues (and excludes the poem’s historical contexts), examining “the specific nature of the aesthetic transaction” and “the implied attitudes of the author, the resolved or unresolved tensions and contradictions” of the poem.
What he has done, in other words, though he seems unaware of this, is shown that New Criticism is entirely up to the task of making sense of the poetry of Williams. This is because, however “flat” a poem, it nevertheless must mean something, even if it expresses what is not true, because poems are made of language, and language is by definition symbolic. Even Frank O’Hara understood this. You cannot have poetry that exists of sound alone.
Williams’s poem has led us somewhere. It has led us to the idea that poems should not lead anywhere, even though Quartermain ignores the self-defeating nature of this idea. Quartermain, it seems, like too many scholars and critics of what we might call “postmodern fundamentalism,” has fallen for the easy distinction between texts that supposedly have a single objective meaning and texts that are “indeterminate,” between texts that have “closure” and those that have none. The fact is, no text is either completely indeterminate or lacking in closure, though this does not necessarily mean that it has one single meaning. This is the value of the New Critics’ treatment of the idea of ambiguity, which Quartermain, and other contemporary critics, might do well to reconsider.
But not only is New Criticism still of value for critics of contemporary poetry, as Quartermain has shown, students could benefit from a more regular use of its tools in the classroom.
The much-discussed Congressional report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the value of the humanities highlighted the role humanities should play in developing reading and writing skills, encouraging a “critical” perspective, and preparing students for engaging a diverse world.
New Criticism can help with all of these. A renewed emphasis on the “close reading” that takes the denotative and connotative meaning of words seriously and requires students to consider form and genre would help students not only to become better readers but also, as Quartermain demonstrates, to engage foreign texts in foreign forms.
As Wellek points out in his 1978 essay, close reading is not ahistorical. Context is important, but as students of literature, understanding must begin with the text. The constraints of context enter later, helping the student to exclude certain meanings or pushing him to explore others further.
Furthermore, a renewed emphasis on the objective nature of a literary text rightly understood would help re-establish literary texts as valuable ends in themselves, as opposed to mere examples of this ideology or that historical situation. Far from separating literary texts from political or ethical questions, this would allow them to address these topics in their unique way and thus show their real value.
Finally, literary texts are ambiguous, and in our age, as perhaps in all ages, students tend to avoid ambiguity, preferring tightly held but unexamined positions to more nuanced understandings. New Criticism, however, helps students to see this ambiguity and avoid reducing it to this or that pat answer. This is of particular value today in an increasingly complex world (and a decreasingly Western-centric one) in which social technology often favors quick, simple understandings of phenomena over more carefully examined ones.
In short, it’s not time to further bury the New Critics. It’s time to raise them from the dead.