Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Cleanth Brooks, 1906-1994

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Cleanth Brooks, 1906-1994

Article excerpt

When the initial issue of the Southern Literary Journal appeared in the fall of 1968, its lead article was by Cleanth Brooks, on the poetry of William Faulkner. The very presence of that article constituted an announcement that the study of Southern literature had come of age, as it were: that it was no longer to be characterized by scholarship that was short on critical rigor and long on uncritical laudation, and that the effort to convince a skeptical public that the second-rate and third-rate was first-rate because it was ours was neither needed nor desired any more.

Cleanth Brooks was one of the great critics. More than any other single person he taught us how to read poems. The textbook that he and Robert Penn Warren published, Understanding Poetry, and his first two critical works, Modern Poetry and the Tradition and The Well-Wrought Urn, were revolutionary in their impact. Read the words of the poem, Brooks insisted. What do the words say? How do they relate to each other? How do the images function within the poem as a whole? Don't settle for paraphrase, don't ramble on about its ideological content, don't look for clues about the poet's life or about his personal attitude toward politics, or religion, or whatever until after you've read the poem itself; those interests and others may be perfectly legitimate, but only after you have read this particular poem, as it appears on the printed page, because the poem itself is why you are reading poetry instead of building garages or preaching a sermon or studying physics or running for public office.

It may seem obvious, but it wasn't in 1938. And if, nowadays, a half-century and more later, even the most zealous ideologue or dusty pedant feels it obligatory to pay at least lip-service to the actual text of a poem before riding off on his or her favorite hobby horse, it is because of Cleanth Brooks most of all.

When in the early 1950s he turned to the fiction of William Faulkner, he brought to the work of that writer the same habit of careful reading and painstaking examination. One of the more remarkable feats he ever performed can be seen in the appendix to William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawapha Country, wherein he sets down, in tabular form, who knows what fact or event in Absalom, Absalom! …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.