Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Forward into the Past

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Forward into the Past

Article excerpt

Reading the New Critics

Great poetry is not a matter of memorable snippets and gobbets; but, without snippets worth remembering, poetry does not exist. The critic must give meaning to memory, yet there has long been an argument about what that work requires. If you walk into college classrooms now, you'll meet two armed camps of critics. In a poetry workshop, discussion turns on the poem's meaning and how meaning becomes lodged through metaphor, image, meter, symbol, allusion, argument (what Pound called the "art of getting meaning into words"). In a literature class, the poem will be analyzed, often as not, as a "text" that mirrors the world of its making, as if it had been written not by a poet but by Sir History or Dame Sociology. The professor will employ the cryptic jargon of methods that to their promoters reveal hidden tensions in language, but to their detractors tar and feather poems for the sins of another day and force very different poets to sing the same tune. To the Marxists, the sins remain those of class; to the feminists, gender; to the scholars of ethnic literature, race-they wave over poems, mere poems, a Geiger counter that detects the decaying radioactivity of racism, sexism, and class hatred. "Sir!" says the critic, accusingly. "I have discovered a swarm of phonemes in your poems." "Aye, sir," the poet replies, "the damned lines are infested with 'em."

Perhaps there was a prelapsarian era, before the flood of "theory," as it is so unhappily called, when men were men and women were women and critics were critics. There may also have been an exact hour in the seventeenth century when, as Eliot declared, a "dissociation of sensibility set in" or a specific day, "on or about December 1910," when Virginia Woolf noticed that "human character changed." My quarrelsome reading of history, however, suggests that men were never simply men, women never simply women, and critics never simply critics.

There did exist, however, a golden age of modern literary criticism, roughly from the early essays of Eliot and Pound to the end of the heyday of Partisan Review. Call it fifty years when a reader could pick up certain magazines and be gratified, provoked, or happily infuriated by the discussion of poems (of course it didn't seem a golden age then-it never does at the time). We are rarely so stimulated or flabbergasted today (when infuriated now, we're not happy about it)-if readers have grown no less intelligent, the time must no longer be ripe for critics. One of the ways a time is not right is if it falls after an age of such criticism.

I've known poets who kept runs of the old Partisan or Hudson or Kenyon Review at arm's reach, just to browse the stray essays of an Empson or a Blackmur. I'm speaking of criticism proper, not reviewing-for reviewing is always its own fashion, its pleasure the Force-9 gales of the reviewers themselves, whether George Bernard Shaw and Bernard Haggin on music, James Agee and Pauline Kael on film, Mary McCarthy on fiction, Randall Jarrell on poetry, or Robert Hughes on art. A good reviewer is both of his time and beyond his time-we can read his charities and condemnations with delight, even if we haven't the faintest notion of the book or play or painting judged. A good critic, however, must say something, not just about a particular work of art, but about the structures of art itself; and to understand him you need to know the work criticized.

Great critics have a long afterlife, but sometimes a long beforelife. When Matthew Arnold at last gave them a name, "touchstones" had lain ready for a millennium or two in the teaching of schoolboys-among ancient grammarians, a similar idea rescued lines from the lost plays of Athenian drama. It's good to be reminded of exactly what Arnold wrote:

Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, arid can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one's mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. …

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