Friday, October 21, 2005


The story of 20th-century American poetry. Oh joy! What more can be said? Perhaps something new can be extrapolated from something very old : say, the battle between text and oral performance.

In the first decade of that famous late-lamentable century, change was in the air. Mallarmé and Flaubert, in their respective modes, had introduced a fascination with textual effects. Revolutions in physics and psychology (not to mention good old socio-political revolutions) brought pressure to bear on the ways and means of mimesis : hence, “stream-of-consciousness”; thus, imagism, futurism, Vorticism, Dada, and so on.

Manipulations of poem-as-text went hand-in-hand with the spread of vers libre. Ironically, experimental writing licensed new freedoms in recitation : the new possibilities on the page sanctioned a more informal approach to performance. It was suddenly recognized that traditional meter (as with Yeats and Frost, for example) was only one possible technique among others.

After that, well... what more could there be? Once free verse is split off from metrical verse, and the main focus of attention shifts to the page... then, paradoxically, technical options become more simplified and limited. It becomes a question of algorithms rather than metrical choices.

The decades sleepwalked along... the jazzy 20s, the social 30s, the military 40s, the techno-streamlined 50s... the century in poetry assumed its familiar hour-glass (or, in Yeatsian terms, gyroscopic) outline. Eliot’s neo-classical historicism, and the spreading influence of New Critical pedagogy, supported an arch, mandarin style – the glassy bubble of which soon burst with the onset of anti-academic rebels of various stripes (out of NY, SF, and Kansas, mostly), bringing along their epic pretensions, their global imitations (haiku, surrealism, primitive chants, translations from Spanish et al.), their wacky lifestyles, and so on. Attendance at collegiate Writing Programs became the norm for would-be poets, complete professional beehives were installed, a new relaxed free verse style became the norm in the latter decades. Impatience with same, mixed with the impact of continental-Yale literary theory, brought along the Language Poets, who furthered the emphasis on poem-as-text by simultaneously severing the connection between text and speech and language and meaning. This was fun for a while, and (in the 80s and 90s) brought a lot of elliptical non-sequiturs into academic normal style.

One area of poetics which went under-understood, during this epic century-long battle between Book and Talk, was the umbilical relation between poetic measure (whether strictly metrical or more loosely musical) and spoken language. It was not so much free verse which reduced the importance of metrics : it was the fixation on the written text, the page. Poets as distinct and Eliot and W.C. Williams recognized that no poetry – whether metrical or free – could afford to rid itself of measure, rhythm. But the substance of such is not on the page, but in recitation. Aristotle may have had a slightly different definition, but in our contemporary idiom, prose fiction is described as “poetic” when its syntax and imagery become rhythmic. A poem is in some sense or other an incantation.

Some implications of all this for contemporary practice are not without irony. For instance, those we label today as the more traditionalist poets amongst us – those who write verse grounded either in antique forms & metrical patterns or (if they happen to produce free verse) in ordinary sequential logic and syntax – may be more aligned, stylistically, with oral performance. Hence, they may be less constrained by the limitations of script-based “experiment”, which was in such vogue at the very beginning and the very end of the last century. If you are producing verse for recitation (as opposed to the subset now known as “visual poetry”), there is only so much you can do with moving words around on a page : the options are quite limited. And if so, the situation entails further consequences. The shifting vocational “positions” among so-called traditionalists, mainstreamers, “School of Quiet(ud)ists”, rebels, experimentalists, “post-avants”, and so on – yoked as they are to 20th-century phenomena and fast-fading polemics – show a steady decline from even the minimal quotient of meaning with which they began.

Aristotle famously defined poetry as the representation of character-in-action. We can extrapolate a definition of lyric poetry as the representation of a speech act. Prose fiction and drama surround speech acts with different subsidiary and ornamental elements of presentation – spectacle, story, explanatory asides, etc. The lyric poem, on the other hand, is the art of the speech act in its most direct and naked form. Prose shades into poetry where discourse becomes incantation. And where there is incantation, there the presence of an actor : of the one-who-chants. The aesthetic effect of such personal presence – as distinct from the impersonality, the object-quality of the text, the book, the "writing" – has, perhaps, its philosophical corollaries. I have written elsewhere about how some of the greatest works of prose fiction seek to simulate or adumbrate the experience of personal presence, of “nowness” (Proust’s epiphanies; Joyce’s acrobatics; the various techniques of flashbacks & framing tales) – the presence, the immediacy, which recitation or incantation offers in a less diluted form.

American poets, I suppose, will continue to cluster in groups of various kinds. But I would guess that these groupings in future will have more to do with feelings of kinship stemming from political, class, ethnic, religious, or other kinds of social allegiance, than with a sense of kinship based on chosen literary styles or theories of poetry. Because the stylistic and theoretical allegiances which evolved in the 20th-century – based, so emphatically, on text rather than performance – are already irrelevant to contemporary practice. The new/old poetics must take the measure, not of text, but of incantation.

Monday, October 17, 2005


It seems a narrow choice the age insists on.
How about being a good Greek, for instance?
That course, they tell me, isn't offered this year.

- Robert Frost, "New Hampshire"

The beginnings of what we call "literary criticism" predate the advent of literacy itself. As Andrew Ford describes in his superb study, The Origins of Criticism (Princeton U.P., 2002), the judgement of song was an integral part of the ancient Greeks' public festivals, as well as their elite "dinner parties" (symposia). But both archaic song and its critique were transformed, about 2400 years ago, by two new forces : literacy and democracy.

The spread of writing introduced a new medium for "song". Suddenly there was a rivalry between memorized-improvised oral performance on the one hand, and poems-as-texts on the other; new questions were raised about the nature and purposes of poetry, which are reflected in the oral/textual dialectics of poet-performers like Simonides and Pindar.

Meanwhile, the movement (in Athens and other cities) from tribal tyranny to elite democracy, with the concomitant rise in the importance of public oratory, helped create a new class of educators and rhetoricians devoted to the craft of writing. This laid the groundwork for Plato's idealist critique of art in general, and for Aristotle's empirical-scientific analysis of poems as specifically aesthetic objects, different in kind from works of either science or oratory.

Ford depicts, with great acuity, the shifting grounds of influence, synthesis and debate between, on the one hand, the ethos of public speaking and oral song, and on the other, the ethos of textual independence, aesthetic autonomy, and philosophical critique. The technology of writing was transforming Greek notions of art.

We, too, have been undergoing two or three centuries of comparable change in the technology of art and writing. This reality, of course, presents vast perspectives for the study of comparative literature. But here I am concerned with lessons that might be drawn for the practice of poetry criticism. Two large themes, among several others, emerge from Ford's study. The first is that the sense of a self-standing, autonomous art work was never a given, but was postulated by sophists and philosophers in partial or complete opposition to the traditional notion of song as a function of collective identity (fitting seamlessly into ritual festivals, forms of collective self-affirmation). The second theme represents the gradually-sharpening differentiations which emerged between oral performance, written poetry, rhetorical discourse in general, and literary criticism per se. What kind of landscape becomes visible, when we superimpose the Ford model of ancient Greece on the contemporary scene?

We might notice immediately that the dialectic between ethics and aesthetics has never gone away. Poetry criticism is still shaped by the most varied chemical compounds of evaluation, mixing questions of social relevance, fitness and morality, with responses to the aesthetic aspect of poems. Ethical or political judgements are determined by the critic's own stance, allegiances, and interest in those realms; aesthetic judgements are shaped by the critic's prior likes and dislikes, background knowledge and affinities. The critic may impress an audience with an idiosyncratic blend of ethos and aesthetic, since notions such as "moral beauty" may involve rankings of various sorts, based on ideology, or questions of "seriousness" of treatment in relation to subject-matter, etc.

If the dialectic between ethics and aesthetics is irresolvable, and continually shifting, is it possible to develop any firm critical criteria whatsoever? In the middle of the last century, the group known as the Chicago critics suggested three complementary responses to this problem. First, they proposed a theory of "critical pluralism" : ie., there could be many equally-valid critical approaches (they were careful, meanwhile, to distinguish pluralism from both relativism and scepticism). Second, they asserted the need for a "para-criticism", or the criticism of criticism : tools with which critics could clarify their own assumptions and those of others (ie., what, exactly, are the social or aesthetic premises behind a particular critique?). Third, they promoted a new reliance on the method of Aristotle, whose categorical approach implemented a proto-scientific analysis of artworks : poems were distinct objects, with ends unique to themselves, which were to be differentiated sharply from those of science, politics, philosophy, and related discourses.

Would such a "neo-Aristotelian", categorical approach simply instaurate an a-political, merely technical criticism - a sort of Mandarin literary engineering, divorced from ethical and historical concerns? Not necessarily. In fact a clear political ethos might require the kind of exactitude which would distinguish between literary effects which involve our recognition of beauty (aesthetics), and their logical or ethical implications. Thus we might be able to acknowledge the technical ingenuity involved in works of kitsch, melodrama, bombast, propaganda - which would only sharpen the argument for their ugliness with respect to a different scale of values. The same exactitude with regard to aesthetics would sharpen our awareness of misplaced criticism as well : praise or derogation of the aesthetic quality of poems, based not on the supposed ideological bent of the artist or the art work, but on that of the critic.


It would seem, then, that a criticism or poetics flowing from the general approach of the Chicago critics, would be one which is grounded in an evaluation of the poem as a "self-standing" aesthetic object (or act). But the Chicago schema is, as they themselves admitted, a set of preliminaries. For one thing, as I have mentioned elsewhere, it is not obvious how Aristotle's theory of the tragic or epic poem applies to other modes. It seems more applicable to film, prose fiction, and drama than it does to lyric, didactic or satirical poetry. Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to try to extend the model, and toward that end I would offer the following premilinaries of my own.

A poem, then, of whatever mode or genre, is a work of art, an aesthetic creation : which means that its main effect is to please us with its beauty. We respond both immediately and with circumspection to the beautiful. By this I mean that taste and judgement become involved as a result of our immediate response, leading us to accept or reject the work based on an increasingly acute scale of values : a scale in which the aesthetic and the ethical cannot easily be distinguished from each other. The role of the critic is to explore the character and formal qualities of the work, in order to determine more clearly how its elements and effects move us in such a particular way. As the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam put it, "the logos or logical meaning is just one (among others) of the poem's building blocks". If such logos illustrates most directly the ethical aspect of an art work, then one of the critic's tasks is to analyze just how meaning interacts with the other building blocks of the poem.

And what are these other building blocks? Aristotle would argue that the pleasure of tragic poetry depends on a unity of effect, stemming from the representation of one "whole action" (the plot). The poetic technique involves the selection and organization of materials so as to embody that one whole action to best effect. What, then, conveys the pleasing beauty of other modes of poetry? Let us assume that the substance of any poem's effect involves a unity of impression : just as in a play or a novel, a lyric poem has a beginning, middle and end, and the aim is to shape them into a unity. The basic elements of the lyric whole can be outlined as follows:

1. texture (sound, rhythm, diction, imagery)

2. representation (story, reality, plausibility)

3. sense (pathos, emotional effect)

4. implication (argument/logos; meaning/ethos)

It will be seen that #3 and #4 stem most directly from, or are implied by, #1 and #2, respectively. This may have further implications for the poem's architecture. The critic's effort is to illuminate how the poet's motive and ingenuity - purpose and technique - whether through inspiration or invention - draws these building blocks into a unique whole. As Aristotle showed, and as the Chicago critics reasserted, that unity is not to be defined by or equated with the poem's diction alone. The Chicagoans decisively dismantled the 20th-century cliché that (verbal) form is merely an extension of (logical) content : for them, as for Aristotle, the words are just one of the materials (one of the elements) out of which the holistic form (the plot, the action, the impression) is shaped. This, again, is the pivot on which hinges the generic distinction between poetry and rhetoric : words are material for a beautiful shape, rather than the medium for a persuasive argument. Truth may be unitary; but the beautiful persuades or moves us toward truth not through logic or reasoning, but through something Plato called "charm" (the effect of a "fine" union of ethos and art).

It could be argued that such an "elementary table" is a pedantic exercise, burdening the would-be critic with categories which are both vague and unnecessary. Perhaps, for many, it is just that. Still, I would add : these elementary distinctions, these "building blocks", are a simple map of what is, nevertheless, a real landscape : a minefield of problems which, sooner or later, will face anyone engaged in the critical evaluation of poetry. And a map, even a very simple one, might be the beginning of an adventure.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


Lately much of my spare time has been whittled away by the writings of R.S. Crane and Elder Olson, leading members of the mid-20th century group of scholar-critics known as the Chicago School. From the perspective of 50 years later, theirs appears to have been a valiant effort to expand the hermetically-sealed horizons of the (contemporary) New Critics - whose pedagogical dicta regarding poetry (through such media as the best-selling text, Understanding Poetry) threatened to turn poets into crafters of refined ships-in-bottles, flimsy bric-à-brac.

I have written elsewhere about one of the pivotal arguments in their polemic, based on a distinction between discourse (argument, rhetoric) and mimesis (representation). However, as ancient Philo pointed out somewhere, the divine Logos divides only in order to bring into harmony (unite); and if we are to do likewise, it behooves us to strive for some kind of synthesis. Listen to the comedian Aristophanes (from his play Frogs) :

Aeschylus : Why do we marvel at a poet?

Euripides : For cleverness and advice; we make men better citizens.

Cleverness and advice : deixotetos and nouthesias. These details courtesy of an acute, well-grounded study by Andrew Ross, titled The Origins of Criticism : literary culture and poetic theory in classical Greece (Princeton U.P., 2002). Here is a sample:

"The contrast here is ethical and stylistic at once : deixos characterized a speaker or saying as striking, memorable, bold, and witty : Aristophanes used it especially of Euripides... and his Dionysus uses deixos for the 'fecund' (gonimos) poet who is capable of producing 'noble' (gennaion) and 'bold' (parakekinduneumenon) expressions. Nouthesia, a word made by compressing old gnomic formulas for 'putting a wise thought in the heart,' implied gravity, moral authority, concern for the other's well-being. Aristophanes is combining two styles of using poetry : the one offers sophistication, diversion, and wit - for example, the ridiculous but modern 'Aether, Zeus' bedroom'; the other promises moral soundness. The opposition between nouthesia and deixotes is between 'the time-honored, traditional' education bent on inculcating courage and moderation, and the new, based on science and sophistication." [Ross, op.cit., p. 200]

Ford's book steeps us in the milieu of 6th-4th century Athens. He provides a brilliant context for Plato's obsession with poetry (The Republic) and Aristotle's response (The Poetics). In this regard, I direct your attention to the quote from Elder Olson, in a previous essay, regarding the ethical and political power of poetry. How, exactly, does poetry "inculcate values"? Plato famously asserts the opposite. He argues that the vague, gnomic utterances of poetry make free with ambiguity : that they can be interpreted to support any argument whatsoever : that they are specious authorities, grist for every mill. Olson and R.S. Crane attempt a counter-offensive, by way of their distinction between mimesis and discourse : poetry is not didactic at all, it is iconic. But this argument is doubly double-edged : it both distances them from the New Critics and aligns them with them; it aligns them with authoritative Aristotle, and separates them from him.

If poetry is reduced to the iconic, the mutely representative, it becomes exactly what Plato would censor : the infinitely suggestive, multivalent text; ultimately ambiguous, essentially New Critical. And even if we accept Crane's and Olson's arguments regarding Aristotle's emphasis on the mimetic, representational (para-verbal) poetic substance, we are left with a basically aesthetic resolution (dénouement) to the creative process : the tragic poem "succeeds" by means of the craft which makes for a "self-standing", affective object. The Chicagoans successfully burst the bubble of New Critical poetic diction : but adducing the substance of poetry as affective-dramatic mimesis is not quite successful in defusing the (Platonic) charge of ethical irrelevance.

We have not quite expressed our Philovian synthesis, either. How to get at this? Let's go back to Aristophanes' Frog-quote, above. The influential poet combines cleverness and advice, Ford's "wit" and "heart", sophistication and profundity.

How? By a creative act which is itself synthetic : so synthetic as to elude theoretical-critical paraphrase. What is that Stevens passage? "The poem must evade the intelligence almost successfully..." Something like that. Oh well.

A dancer spins on her toes, and we are hypnotized. She is silent; her dance speaks for itself; the longer we dwell on that beautiful rotation, the more heart and mind become commingled, confused, intertwined.

The real and essentially theatrical protagonist of our Chicagoan-Aristotelian dramatic-mimetic poem-concept is : the words themselves ("cleverness, advice"). But these words will not be dissected and reduced to a theory of language. The words are a precipitation, a translation. They are one with their unspoken, unspeakable origin. The poem as a whole is larger : something like a song, something like a dance, something like a person : singing, dancing...
This book review was first published in Rain Taxi (electronic version), several years ago. The book is still available from XLibris & online vendors. When I was at Brown as an undergrad, Honig was one of my teachers (& friend, and mentor).

A review of work done by a close friend of the reviewer inevitably differs from a more independent response. There are gains & losses, probably mostly losses : nevertheless, when I re-read the poetry excerpts, it's impossible not to hear them again in Honig's wry, modulated voice.


Time and Again : Poems 1940–1997, by Edwin Honig
XLibris, 2000. 600 pp. $16.

Edwin Honig has a flair for drama. His multidimensional poetry manages a speaking voice with a large, fluent vocabulary, both slangy and erudite. His poems are often staged: a dramatic situation leaps to the fore. Here are the concluding lines of “The Gift”:

Free! Free! The round voice sings,
mad as a bell swinging with joy,
then stops. Quick! Quick! before eyes

fail against the final wall, let him
know what joy is, in his heart –
the stranger’s heart that eagerly
sang out of him, and stopped.

“The Gift”, within the confines of 18 lines, sets up a dream-like encounter between the speaker and “a stranger with a baby face”, sitting naked and smiling in a locked room, in a pool of his own blood. The drama serves a symbolic function: an embodiment of the otherness of inspiration, akin to possession or speaking in tongues. The process of dramatizing brings together many of Honig’s perennial concerns: his fascination with allegory, parable, storytelling; his obsession with the self and its self-delusions (evident in his poetry, and in his translations of Fernando Pessoa); and his immersion in theater proper (his translations of Calderon, his essays on Ben Jonson and the Elizabethans, and his own short plays in prose and verse). Honig’s technique involves setting a scene, suddenly, decisively. Within that scene a voice bubbles forth: the voice of a Brooklynite whose life spanned the 20th century, and which unites the studied stateliness of Prince Hal with the rambunctiousness of Falstaff. In the short poem “Late, Late”, these opposing aspects are muted but subtly present: a restricted, iconic movement combined with an expansive vocabulary.

Late, Late

In the palehaired fields of August
sunlight gravely brushes
poppies, blackeyed daisies,

rusted roses gallivanting
up an old abandoned cellarway
into the open sky.

A peach tree, hunched and mossy,
hard fruit speckled, stiff,
grows near the absent barn.

Red chevrons flashing,
blackbird gangs swell by.
The titmouse follows idly.

Is it their passing darkens
wild mustard, carrot, parsley?
Is it daylight shadows falling?

A first nightstar trembles.
The sickle moon advances
with a special cunning.

“Late, Late” is a concise example of the strain of elegiac mourning which is pervasive in Honig’s writing, and is found in combination with two important counter-tones: a streak of bitter, black humor, and a quieter voice of metaphysical hope. This collection of over 50 years’ work shows particularly clearly how the poet’s muse is framed by death: from the death of his young brother, hit by a truck while the two boys were crossing a street (in the 1920s), to the death of his first wife (in the 1960s), to the sense of political and cultural death (during the Vietnam War era and after), to the lonely confrontation with aging and dying faced by all (in the 1990s). His young wife’s passing triggered a whole range of writing, from brief poems to verse plays, stemming from the myth of Orpheus. This section, from a sequence called “Another Orpheus”, seems especially moving:

Her Remoteness

We sat in the lamplight’s quiet estimation
of our unwavering unanswered fire, one moment
in our living brimful glass
containing each of us, each as yet untouched,
unbroken, asking, Who
will drink us if we do not drink each other?
And neither of us stirred.


It is a light lingering on a sill
as I lie half-awakened on a summer morning
sunk in the weighted gladness
of my beached body still awash and unreleased
by the dark tide of sleep
till I advance a hand to touch the light and it
withdraws however far I reach and disappears.

Honig sometimes frames his rueful, bittersweet intonation in large, ambitious long poems. Most powerfully in Four Springs (a book-length poem modelled in part on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal) and Gifts of Light, he expands toward impersonality and objectivity – satirical and social (Four Springs) or a Beethoven-like, metaphysical sublimity (Gifts of Light). The latter poem swells finally into hymn:

Pulsing in the eye and ear
rhythms calling
inner to outer being
are gifts bestowed by light

In the intricate tasks of day
the fishing in
and hauling up
of joys and pains
are gifts bestowed by light

In the endless castings
of the fisher’s lines
the slicing of the scalpel
into flesh
are gifts bestowed by light

all of these and more
are of the gifts
bestowed by light


This massive collection is the testament of a survivor, and a record of 20th-century American poetry. Reading Honig through fifty years, one can trace his early apprenticeships, not only to Stevens, Lowell, MacNeice, and Dylan Thomas, but also to the Spanish modernists and European surrealists. One can follow the deepening of his own idiosyncratic vision and manner, while, at the same time, his precise, consistent mastery of diction flows into looser and more flexible forms. In this process he shares the developments of his generation: yet there are ranges of shaped experience which are complementary to, but different from, those of his peers (for example, Berryman or Lowell). Honig was both more cosmopolitan and more isolated: his translations of Spanish and Portuguese literature are known and performed widely around the world; his deep kinship with a Mediterranean–Moorish–Hebraic past filters into his work in distinctive ways; and his quiet life in provincial Rhode Island tempered his poetry with a plangent, meditative quality. For example, here is the beautiful short poem which concludes the volume:

Hymn to Her

The load you take
is dense, backbreaking
and mistaken.

It can be otherwise:
and in full light
wholly undertaken,

the load is slim,
and to the one that
takes it, bracing –

owed to none but
for the life
that lifts awakened.

Note the meticulous, elegant shape of the sentence working against the stanzas, and how right the rhymes are. This lyric by an aging, ailing man sums up a lifetime’s commitment in a hopeful key, and declares it good. Hopefully Edwin Honig’s dramatic presence and inimitable voice will find new readers (and listeners) as the new century unfolds.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Fifty years ago, a group of critics who came to be called the Chicago School raised questions about some of the assumptions then prevalent in the criticism of poetry. Among these was the notion of the poem as merely a verbal or textual phenomenon among other such phenomena, as simply another form of discourse. Elder Olson and R.S. Crane explored Aristotle’s insistence that at least certain forms of poetry (epic, tragic, comic) were not, essentially, discursive : rather, they were mimetic, representational.

The technical language which proliferates in the practice of criticism is useful and necessary. Nevertheless, it displays an unavoidable tendency (while appropriating endless reams of paper products) to trade the forest for the trees. The debates over the nature, function, and evaluation of poetic language, due to their intense focus on supplying evidence for close argumentation, often fail to acknowledge the larger semiotic context, within which words per se occupy only a narrow band.

Poetry along with everything else inhabits a forest of signs. Words themselves are only the most explicit and denotative (“pointy”) form which signs can take. Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances” inevitably comes to mind, which begins:

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

[Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
- trans. by William Aggeler]

Whether or not we agree that Nature ever sends us familiar glances, contemporary science certainly provides voluminous evidence that the living world (at least) operates by means of signals : from the sub-microscopic messages in DNA, to the festive display and camouflage exhibited by the animal world. Moreover, we cannot fail to recognize – even when we cannot succeed in understanding – that we ourselves are highly attuned to the unspoken language of sound, color, shape, gesture, and appearances in general. Such a text is not easily translatable into the verbal medium : we live in a sensorium of perception and feeling, emotion and intuition, absorbing its signs in many conscious and subconscious regions at once.

But poetry is not science : it is not primarily analytical, abstract or theoretical language, though it can incorporate these features to a limited extent. Poetry is representational. It offers a set of signs which, through evocation and mimicry, re-present experience from that wider sensorium and semiotic field which is life and nature. In so doing, poems open many and various paths for interpretation - sometimes making explicit argument, sometimes offering a kind of evidence for argument, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

From this perspective, Robert Frost’s quip that “poetry is what gets lost in translation” takes on another meaning. Each poem is an echo of a wider band of sensuous signs. A particular language-shaper’s effort to communicate this larger field in a verbal medium is itself a rather desperate act of translation.

Friday, October 07, 2005


A name not reckoned with much in literary circles today, R.S. Crane wrote some of the most substantial criticism of the last century. His work in poetics is on a par with that of Eliot, Coleridge, Johnson, and any other major critic in the English-language tradition.

Crane was a leader of a loose mid-century configuration, which came to be called the Chicago School or the Chicago Critics. He edited the influential 1950’s “Chicago” anthology, Critics and Criticism; but the work I am finding most useful is his monograph titled The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1953).

Perhaps Crane’s relative lack of notoriety stems in part from his lucid and careful style. His provocations are issued in a quiet undertone. Yet provocative they are indeed.

Imagine the history of 20th-century American poetry and poetics as taking the shape of an hourglass. The wide top brim of the glass represents the expansive, brash and confident experimentation of the early Moderns. The wide base represents the thinly-spread, over-burdened and skeptical end-of-century atmosphere. The narrow waistline of the era is girdled by the pedantic strictures of 50’s academic verse and New Critical formalism. It was at this narrow midpoint that Crane and the Chicagoans issued their analyses, as if coming at the hourglass from outside, at a slant.

I will try to summarize Crane’s map of the territory in broad, simple strokes (my aim being to get you to read his book). There are two main foci : the first being a general analysis of the history of literary criticism in the West; the second being an analysis of the character of the criticism of his own era. The argument which joins the two can be simplified as follows : the critical perspectives and methods of Aristotle, as regards literature, are fundamentally different from those of the second major tradition, which stems from the Hellenistic/Alexandrian age, through Horace, Quintillian, and onward into modern times.

As regards perspective : Aristotle essentially views poetry not as an art of words, but as an art of imitation. In epic and dramatic poetry, which are the genres with which the remaining texts are concerned, a poem is an imitation of character and action – a representation – which moves & pleases its audience through its justice, power and elegance. A lifelike mirror mimics reality through a form of action - using words, music and spectacle to create a holistic impression.

As regards method : Aristotle’s approach is scientific, a posteriori. The critic is not assembling literary evidence in order to advance his or her own prior overarching thesis. Instead, the method is one of differentiation of species or types, based on existing poems. Tragic poetry is distinguished from epic, etc. Then the individual parts which make up the whole (plot, character, diction, etc.) are in turn differentiated. The aim is not to justify or define the purposes of poetry within the larger social world. Poetry is recognized as an end in itself : Aristotle’s analysis is an attempt to clarify how its particular force and beauty is produced : how the parts of an imitation fuse in a unity.

Crane’s notion of what he considers the central assumption of the second (and more prevalent) stream of criticism, can be summarized (or oversimplified) as : Poetry is an art of words. For the past two millennia, this second trend has mingled poetry and rhetoric. The emphases have changed over the centuries – from attention to decorum and rhetorical effect, to the mind and character of the poet, to the poem as a container of semantic information - but the underlying premise and the resulting methodologies have remained consistent.

When he comes to dealing with his contemporaries (the New Criticism), Crane’s polemic becomes more sharp-edged, tinged with irony. First of all, he remarks that the N.C. is not really new, since it stems fairly seamlessly from the second tradition outlined above. Then he analyzes the main New Critical premises : that the poem is a form of discourse, an art of language; that its discourse nevertheless differs fundamentally from that of non-poetic & scientific discourse; that poetry is a particular semantic phenomenon, packaging meaning through its own unique symbolic & evocative procedures. We are so familiar with this approach and its variants that it becomes difficult to conceptualize an alternative to it. What Crane points out is how these generalizations, these assumptions about the nature of poetry, tend, on the one hand, to jumble together very different poetic forms, and on the other, to subsume what might be a more empirical approach beneath the critic’s own semantic and rhetorical formulae : “symbol-clusters”, “ambiguity”, “irony”, “metaphor”, and so on. What in Aristotle’s sense is a peculiar artifice of holistic imitation of nature, becomes, with the New Critics, a sort of Gnostic hermeneutical object, a magic talisman.

I hope in some future essay to explore some of the implications of Crane’s challenge. For the moment, let me simply point toward some possible problems which follow from it. First of all, it occurs to me that the major part of poetry today is not dramatic poetry. How does Aristotle’s conception of mimesis apply, then, in the case of lyric, didactic and other forms? One route for exploration might pursue the general idea that lyric poetry also “sets a scene” : the lyric simultaneously represents a locale, a context, and projects a dramatic speaker into it.

Another questionable aspect of Crane’s approach is that it exhibits its own brand of reduction. Must we really become Aristotelians all? Is that particular logical method, in itself, going to prove really relevant – be the password to the kind of reviewing and evaluation which we need today? This issue will require further consideration, but my first response would be : the notion of poetic form as mimesis, rather than form as discourse, may have the potential to give new life to our own contemporary projects : to an acceptable mythos of the poet’s vocation and role, upon which we might build with new enthusiasm.