Friday, October 07, 2005

A Note on R.S. Crane

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.

No comments: