Friday, April 26, 2019

More Notes On Notes On A Draft Paper On The New Criticism

More further to the immediately below post: my friend’s response and my reply:



Yes, I do expand and should make that clear.  My general category is deep interpretation, ie that there is something deeper than the story or emotional/though progression/development in the poem.  

Dead right about the final bit.  It should be "the illusion of a unified beauty, truth and goodness."

Third:  We disagree.  I think the dramatic moment and movement usually disappears is the pattern.  It was common to read in reviews of books that offered interpretations that the big thesis or theses were no big deal, but along the way there were very good accounts of lines or scenes.  And I found that too.  I said that in one draft, it may have gone in this one.  

The great accounts of poems just go from beginning to end tracing the drama.  No theme.  Of course the poems deal with common occasions, eg the death of a child, the murder of a loved on out of jealousy, but those are not themes which are more or less hidden from non-trained readers.  

We disagree on Abrams, perhaps the best scholar-critic of his time.  It is a brilliant brief account of a common procedure.  In every "analysis" The Well-Wrought Urn the poem boils down to two opposed attitudes being in ironic tension, again and again and again.  The vast dramatic differences, a man responding to an urn or a London dawn, are submerged in that ironic tension which is the organizing principle from start to finish.  

Kernan is also a very fine critic and did much better but when writing for students in an intro he fell back on the binary order beneath the temporal drama.  Take a look at Abrams' essay "Five Types of Lycidas" (i'll give you the ref if you want to bother) for a developed form of his critique.  

You are right when it comes to short stretches of reading, then the interpreters often attend to the moment and what's going on, but when they tackle the whole poem and want to have a summary statement they fall into allegory.  

By the way, Hegel did this first with Antigone by saying it was really a conflict between two equally valid moral principles.  One can re-tell a story or poem vividly, thus capturing the drama, but it is very hard to do at any length.  I know of very few examples.  There are good insights strewn all over but what made new criticism, or deep interpretation, successful in an academic context was its claim to reveal things (deep themes) that earlier commentators did not see.  Abrams in Five Types shows that in fact readers have always understood the poems.  The example I give with the In  Memoriam quote is the clincher for me.  We all know just what it means (or is, a lament that move from despair to hope)  so we have to talk about other things.  New critics claimed other had missed the meaning.  

Very fine criticisms and much appreciated and they will lead to changes.  

Thanks a heap, 


I’m not going to get into it all with you since we’ve been back and forth any number of times. So, I’ll say that while the notion of NC (New Criticism) as complex unity via theme is wonderfully paradoxical, all to the good, pointedly succinct yet explosively expansive to take the NC past lyric poetry, it’s off kilter, like a side wind, to say it goes to “something deeper” than the story or the emotional progression through it. 

As argued these are the necessary conditions for what constitutes theme and it would be well if you gave theme in your paper a fighting chance and didn’t reduce what it is as a NC critical apogee to the silliness of Kerman calling Othello a morality play or to Abrams’s distorted version of what NC does with plays. 

If you can give the best arguments for and version of theme and then try to attack them with better arguments, then that would be a boon to your paper. 

For example, to try to specify what a longer work is about, to try to arrive at a general statement that captures its essence is hardly allegorizing, any more than the effort to sum up the historical evidence, or any hypothesis that seeks to account for a set of data, by way of a theory as to cause(s) is allegorizing. That way of describing these academic efforts are both unjust to them and misshape the idea of allegory. These theses don’t symbolize or stand for something else, free standing and discrete in themselves yet one to one symbolic, a crawling king snake as evil or as penis. Rather they have an existence only in relation in trying to explain what they sum up.

And one thing to heed in your paper are the first few words of your first quote from Frye when he speaks “academic criticism.” Your attack on the NC might want to distinguish between reviews and formal literary criticism and you might want more concretely to wrestle with the implications in saying you’ve used an approach to literature that falsifies and distorts it’s nature. There’s an implication of bad faith in that admission. Insofar as it’s not set aside by a persuasive justification, you let yourself off the hook of that implication too easily. 

That’s to me why the three crude examples of responding to the poem, mid paper, which you surprisingly say—perhaps to shock or be contrarian for its own sake—are “perfectly reasonable” seem adduced and commented upon by you in a vacuum. 

You’d, I think, want to specify the context of those reactions: they’d be laughed out of any *academically* meaningful discussion of poetry—say what goes in most college or even high school classrooms. 

So again, taking stock of “academic criticism,” its whys and wherefores, would shore up the structure of your paper, the context of “perfectly reasonable,” and could provide the beginning of an answer to the *apparent* bad faith implications of teaching by a critical method that, on your argument, wounds literature rather severely. 

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