Reading Poetry and the New Critics

..the New Critics .. did some brilliant work in the exegesis of poetic texts.

What I am calling modernist in their teaching .. can be reduced to a powerful opposition between the rhetorical and the poetical. This view was put succinctly by Yeats when he said that he made rhetoric from his quarrels with others and poetry from his quarrels with himself. “Rhetoric” in this modernist formulation signifies writing that is persuasive, interested, seeking to move the reader in a particular direction; whereas “poetry” signifies writing that is contemplative, disinterested, which hovers among possible directions held immobile by irony, paradox, or ambiguity. Such a notion is rooted in Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgement’, in which he defined art as “purposefulness without purpose” – a definition echoed in Arnoldian “disinterestedness” and strongly present in modernist formulations as well, sometimes expressed as a desire to write a book or poem about nothing. In contrast with this ideal is the notion of rhetoric as vulgar, commercial, or political, always interested (in the bad sense of that word) and therefore never interesting. In the vocabulary of many modernists, including the New critics, this often takes the form of an overt rejection of what is called “sentimental” or “sensational” and a more covert rejection of the public and political. The dignity of poetry requires those who teach it to accept  the fact, in Auden’s famous formulation, it “makes nothing happen”.

The first full essay in Robert Scholes collection The Crafty Reader is sufficient reason to read his book. Those that follow are absorbing but less provocative . Reading Poetry: A Lost Craft introduces Scholes’s hypothesis, that reading well (i.e. craftily) is a craft not an art, but it is his recantation of the aesthetic concerns of the New Critics that is the more engaging argument.

Scholes convincingly identifies a “persistent strain of misogyny running through the thinking of the “men of 1914″ and their followers,” particularly in their onslaught on sentimentality.

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