(Read Part I. Promised tomorrow, three days ago. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Those who prefer the gossip without the theory should skip to the bottom.)

The “New Critics,” now very old or dead critics, having had their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, were a diverse group united, sort of, in the belief that the poem was “autotelic,” in the contemporary jargon. The poem was self-contained and to be read as such. Biography in particular was rigorously excluded: to introduce it was to commit what W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley called “the intentional fallacy,” which held the author’s intention to be irrelevant to the meaning of a poem. “Critical inquiries,” they intoned, “are not settled by consulting the oracle.”

Now that the Age of Psychology is in full flower, and the work serves mostly as grist for invidious speculation about the life, Wimsatt and Beardsley seem quaint. At least critics back then were still trying to interpret the poem. (It goes especially hard these days with authors whose lives were uneventful, like Emily Dickinson. A quiet life is easy to fill with speculation, and her feminist critics, especially, have not hesitated. Anyone inclined to psychoanalysis could have a field day with the critics of “My life had stood a loaded gun.”)

Yet poems do not float in the ether: some context is relevant. The date of composition matters, surely. Words change meanings. Critics who wish to find in a modern poet the secondary meaning of “come to orgasm” in the word “die” will embarrass themselves, since it disappeared by the 18th century. Words go in and out of favor. Our Hardy poem was written in the 1890s, when “hither and thither” were not archaic as they are now. Grammar changes: the dangling participle, considered illiterate now, is a common construction among learned Elizabethans. (See Greville’s “Down in the depths” for instance.)

If we take the “intentional fallacy” at its word, however, it is just as valid to find a pun on “die” in Wallace Stevens as it is in John Donne, and as valid to criticize Greville for a dangling participle as Wordsworth. Wimsatt and Beardsley are right to prefer public evidence, what is found in the poem, to private evidence, what is found elsewhere; but surely one cannot read private evidence out of the record altogether. (Borges’ little fable about Pierre Menard, who rewrote Don Quixote word for word, but 300 years later, making it a different work entirely, is an excellent joke on Wimsatt and Beardsley, or maybe on me, I’m not sure which.)

Nor are dates a mere matter of grammar and etymology. A Christian poem written in the 16th century is a good deal different from one written in the 20th. Without a substantial grounding in medieval theology and philosophy Dante’s Inferno is impossible to understand. Poems are not composed “autotelically”; how can they be read that way?

Even biographical information has its uses. Hardy was a widower who cherished his late wife and addressed many poems to her. One does not need this information to read “My spirit will not haunt the mound” — to which we will keep returning in this series, I promise — but one’s understanding of a line like “I and another used to know/ In backward days” is surely enriched by the fact.

(And now some New Critic gossip from the fine poet Tim Murphy, who had Robert Penn Warren (did anyone really call him “Red”?) and Cleanth Brooks at Yale: “The first time I met Professor Brooks was when the Warrens took me to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. The house was an 18th century Vermont farmhouse, post and beam, lovingly reassembled in the woods north of New Haven. The beams were about five feet eight off the ground, which was fine for Cleanth and his wife but a headache for anyone else. One guest was the great prosodic theorist, William Wimsatt. At six feet seven, he stooped with chin atop one of the beams, peering down at the proceedings like a bemused owl.

“The last time I saw Cleanth Brooks he chaired my oral examination as Scholar of the House in poetry. Like the other eleven SoH’s, I’d been given my senior year off; and I spent it reading all of Shakespeare twice, writing verse, learning Greek, adding to the twenty-five thousand lines Warren had had me memorize, chasing boys, and doing drugs. Having forgotten all about the oral, I’d dropped acid around 4:00 in the morning. At 8:30 the Dean’s office called: “Where are you?” Tripping my brains out, I ran the four blocks to Strathcona Hall. There sat Brooks, flanked by two assistant profs who hated my guts. For the next two hours I recited Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Timmy, leaving little time for questions. When I left, fearing disgrace, I’m told that Brooks urged that Murphy be given Honors for a year productively spent. Mine enemies dared not demur. The end result of this performance was that a terrible student was lifted from the ranks of the unlettered and granted a cum laude degree. Once more, I had escaped.”)

Aaron Haspel | Posted January 19, 2003 @ 3:46 PM | Poetry

10 Responses to “How to Read a Poem II: The Intentional Fallacy, plus Gossip”

  1. 1 1. Tim Murphy

    Brooks called him Red, I called him Mr. Warren, and he called me Boy. As in "Boy, the first line of a poem should grab you by the throat and say Poetry just like this Jack Daniel’s grabs you by the throat and says whiskey."


  2. 2 2. Alan Sullivan

    Aaron, I like your balanced view. The New Critics were mistaken to exclude context and biography from discussion of poems. I doubt it was an honest mistake, either. To indulge in a bit of contemporary psychoanalysis, I think they were trying to claim criticism as the exclusive domain of critics (most of whom are failed artists). This was academic revenge on the wretches who could actually write poetry.

    I wish Tim would quit being so worshipful about the gods of his youth. The muse of whiskey did nothing for Warren’s poetry, and the picture of those owlish profs in their barn is a lot less charming than Tim thinks.


  3. 3 3. Tim Murphy

    Nonsense, Alan. Warren held criticism in such low esteem he urged me neither to read nor write it. Assigned a term paper on Stevens, I was sitting minding the book return desk at Sterling Library when Warren strolled up. Gesturing at the dozen or so volumes piled at my side I asked "Which of these critical studies shall I read, Mr. Warren?" He replied, "Boy, send those books back to the stacks and read Stevens for yourself."

    It was a wonderful time when poets dominated criticism, including Ransom, Tate, Warren, Winters, Cunningham, Bogan, etc. I think they were wrong in precluding a consideration of historical and biographical context, and they were reacting against their predecessors. But look at their successors! Would you have us read Vendler and Perloff and attend a panel at the MLA devoted to the study of clitoral imagery embedded in Emily D? "Deconstruction," from my first book:

    Rummaging in rubble,
    critics are scribbling
    like fieldmice nibbling
    in a farmer’s stubble.


  4. 4 4. Aaron Haspel

    Am I the only one who thinks of Foghorn Leghorn every time Tim tells another story about Warren?


  5. 5 5. Gregory Khasin

    Let us consider the following: 1) biographical and historical material is irrelevant in understanding a poem. I am not sure that the New Critics went as far as to assert that. Your counterexamples are clear and convincing. What they actually asserted was this: 2) the meaning of a poem as a work of art does not reduce to the poets self-expression. More exactly, they would acknowledge that the biography of a poet may contribute to its meaning, but deny that it constitutes its essence. If you agree that the essence of art, be it painting, music or poetry, lies elsewhere, and indeed quite far from our modest personal or even historical circumstances, then I am with you in using all our considerable erudition and intelligence to get to it.
    As to your poems are not composed autotelically. How about 1) poems are composed much more autotelically than anything we know; 2) something is a poem exactly to the extent it is composed autotelically.


  6. 6 6. Aaron Haspel

    Gregory, thanks. Wimsatt and Beardsley were willing to admit biography, at least theoretically: "The use of biographical evidence need not involve intentionalism, because while it may be evidence of what the author intended, it may also be evidence of the meaning of his words and the dramatic character of his utterance. On the other hand, it may not be all this." But they never give an example of a valid inference, and it is hard to see how biographical inferences can be anything but "intentionalism" including my perfectly reasonable one about the Hardy poem. In practice they rule biography out.

    Insofar as Wimsatt and Beardsley criticize the doctrine that "the meaning of a poem as a work of art does not reduce to the poets self-expression" they get no argument from me. On the contrary, I regard art as self-expression as an utterly pernicious doctrine in the name of which an astonishing amount of bad art and artistic fraud has been perpetrated.

    As for autotelism, poems are statements about the world. They necessarily refer to things outside themselves. I confess that I do not understand what it means to read or write such statements "autotelically." Nor do I believe that anything can be a poem in degrees. What makes a poem a poem is the fact that it’s composed in verse. What makes it good or bad is of course a more complicated question.


  7. 7 7. Alan Sullivan

    Aaron, I completely agree with your final comment, but that is a very controversial assertion, as I am sure you know.

    Regarding Tim on Warren: yes, Warren wore both hats, poet and critic. His aspirations as a poet were larger than his achievements, IMO, and All the King’s Men remains his most memorable work for me.

    But Brooks, the most influential critic in the movement, was not a poet, and others (like Ciardi and Tate) were frustrated in their poetic ambitions.

    Cunnimgham suffered from poetic constipation. He wrote some fine verse, but the lines were short and the poems few. Winters had all the poetic authority of a eunuch. Of the group you cite, only Bogan produced a convincing body of work, IMO.

    However I will concede that my statement was too broad.


  8. 8 8. Aaron Haspel

    You didn’t mention Ransom. Neither his poetry nor his criticism is to my taste, but it cannot be denied that both he and Tate were distinguished poets. The girl chasing the geese in "Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter" is one of the unforgettable moments in 20th century poetry.

    Since almost all poets write too much it seems churlish to criticize Cunningham for writing too little, especially when he has half a dozen great poems to his credit, and few men have more.

    Winters is my favorite critic and much underrated as a poet. But he is a very large topic that I will defer to another day. Bogan, on the other hand, was a superb poet but a rather sketchy critic.

    On the whole it seems fair to say that the New Critics had a substantial body of poetic achievement, certainly far more than today’s influential poetry critics do.


  9. 9 9. John Hinchey

    I agree wholeheartedly with drift of these posts, in their preference for the old critics (whatever their limitations) to the new, and I’ll spare you the rant that would ensue were I to throw my two cents into the discussion. But I have a very practical question: are there any good young literary critics (particularly of poetry) writing now? And if so, who are they and where does one look to find them?


  10. 10 10. liz

    S.O.S. Have misplaced the word used to describe the type of poem written about a different medium, e.g. a painting or a statue. PLEASE canany one of you erudite lot help??Liz


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