Experiencing New Criticism

These past couple of weeks have been a struggle while sitting in this class. New Criticism, a concept that has been taught to me very differently in the past, has been very hard to digest. Last semester I took a class where we were taught both, New Criticism and Post-Colonial Criticism, but the class required us to only use the later. Post-Colonial Criticism is a style that looks for political, social, and economic meanings in the text. We would often question the author’s intent, and look for a context of the written work. This was all we did. It was an entire semester of this practice and I grew to love it. Now that I am in Practice of Criticism I felt bombarded by this discourse, which has been told to me was the wrong way of doing things. I felt like there was no way that someone in his or her right mind would use this to approach literature. I would complain to fellow English majors about how New Critics were ruining the world. Taking poetry and reading it backwards to find new meaning, I mean come on.

Then something happened, I had an epiphany of sorts, an existential realization as to why New Criticism is a great thing. I will give background to explain how I got there. My brother, a person who I send all of my creative written work to, is someone who will read very carefully and send back a lot of critics. I always would welcome the criticism for I knew it could be helpful. Unfortunately my brother is always trying to look for hidden meaning in my work to create some kind of psychological diagnosis of me. “Brian are you depressed?” “Brian is this about that one time that this happened?” “Brian are you not telling me something?” “Is this about this thing that happened in the world today?” and so on. Never would he say anything of substance and it would infuriate me. I was looking for technical critics about clarity, form, style, maybe see how it made him feel, what images did it conjure up? The thing is he would only be looking for stuff like author’s intent, and context. This made me frustrated because he wasn’t assessing the work, he was analyzing me, and I felt like that once I wrote the piece it wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the reader.

So back to my existential realization, I was harshly critical of New Criticism yet I wanted to be criticized by New Critics for my own work. I wanted the world to get rid of New Criticism but I wished it on myself. Sartre has said, “When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility.” (Sartre) This quote is very relevant to my understanding of New Criticism. I have wished New Criticism on myself but did not wish it to the world, now I have come closer to understanding the discourse and think that it is a very relevant Criticism. My brother’s critics infuriated me, and in a way that was what I was doing in my English class last semester.

I am not saying that Post-Colonial Criticism is bad, because I think that it is very relevant when dealing with Orientalist texts. This is now the great debate that exists in my mind. What criticism should be used and is there one that is better? Well I don’t feel as if I have come to any conclusion yet, which makes me happy. College to me is a place where our beliefs are flipped upside down and questioned. If we lived in a world were we just accepted ideas, it would be in my opinion a terrible world.

This was a very important realization to have during this class because I was becoming very uninterested with the material, and now I feel like I have the motivation needed to engage in the class discussion. This experience has given me an open mind and I am excited to expand my knowledge of literary philosophy. Anyways I thought I would share this here, hope that this was interesting for it was exciting for me. Enjoy your night and best luck on all of my classmate’s essays.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Paragraph 11. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

On Seamus Heaney’s Death

A number of people in the department and on campus have written to me about Seamus Heaney’s death, so I just want to share a couple thoughts about him.

Yeats once said that a poet is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete, so I guess it’s fitting that the last time I saw Heaney, in Ireland a little over three weeks ago, he was having breakfast. He had just given a reading the previous night (I’m guessing it was his last public reading), and that morning, as I was having my own breakfast while stealing glances his way, I thought of that quote. For Yeats, of course, the whole idea of The Poet means a kind of paradoxical blending of individuality and collectivity — by adhering scrupulously to his or her own vision the poet gives expression to (and is reborn as a part of) something communal, more type than man, more passion than type. It’s all pretty typical high modernist stuff, and in certain moods, I agree; but when I saw Heaney that morning and thought about his reading the previous evening, I felt like Yeats only gets it partly right.

Theres an old Irish expression that (old) people use when they don’t know a person referenced in a conversation. They’ll ask, who is he when he’s at home? During Heaney’s reading, he didn’t go with all the really famous stuff  — “Digging,” the poems about bog people, the major translations, his beautiful and conflicted responses to Northern Irish violence — but, instead, gave us short, simple, vivid lyrics, most of them about rural life in Ireland. It struck me during the reading and again at breakfast that if being a Poet means, for Yeats, a kind of rebirth, a kind of transcendence, being a poet (with the small p) can also be a way of becoming more fully who one is when one is at home — that bundle of accident, in all our silly humanity, at the breakfast table.

When Heaney was introduced at the reading by the president of the Yeats Summer School, she said that Heaney decided once again to give a reading, even though he has not been in the best of health, because he said he owed it to Yeats. That sounds pretty audacious -— though, if anyone has earned that right, it’s Heaney — but during the course of the reading it became clear to me that the choice of simple lyrics, as opposed to the biggies, was really an act of humble tribute, a return to poetry as something beautifully ordinary.

All of which is an elaborate way of saying that Heaney, for all his fame, was a thoroughly humble person. Over the years, I’ve seen him interact with lots of fans, including many Geneseo students eager to have their books signed and to ask questions about their own encounters with his poems, and he was always, just that — humble, kind, open, ready to talk.

The first time I met him, in 1995 at a hotel bar in Sligo, I was one of those eager students. A group of us, all in graduate school, had pretty much cornered him, testing out our ideas for seminar papers and doctoral theses, and, while I don’t remember what he said (I was too self-conscious about meeting the great poet to actually listen to him), I remember his manner —  friendly, interested, obviously content to sit around and talk poetry, even with (what must have been an unbearable) gaggle of graduate students.

Okay, I’m starting to use alliteration and odd metaphors (gaggle?) in my phrasing — time to wrap this up. When Heaney read, when he talked in bars, when he sat at breakfast smiling shyly to passersby, he always seemed, to me at least, to be at home as himself, at home as both poet and person, person and poet.

Heres one of the poems from that last public reading. Its a nice one for summer’s end:


Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeards.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasnt fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped theyd keep, knew they would not.


“Poetry Written in Porcelain” reads the headline in today’s New York Times about Edmund de Waal, potter and author. The headline asks us to consider de Waal’s carefully crafted vessels as metaphorical poems.

Or are we meant to take the statement literally?

“My making and my writing is one thing,” Mr. de Waal is quoted as saying “Pots turn into words, and words turn into pots.” And later: “When I make something, I hear it.”

This proposed equivalence between poetry and concrete objects isn’t new at all. You’ll find it, among other places, in Keats’ ” Ode on a Grecian Urn” and in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.”

If the “practice of criticism” has a theoretical side that consists, in part, of defining the terms in which that practice is conducted, then poetry is one of those terms we’re called upon to define.

What is poetry? Should our definition be broad enough to encompass de Waal’s pots as literal poems? If not, what would our definition require in order for the pots to count as metaphorical poems?


A Few Quick Thoughts for Next Class

In his Norton Lecture series Poetics of Music, composer Stravinsky explains how he creates a symphony from silence:

“I remember that I have chords, meters, timbre, texture, and dynamics at my disposal, and I can set things down and close off false routes and then the composition comes together.”

Criticism is a practice of telescoping, zooming in and out, often at the same time. Like an engineer piecing together his machine, our criticism entails not only this exploded view but also a fully assembled perspective. We learn how the form not only creates the meaning, but is the meaning.

We experience a work as a whole when it calls us furiously to action, makes us simply happy to be a live, or, in Kafka’s words, “[serves] as an ax for the frozen sea within us.” I became an English major because I read a poem that used one syllable words to express fifty syllable emotions.

Always remember why you were drawn to reading. Remember that all criticism comes from this sort of love. Our gut human reaction to a work counts for just as much.