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Author Biography: Robert Scholes is Research Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. He is the author of many books of literary theory, among them The Rise and Fall of English, Protocols of Reading, Semiotics and Interpretation, Structuralism in Literature, Textual Power, and Hemingway’s Genders (coauthor), all published by Yale University Press.
A Lost Craft
There is a word, a "name of fear," which rouses terror in the heart of the vast educated majority of the English-speaking race. The most valiant will fly at the mere utterance of that word. The most broad-minded will put their backs up against it. The most rash will not dare affront it. I myself have seen it empty buildings that had been full; and I know that it will scatter a crowd more quickly than a hose-pipe, hornets, or the rumour of plague. Even to murmur it is to incur solitude, probably disdain, and possibly starvation, as historical examples show. That word is "poetry."
Thus Arnold Bennett, almost a century ago, in his little book Literary Taste: How to Form It (Bennett 69). No doubt he exaggerated just a bit. (I love the "historical examples.") But we take his point. I knew it, in fact, before I had found and read his words, knew it before I wrote what is (and shall remain) the longest essay of my life with the dread word squarely there in the title. But I had thought the problem was more recent, that, in the good old days, poetry was accorded its rightful place at the top of the literary tree. Well, we must push the good old days back a bit further, I am afraid.Bennett's discussion of the matter leads me to suspect that poetry became "a name of fear" when the reading public expanded, mass magazines were founded, and the gap between high literature and popular texts began to widen-a century or more before Bennett wrote. The problem is still with us, though much has happened since Bennett's time.
He thought, himself, that the way to cure people of their poetry anxiety ("the fearful prejudice of the average lettered man against the mere form of verse") was to encourage them to read poems that had the virtues of fiction: to read Wordsworth's "The Brothers," which, he said, "is a short story, with a plain, clear plot. Read it as such" (74). Or, he suggested, "Elizabeth Browning's Aurora Leigh," which might be read as a very good novel but contained "nearly all the moods of poetry that exist: tragic, humorous, ironic, elegiac, lyric-everything" (79). In short, Bennett thought that poetry anxiety might be alleviated by beginning with poems that offered the pleasures of fiction, before moving into the more complex parts of the poetical canon. It is easy to make fun of Bennett. In this book, he actually laid out the cost of accumulating a basic library and a plan for the reader to acquire cultural capital at a total expense of twenty-eight pounds, zero shillings, and one penny. The Arnold Bennett that Virginia Woolf mocked and taught us to sneer at is very visible in this book. And yet, he was mainly right, I think, in the direction of his thinking. Poetry anxiety is real-as real as math anxiety-and as important. But the problem presents itself to us differently now, partly because we are situated in the wake of the most sustained and informed attempt ever made to solve the problem of teaching people how to read a poem: an attempt that took a very different direction from the one advocated by Bennett.
I believe that this attempted solution was not merely a failure but in fact made the situation worse. In the pages that follow I intend to demonstrate how some of the most learned and intelligent critics of the past century-from whom I learned much and to whom I owe a great deal-were seriously wrong about the subject they knew best. And I want to make a few suggestions about how to recover from the mess they made. Put more specifically, I believe that what we still call the New Criticism was bad for poets and poetry and really terrible for students and teachers of poetry. And I believe this even though I am convinced that most of the New Critics were smarter than I am, more learned in their subject, and capable of producing much more powerful arguments on behalf of their positions than I can produce against them. Against all this, I have only one claim-that it didn't work, that it turned out badly, despite the cogency of their arguments and the subtlety of their analyses. Because this is a long essay, I have broken it into several segments.
Poetry, Modernism, and the New Critics
Few people would deny that poetry now plays a very minor role in our culture. The New Critics did not want this to happen. They tried to make a case for the supreme importance of poetry, based on a supposed opposition between poetry and other ways of using language. Allen Tate, for instance, argued that "public speech has become heavily tainted with mass feeling. Mass language is the medium of 'communication,' and its users are less interested in bringing to formal order what is today called the 'affective state' than in arousing that state" (Stallman 55). This statement is not just typical but foundational for the New Criticism. Let us factor out of Tate's dense prose the crucial points:
mass feeling is bad;
mass feeling contaminates public speech, turning it into mass language;
mass language arouses emotions;
emotions should not be aroused but brought into "formal order."
The proper vehicle for bringing "formal order" out of emotion, according to Tate, is poetry. This position has much in common with T. E. Hulme's preference for what he called "classicism" over romanticism, with T. S. Eliot's notion of the "objective correlative," and with many other modernist theories of poetry. In Tate's writing-and this is obvious even in the brief quotation we are considering-there is a clear social position undergirding the aesthetic position. The masses are bad, dangerous, incapable of clear thought, and manipulated by the media of public communications. This is, in fact, a political position. The best word for it, though obsolete in American politics, is Tory. Tate's view is precisely that of the American Tories who sided with England in the American Revolution and maintained that those we still call patriots were merely demagogues. They were probably right to some extent, those Tories of old, but also wrong, and a more egalitarian United States emerged from that conflict. But my point is that Tate's views are indeed political and social, though wearing the mask of pure reason. Being political, of course, is not the same thing as being wrong, but it is wrong to claim that you are above politics when your views are actually political. It is also wrong to claim that you are an impartial judge when you despise those whose trial you are conducting, as was the case with the judge who presided over the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in the twenties: "When the cases came to trial, Judge Webster Thayer said of Vanzetti 'this man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.' This was the same judge who would ask Professor James P. Richardson of Dartmouth College 'Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while'"(The Guardian, August 23, 1998). This may seem irrelevant to the question of poetry, but I assure you that it is indeed connected-and I promise to make that connection plain. But first, back to Tate and his view of poetry. His opposition between poetry as a private art and the language of mass communication will clash and clang throughout the following discussion.
In the time when Tate was writing, it seems to me, poetry played a much larger role in Anglo-American culture than it does today. Its diminished status is partly the result of displacement by the new media that Tate despised (though it may actually be embodied and alive in those media-in ways he would not acknowledge as poetical), but I would like to suggest that a lot of the damage has been done inside our schools and colleges, by well-intentioned teachers, so that we must look there to discover just what happened and to find some remedies. We need look for remedies, of course, only if we believe, as I do myself, that poetry can make important contributions to our lives as individuals and to the life of our language and our society. Poetry, in fact, does a lot of the same work as prose, but does it, in general, more powerfully and compactly, with more of what Tate called "formal order." It offers us textual pleasure in its formal qualities-a pleasure in the grace, vigor, or ingenuity of the language itself-but it also offers us expressive pleasure, in that it articulates our concerns and our situations. It speaks for us as well as to us. And finally, because of its memorability and brevity, it is a powerful medium of communication, a way of exchanging and sharing thoughts and feelings with others-sometimes, perhaps, even a means of persuasion.
In this essay I shall argue that we have lost the craft of reading poetry-lost sight of poetry's private pleasures and of its public powers-and that our methods of studying and teaching poetry for the past half-century are very much to blame for this condition. That is, English teachers, among whom I number myself-we English teachers, then-in our bumbling, well-meaning way, have done a lot of the damage, and we have done it both at the college level and at the level of secondary school. From this point on, then, I shall speak as an English teacher, addressing the problems of teaching poetry in the classroom and suggesting remedies at that level as well. But I want to begin this discussion with an example chosen from another source, an episode of failed instruction in the arts as represented in Marcel Proust's monumental novel, In Search of Lost Time. You will remember how it goes, in the first volume of Proust's work, when M. Charles Swann tries to talk about poetry and painting to the woman with whom he is hopelessly in love.
If, then, Swann tried to show her in what artistic beauty consisted, how one ought to appreciate poetry or painting, after a minute or two she would cease to listen, saying: "Yes ... I never thought it would be like that." And he felt her disappointment was so great that he preferred to lie to her, assuring her that he had only touched the surface, that he had not time to go into it all properly, that there was more in it than that. Then she would interrupt with a brisk, "More in it? What? ... Do tell me!", but he did not tell her, for he realized how petty it would appear to her, and how different from what she had expected, less sensational and less touching [moins sensationnel et moins touchant], he was afraid, too, lest, disillusioned in the matter of art, she might at the same time be disillusioned in the greater matter of love. (Proust 185, ellipses in the original)
We can, I believe, see the attitudes and concerns of many English teachers represented by those of Swann, however embarrassing that may be. He feels that his pupil is guilty of a number of errors of taste that he would like to correct. He is also, of course, terribly afraid of losing what he believes (quite mistakenly, of course) to be her love for him. English teachers are not, I hope, worried about their students remaining in love with them, but they are quite properly concerned about earning and keeping the respect of those students, without which they can accomplish little or nothing. But let us see what we can learn from the example of Swann. He tries, Proust tells us, "to show her in what artistic beauty consisted, how one ought to appreciate poetry." He is also trying, as the context makes clear, to correct her bad taste, to make her feel the right emotions for the right objects, but she is drawn to the touching and sensational, and hopes that her teacher will lead her to even more intense experiences of the same kind as those she already encounters in the heroic romances she likes to read. Put in terms of the problem we are considering, she is not a crafty reader but a naive one, reading only texts that make a direct, sensational appeal to her, or which she can read so as to experience that kind of pleasure. Her teacher suggests that other texts are better, greater than those she likes, and she is perfectly ready to entertain that suggestion, but she wants these "better" texts to give her the same sensations she has already learned to enjoy.
The problem for Swann, of course, is that his "better" texts are in fact less sensational, less sentimental, than those she enjoys. In the visual arts, for instance, he offers her the coolest and most restrained of painters, Vermeer of Delft, as an example. Her response? "She asked whether he had been made to suffer by a woman, if it was a woman that had inspired him, and once Swann told her that no one knew, she ... lost all interest in that painter" (185). Certain contemporary novelists, as it turns out, are quite ready to gratify Odette's wishes, with books like Girl with a Pearl Earring, and there is even an opera, Writing to Vermeer, based on imaginary letters to the painter from his wife, his mother-in-law, and his model. As a reviewer in the New York Times pointed out, "it would take a mighty dose of imagination to turn Johannes Vermeer into the stuff of dramatic opera" (Riding 1). Odette, the backward pupil, was in fact seeking the postmodern, despite the resolute modernism of her "teacher." This is one of the things that should make her interesting to us. Wrong then and there, she might be right here and now. Let us at least consider the possibility, for she is the embodiment of our pedagogical problem-and our opportunity. We should notice that she commits all the fallacies that modernist critics and teachers have taught us to avoid-the affective, the intentional, the communicative, the biographical-while Swann, like those same teachers, tries to repress those powerful though "fallacious" responses by lecturing her on the nature of "artistic beauty." Swann, as it happens, is more like us than is usually perceived. He is writing an article about Vermeer (just as we might be writing an article about a writer we are teaching) which he hopes to publish one day, but which, like ours, alas, too often, may never, quite, get finished. And he wishes, as we may, to wean his student away from her vulgar, meretricious pleasures (think sitcoms, quiz shows, fanzines) and get her onto the solid food of serious art and literature. Welcome, we and Swann seem to be saying to our students, to high culture and its discontents!
M. Swann, I would like to suggest, is not only like us in general, he is like a specific sort of English teacher; or, to put it more tactfully, and perhaps more usefully, he should remind us of a certain specific approach to literary study, for Swann's approach to literature is very much like that of our own New Critics. There are good historical reasons for this. Proust himself was a major modernist, and the New Criticism arose in America directly from literary modernism, as embodied in the writings of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and Ford Madox Ford-the "men of 1914," as they were called. Allen Tate was friendly with Ford, who has been described as his mentor (Vinh 33), and he was also, along with John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren, a founder of the New Critical movement. The New Criticism, as the adjective new proclaims, was the academic and critical arm of British and American modernism, which owed a good deal to the Parisian modernism of Proust, Mallarmé, Valéry, de Gourmont, Laforgue, and others. Proust himself was undoubtedly in sympathy with Swann's perspective on art and literature. But my point is that Swann can stand for us as an exemplar of the New Criticism specifically because of the way that he condemns the literature that Odette likes as "sensational" and "touching." For these are pejorative terms in Swann's vocabulary and in that of the New Critics-and this fact is the source of many of the problems we face in trying to persuade our students that literary works are indeed sources of textual pleasure and power.
Excerpted from The Crafty Reader by Robert Scholes Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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