“UNDERSTANDING POETRY” — MODERNISM’S TROJAN HORSE


l. to r. Tate, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Davidson.

These guys didn’t start a financial crisis, they merely robbed us of our poetry for most of a hundred years.

The college and HS textbook which introduced the Ezra Pound’s brand of poetry to millions of American students, Understanding Poetry, first edition, 1938, was authored by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, colleagues of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, the American wing of Pound, Ford Madox Ford and T.S.Eliot’s European/Bloomsbury coterie.

Ransom, in an essay published when this ubiquitous textbook, Understanding Poetry, first hit the shelves, asked for an expert-ism developed in the academy to teach the new ‘modern’ poetry—which had not caught on with the public in its 25 years of existence.  Alan Tate founded a poetry writing department at Princeton at this time, and R.P Blackmur, a member of the coterie, would teach there.   The launching of the textbook Understanding Poetry by two old members of Ransom’s Fugitive clique showed  that all cylinders were firing in Modernist Poetry’s  engine.  Paul Engle, Yale Younger Poets Prize winner (judge: Fugitive clique member) was  poised to make Iowa the flagship of the Writing Program Era with his phenomenal fundraising abilities.

In their preface to Understanding Poetry, Brooks & Warren define poetry as “knowledge” and a “process” of “dramatic” expression, as  opposed to a “statement” or a “message.”  “Form” is the vehicle, according to the authors, which bypasses mere “statement” or “message” and carries the poem’s “meaning.”

The problem here is the authors never define “knowledge.”

What if “message” happens to be part of what the authors refer to as “knowledge?”   The authors famoulsly wish to exclude “the paraphrasable” as the important germ of the poem in a kind of Romantic gesture against poetry of mere ornamental prose, but here we see modernism, or more specifically, New Criticism, borrowing a mystical strain which is highly dubious.  No important writer before modernism ever rejected content, or, “the paraphrasable,” as a tool.  In fact, the less ornamental and the more substantive a poem is, the more it can withstand analysis which uses the paraphrase as a descriptive tool.  Brooks and Warren, with their paternal concern that the paraphrase will spoil the poet, spoil him more, since not having the  paraphrase allows for an infinite amount of mischief, while using it is an incentive to go beyond the ornamental— without feeling the need to reject it altogether.

“The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle impact of the  poem as a whole.”   —from the Preface

The “massive” religious and pedantic fervor of the authors is felt at once.   It is nearly Wagnerian.

Only if we submit ourselves to the massive…

But why should we submit?

Here is the far less hyperbolic alternative. We peruse the poem, and if we do not immediately and involuntarily feel its pull, the poem has failed, and we need not blame and curse ourselves in a hocus-pocus manner because we did not “submit” to the poem’s “massive” scope. This is the proper and sensual standard of criticism. Brooks & Warren ask for something else; these New Critical priests demand submission to the wishes of the car salesman poet. But the “whole” will move us if the first part of the poem move us, and if the first part fails to interest us, the “whole” fails, too–no matter how “massive” and “subtle” Brooks and Warren tell us the poem is.

This is not to say that surrendering ourselves to the entire length of any particular experience is not without advantage, but such surrendering does not occur because some outside entity has demanded it; the surrender, or the submission, happens without exhortation; a true aesthetic “whole” presumes not on forcing us to wait for its entirety to be understood before part 1 of its introduction please us; any “whole” worth its name would never do so.

If one uses the analogy of the reluctant piano student struggling with his first piece of music, then, yes, we would expect submission on the part of the student in attempting to master a technique or skill in musical interpretation upon an instrument. But where pedantry in this case is expected to push itself for the good of practice in the field of rudimentary learning, the same pedantry is not expected to be used where the student is reading poems. Here there is no instrument to be learned; the poet and the reader are assumed to share whatever technique is required; the poem triumphs on familiar turf with unfamiliar combinations of things that are already grasped. By “submit,” Brooks and Warren do not mean to say, ‘Approach the poem with a large dictionary and be prepared to use it!’ Obviously “submission” is shorthand by Brooks & Warren for: pay attention in the very depth of thy soul! or something similar. I call attention to this figure of speech on their part only because it points up the general tenor of their approach, which is: at all times make thyself subservient to the awesome mysteries of the poem, a pedagogical approach I find dangerous, especially when the poems lauded with such tenacity in Understanding Poetry are untested, experimental, and written by the authors’ friends.

Brooks and Warren have the audacity to say one ought to love this or that, which, as Poe demonstrated a century earlier, is never how we should speak of poetry.

It is not surprising, then, that Poe is much abused in the textbook Understanding Poetry, while experiments in the sort of poetry that hold no delight for the public are earnestly praised in their book for vague and mystical reasons.

In the Introduction to Understanding Poetry, the authors begin by quoting a passage from a Nobel-winning scientist for the purpose of attacking science in a flurry of petulance which ends with Brooks and Warren claiming for their side Jesus Christ, in a revivalist-tent-meeting moment. The following is the passage the authors of “Understanding Poetry” single out for abuse:

For sentimental pacifism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat. It is altogether obvious that the only quality which really distinguishes man from the brutes is his reason.

OK, so this passage does sound like the musings of a ‘square’ from the 50s who hasn’t got his jungle groove on. I dig. My point is not to quarrel with the statement, but with Brooks & Warren’s reaction to it. Because this is a piece of prose by a scientist, the authors are keen to point out that the passage is not scientific. They assume that science is “precise” and they know for sure this passage is not “precise” at all.

But here Brooks and Warren make a fatal mistake. They assume science is exact and bare-boned, while poetry is meatier, but this is a naïve and unfair characterization of science, which can, and does, reason in an indirect and poetic manner all the time. Science is more than just arithmos and conversely, poetry is not, as the authors assume, only dramatic, discursive and imprecise.

Brooks & Warren defend pacifism, citing the example of “the pacifism of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” and in attacking the passage by the scientist, they not only remove the issues of war and Christianity from a context we might be able to comprehend, they wind up their assault on the scientist by quoting in full Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:” “You shoot a fellow down…you’d…help to half a crown…” which is odd, because Brooks & Warren have said so far–if they have said anything–that you cannot reduce a poem to a “message,’ which they proceed to do with the Hardy (!) to win a silly argument against someone who was making a pretty simple and reasonable point that pure emotionalism is not reliable.

Somehow the scientist’s statement offended the former Southern Agrarians’ hippie selves, and they got very emotional, gnashing their teeth and weeping over the ‘Prince of Peace” while violating their most important critical tenet: don’t reduce a poem to its “message.”

At this point, it’s pretty clear the authors are not reliable as critics (or textbook writers) and are probably drinking mint juleps (or good Southern whiskey) while they are writing their book.

As if on cue, the next poem they quote is Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” under the heading ‘message-hunting’ (message-hunting is BAD—although Brooks and Warren have just done it).

The authors posit poetry as something which is not science and then hector their students with unreasonable, emotional pleas which are full of contradictions as they seek to convince their audience of their “definition” of poetry.

Now comes the biggest gamble of their intellectual lives. With solemn demeanor Brooks and Warren now inform their readers that “It is important to remember that poetry is not a thing separate from ordinary life.”

“Ordinary life?” No wonder their meandering commentary wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. This explains it: IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT POETRY IS  NOT A THING SEPARATE FROM ORDINARY LIFE.

Their logic, of course, is irrefutable, as far as it goes: Any reader is “ordinary” in the sense that any reader’s thoughts, being familiar to the reader himself, because they are his own thoughts, will seem “ordinary,” and, since any appreciation of poetry is conveyed to the reader’s thoughts (since “knowledge” is what poetry gives us, according to the authors’ preface) it then follows that poetry needs to be “ordinary” to make an impression on this “ordinary” reader.

“Ordinary life” is finally Brooks & Warren’s trump card; just as revolutionary political theories always assure us that “ordinary folk” are the ones who will benefit. The “ordinary life” trope, at bottom, is what Brooks & Warren are selling: little work is involved, ideality and sensuality will give way to catch-all mysticism, even as it is rough-edged and plain-speaking. “The Red Wheel Barrow” captures all these qualities perfectly, a poem singled out for especial praise by the textbook: Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow” is certainly “ordinary” in what it describes, it is certainly “mystical,” (after all, who knows what the poem means) it is certainly made of “ordinary” speech, and certainly within the grasp of “ordinary” readers who might wish to become poets in this “ordinary” style themselves. And once this sort of poem is invited to the ball, the battle is won; lip service can be spoken to ‘the greats’ of the past, who by proximity serve to raise the value of “The Red Wheel Barrow,” as the authors revel in its contemporariness and ground-breaking “ordinary” qualities. The revolution is over. Brooks and Warren have pandered—and won.

Following the introduction of “Understanding Poetry” are chapters in which ballads are examined for their “suspense” and their “appeal to the reader’s feelings;” all sorts of traditional tropes are dragged out in a pedantic and perfunctory manner. We do not have the space here to examine the dull and uneventful whole of the book, but let’s look briefly at how the authors teach Poe, William Carlos Williams, and Pound.

First, Poe’s “Ulalume:”

“A man, engaged in conversation with Psyche, his soul, walks through a mysterious landscape.  He and his soul are so preoccupied that they do not notice the setting nor do they even know what month of the year it is…”   Brooks and Warren can hardly keep from yawning as they continue in this manner, paraphrasing the poem in a bored way, violating their own sacred tenet.  The Williams and the Pound poems have no content, thus allowing the authors to escape the awful dilemma: shall I paraphrase, or not?  They are only too eager to paraphrase “Ulalume,” a poem of which, they assure us, they don’t believe a word.

“dank tarns and ghoul-haunted woodlands are stage-sets, we might say, that are merely good for frightening children. We accept them only if we happen to forego our maturity…”   (?!?)   Well, sure.  All poetry and fiction is merely stage-sets, good at frightening our inner child.  Condescending in this manner to Poe only betrays an inflated sense of the critic’s own (ahem) “maturity.”

Brooks & Warren then dare to attack Poe on his own turf: “there is an emphatic beat [horrors!] that becomes monotonous…a lack of variation in the rhythmic effects…”  The authors do not understand music.  Poe’s rhythm is  more pronounced being chiefly anapestic, rather than the more common iambic; to call this rhythm “monotonous” is sheer ignorance.  Even the anapestic rhythm is varied skillfully by Poe, in lines such as “The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,”  so different from “It was night in the lonesome October.”
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Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow:”

“…the fact of its [free verse] being set off in lines has some significance.  It is signifcant, for one thing, because it pretends to be significant.  That is, we have to dwell on the line as a unit, even if, by ordinary standards, we can find no unity.”

“…it makes a special claim on our attention by the mere fact of it being set off; the words demand to be looked at freshly.”

“Now the poem itself is about that puzzling portentousness that an object, even the simplest, like a red wheelbarrow, assumes when we fix attention exclusively upon it.  Reading the poem is like peering at some ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of carboard.  The fact that the pin prick frames it arbitrarily endows it with a puzzling, and exciting, freshness, that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.”

Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro:”

“…a new and surprising comparison.”

“The petals on a wet black bough, the white faces against the dimness—the comparison does embody a leap of the imagination, a shock of surprise.  And yet, in the midst of the novelty, we sense that it, too, has a logical basis.  The poet has simply focused upon the significant quality for the comparison, discarding other qualities, more obvious qualities.  And the shock of surprise takes us to the poem’s meaning.”

What do we notice here?

The authors are besotted by “surprise,’ “shock,” “freshness” and “revelation,”  in a Zen revery of “significance.”  Even granting the “significance” of  Pound’s “white petals” and Williams’ “wheel barrow,” which Brooks & Warren enjoy “peering” at, forty years after Noguchi toured the West and made haiku popular, we must ask: How long , in terms of ongoing poetic practice, can this “freshness” from “peering at ordinary objects” last?  We can almost hear the cry of the millions: What about my poem?  Don’t you see the significance of my ordinary object?  Look, I framed it with a pin prick, too!

Can’t we see at once that no repeat of the red wheelbarrow or the white petals as “revelation” is possible?   Such “hovering on the verge of revelation” is a deal with the devil, a short-term gain in “freshness” for an eternity of wandering in obscure hell.  Poe, on the other hand, who comes under such abuse by the professorial authors, presents a recognizable and enchanting skill, there for the taking.  “Ulalume” is a model in a line of significant utterance; if a poet possesses the imagination and skill to make another “Ulalume,” much pleasure will result, since appreciation of music is universal; hundreds of thousands of red wheelbarrows have been tried, and strange to report, not once has “freshness” been used to describe the attempt!  Brooks & Warren gambled on a sun which will never rise again.  Critics who write textbooks  have a responsibility to think of the long-term health of the art, lest the poetic economy collapse.

In “Understanding Poetry,’ poems by friends of the authors—Pound, Williams, Tate, H.D.—spear-head a modernist beach-landing against a defenseless tribe—students.

The public would not come to modernism, so modernism came to the public—in a textbook.