The study of literature, before Modernism, attempted to provide students the linguistic and historical rigor to explore a wide range of languages, cultures, and philosophies. To study literature was to study the world, ancient and modern.
The Modernist/New Critics, with their more narrow agenda, secured a niche in the academy by landing at Iowa in the late 30s, early 40s.
The general of this campaign was the charismatic Paul Engle, a whimsical, corn-loving Iowa poet on the outside, a ‘State Department/Conservative Businessman affiliated fund-raising machine, Rhodes Scholar genius’ on the inside, who raised the great edifice of the first Creative Writing Program.
Engle was not the greatest poet, but he won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize with his master’s thesis, a book of poems—the first book of poems to earn a Masters degree–written when he was a student at Iowa. The judge, who gave Engle the Yale prize, was one of the founding members of Ransom, Warren, and Tate’s Southern Agrarian, Fugitive clique.
Iowa was the seed—graduates of the Iowa Writing Program went on to start numerous writing programs in the post-War period.
Meanwhile, Tate founded the Princeton Writing program in 1942, Ransom attached himself to Kenyon (and would eventually have his ashes scattered on campus), and Warren, Tate, and Ransom blitzed learned journals with essays attacking the study of literature as it then existed.
Ransom and Tate insisted: Professors who merely teach literature have to go. Critics shouldn’t write in the popular press; they should be trained in the university, and these trainees should become the new professors, and the ‘new writing’ taught in the university should be taught by these new professor-critics (and professor-poets.)
Warren and Brooks’ “Understanding Poetry,” first put together in the late 30s, was waiting for the GIs who flooded universities on the GI Bill after the war, as the so-called Program Writing Era got under way.
What was the New Criticism, exactly?
We know all its proponents came from one place: Vanderbilt, where Ransom’s ‘Fugitive’ magazine circle first formed as a professor’s tweedy discussion club in the old shady South.
The New Criticism was questioned for its narrow approach to literature, and indeed its approach WAS limited.
But was this narrow scope intentional on the part of the New Critics?
The New Critics themselves were never comfortable with appearing narrow; they spent a great deal of time defending their ‘school’ against this charge.
The pedantic, fussy, ‘New Critical’ exterior, learned from T.S. Eliot’s own highly selective and morbid approach, was perhaps the best these Southern gentlemen could do as ambitious scholars; they wanted to appear revolutionary-yet-erudite, as supporters of the ‘New Academic Order’ in the ‘Program Era.’
A quick look at the textbook written by New Critics, “Understanding Poetry,” (the authors also wrote “Understanding Fiction” for the new Creative Writing Program era) shows a healthy, if somewhat banal view that poetry is dramatic; poetry is social interaction, etc. Suspiciously absent is the narrow approach which put New Criticism on the map: ‘close reading’ of the text.
When it came to putting their ideas to ‘use’ in a textbook, the New Critics abandoned the ideas that made them famous.
They stopped being New Critics.
But they did NOT forget their friends and associates, who, thanks to the textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” became mainstreamed and even canonized.
“Understanding Poetry,” like most textbooks of the Program Era, viewed modern literature as something difficult, and even mystical: if the student did not ‘get’ the significance of Williams’ ‘wheel barrow’ or Pound’s ‘petals on a dark bough’ so much the better, for after all, poetry and fiction should ‘Show Not Tell,’ the first Writing Program mantra, and one immediately notices how this chimes with the Imagist philosophy which Pound discovered 20 years earlier from Ford Madox Ford.
Why literature ought to ‘show but not tell’ was never explained by Creative Writing instructors.
Now, one would think: better one not tell stupidly or show blindly, and better one should tell when one needs, in fact, to tell, but the haiku-ish ‘show don’t tell’ stuck, and festered in many an idle brain. No more aphorisms; no more Enlightenment wit. Just ‘show’ the wheel barrow. Poetry can just be a string of images. Let the reader do all the work. No ideas from the poet are necessary.
The second Writing Program mantra was even more insidious: Write What You Know.
Paul Engle, as Program Writing Director of Iowa, was not the reactionary redneck Tate was; Engle was the good cop to Tate’s bad cop; early on, as Iowa Writing director, Engle did not just teach the Southern, genteel racist, Flannery O’Connor; he also invited minorities to study at Iowa.
But recall what the study of literature’s mission had been: “provide students the linguistic and historical rigor to explore a wide range of languages, cultures, and philosophies.”
In the new academic order, the students write ‘what they know.’
So here’s the million dollar question: What are they learning?
Blacks write of their black experience and whites write of their white experience and Chinese write of their Chinese experience, and women write of their experience, and soldiers write of their experience and eventually gays will write of their gay experience.
This arrangement is all well and good—as far as it goes.
But here’s the insidious ploy: the tail wags the dog, for the diversity (which the Writing Program can certainly pride itself on) is merely the positive result of a far larger issue—which the proud ‘diversity’ outcome helps all involved to overlook: the school out-sources everything: the student pays tuition to be the subject of the course he or she is studying.
The institution encourages self-broadcast, and in piecemeal fashion, as each individual student becomes fodder for the institution, an institution no longer teaching history, but using isolated ‘histories’ of the students themselves to feather its own multicultural cap–while eschewing the duty to truly educate.
Again, the million dollar question: What exactly IS the student of literature being taught?
One suspects the answer may just be: Nothing. The student writes what he or she knows.
Why should the student pay the university, when the university isn’t teaching the student?
The writing program university, then, becomes a judge or critic, who can supply connections and money to the poetry student it deems ‘best.’
Remember Ransom’s decree that the University train critics? Here is a twisted version of it. The university does not credential through teaching; it credentials by selection and management. Ransom was not only an academic theorist—he was a critic and a poet, and his poetry was published because of his institutional influence; this becomes the pattern in 20th century canon-making.
The institution plays competing poets against each other, each one looking for a prize.
Yet all seems well, since on the outside, the university appears to be encouraging both diversity and individualism—and meanwhile plenty of poetry is published, and prizes are awarded.
Meanwhile the attrition of articulate voices continues as the ultimate price for the pubic relations game being played in higher education—which now runs po-biz.
The result is easy to see: poetry a trivialized mess, without public support, poets trapped in career-seeking isolation, poets, editors and critics unable to express a single honest, literary idea, a petty, suspicious landscape of each one in their cell, squeezing out the same ‘private experience’ poem, too obscure and too esoteric for genuine public interest.
So what is the agenda of Pound and Eliot and Williams and their followers who now run the Writing Programs and the Literary Publishing Houses (who come from Writing Programs as well) and Po-Biz?
Was it merely to advance their reputations at the expense of universal learning?
Is this why normal avenues of intellectual inquiry come up empty?
Modernism was a coup; it had nothing to do with what anyone knew.
The result of modern literary education: nothing.
It is the abyss, the pit, into which the student’s mind is thrown.
Williams’ ‘Wheel barrow’ and Pound’s ‘petals’ are what the poor student thought they were at first blush: Nothing.
It is a bigger con than we dreamed.
The universal citizen and the universal student have been robbed by a small band of charlatans.
The answer lies, not in the poetry, but in the Foetry.
Foetics, the study of poetry as it now exists, allows us to finally see what was self-evident all along.
When we stop ‘reading’ the way Pound and Eliot and Tate and their Modernist followers in the academy today insist we read them, the history of 20th century poetics begins to come into focus. It’s not about the next fancy method of textual interpretation, or the next social science importation. It involves something closer to home—in the words of the new terminology—something more reflexive.
Foetics reads relevant motivations, not just texts; it reads self-interest, not just poli-sci abstractions.
As it turns out, the narrow New Critics’ insistence, to focus on the text, was not so much an intellectual gesture as one motivated by an implicit understanding of what the New Critics themselves were—DOING.