On American Poetry Criticism;
& Other Dastardly –Isms
New Criticism: Same Old Game Redux
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/11/02
I have been
highly critical of contemporary American Poetry Criticism (from the ensconced
Dead White Males who litter the byways of Academia to the PC Elitists who
snidely condescend to both non-PCEs & DWMs); but the problems with APC go
back decades, to the start of the 20th Century. In truth, there was
no real poetry criticism in America in the 19th Century, & the 20th
Century’s initial versions were rather flaccid, until the High Modernists of
Pound, Eliot, & Co. sauntered in. But, when 1 thinks of APC in the 20th
Century there’s 1 group that stands out- for better or worse: the New
New Criticism was an influential ‘school’ of southern-based Formal Criticism that reigned over APC from the mid 1930s until about 1970. It was highly political in nature, even as it ever claimed to disdain politics in favor of ‘true’ or ‘high’ art- of which poetry was the ‘highest’- a rare truth the NCs were to feast on. Some of its adherents were: John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, I.A. Richards, William Empsom, Cleanth Brooks, William Wimsatt, & Monroe Beardsley. Of import to note is that all but RPW were literary mediocrities whose own works, in essence, necessitated their place as critics- or lovers of literature- rather than producers of it. Some key works associated with NC were CB’s & RPW’s Understanding Poetry, WE’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, IAR’s Practical Criticism, & CB’s The Well Wrought Urn (the most well-known & respected of the tomes). They were given their collective sobriquet, however, by JCR in his own The New Criticism (1941). The NCs claimed to want to avoid Impressionistic Criticism, which they saw as vapid, Social & Historical Criticism, which they saw as formless. But, in large measure, politically, it was their immanent Conservatism that responded most violently to Biographical Criticism: the theory that art is primarily a reflection of the writer’s life, & the only way to even begin to come to grips with art is to study intimately, & in detail, the artist’s life. NCs failed to see that a good critic should incorporate all these critical aspects to form a good critical base, & then pick & choose which approach (or approaches) to apply to any given work. Alas, like those before & after, they did not, & eventually their own limited purview proved their critical undoing.
Let’s briefly look at some NC peeves & desires: NC sees the text as an autotelic (a word that was a NC fave) artifact; it is something autonomous, written for its own sake, unified (an aspect never fully fleshed out in any logical or coherent way by the NCs) in form, & independent of the writer’s life, intent, etc. In fact- 3 of the major tenets of NC were: 1) self-sufficiency: the poem should be independent of biography, historical content or effect on the reader– which were called the Intentional, Historical & Affective fallacies. 2) unity: the poem should be a coherent whole- a very traditional view, albeit limited. 3) complexity: though to be the central element of poetry. NC believed it was the reader’s duty to seek this out in the art. Violations of these tenets were examples of the Intentional Fallacy- that the artist’s intent is the primary value of the art. The NC damning of this canard is perhaps the lone good idea to survive from NC. Its almost forgotten corollary was the Affective Fallacy- or how an individual reader reacts to a work of art is the primary thing. That no 2 people will react in similar ways (a good thing) is impossible- well….Another ax of the NCs was the Heresy of Paraphrase, which CB railed against in The Well-Wrought Urn. He states that the meaning of a poem is complex and precise, & any attempt to paraphrase it inevitably distorts &/or reduces it: i.e.- any attempt to say what a poem means is heretical, because it insults the complexity & integrity of the work. Lost to him was that the HOP irreducibly obviates the very act of criticism! Wherefore, then, the critic?
NC assumed the critic’s job is to help appreciate technique & form in art- not state what the art means or is. This is another example of NC common sense. But, then they veered wrongly in their extensions from this plinth. It also viewed Western Tradition (or The Canon) as an unbroken, internally consistent set of artistic formulae dating from Classical Greece & continuing into futurity. The NCs defined the themes inherent in all good or great art as eternal oppositions: life/death, good/evil, love/hate, truth/lie, emotion/reason, etc. Ambiguity, therefore, is thus held out as a paragon: the more meanings a word has, the richer the ambiguity- & the meaning. The reader’s job is to search out irony (ambiguous meaning) & paradox (contradictory meaning). This gives a work its dramatic tension, which causes an art appreciator to want to delve even more deeply. 2 other things NCs railed against were stock responses (i.e.- someone’s departure should not make the reader sad unless the poem elicits sadness at the departure- this is so flimsy & personalized a rationale that to debunk it would waste both our times), & idiosyncratic (or affective) responses (i.e.- milk should not make the reader think of cows no matter how direct the connection is- the poem should be the vehicle for the connection. Again, this tenet is so dependent & flexible on the poem in question that it really has no place as a tenet- per se).
An early hero of the NCs was poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge & his criticism, which was among the 1st set of dicta to elaborate on the poem as being a unified, organic whole, & whose purpose was forging some internal harmony- in the poem, itself. A more coeval hero was T.S. Eliot & his mounds of self-centered gibberish. Foremost in the gibber his Objective Correlative- a term to identify an image, action, or situation in a literary text in which the reader's response is suddenly focused, & from which the rest of the art either will fail or succeed depending on its fidelity to that focused thing. Basically TSE held that an artwork failed if it did not meet certain ‘objective’ standards. The OC failed, basically, as a critical tool because TSE saw himself as the sole arbiter of ‘objectivity’- got that nice piece of intellectual contortion? In a famously idiotic case in point, TSE declared Hamlet a failure because Hamlet’s character development did not seem to usher forth from the specific dramatic situations of the play. I repeat- got it? This theory was of bizarre interest to NCs, for they believed an OC provided that focal point of the ‘organic unity’ for the text. Got it [trey]? These were all principles believed to have descended from Hellenistic times. They formed a (or rather, The) Western Tradition. The NC stated that good art participates in & extends this tradition. Also, the critic’s job is to uphold that tradition & save it from life’s abasements & vulgarisms. To a NC the closer a text comes to achieving ‘unity’, where each element contributes to the overall art, the more worthy it is of being art. High art is the province of NC- not pop art; for high art reflects unchanging, universally human issues, ethics, & experiences passed down through the ages. In short, the best art is a totality unto itself. This myopic insularity has since been twisted & led to the wild PC Elitism which inversely declares that art is not art unless it engages politics at every turn, & avoids hermetic insularity. Both extremes are laughable, & easily seen as such to the sane reader & art afficionado.
No doubt NC’s ills were plentiful. Its emphasis on technique, unity of effect, & that damnable autotelic status works best only in evaluating the simpler structures of lyric poetry. More complex poetry- say of a Hart Crane, or W.B. Yeats, or poetry that does depend (to a degree) on a historic, personal, or something-specific aspect, or most prose, is largely immune to such simplistic evaluations. Another valid point against NC is that it makes the Western Canon seem far more unified than it is by ignoring diversity & contradictions (as example- where does innovation or influence fit in?)- as well as isolating the Canon from the rest of the art of humanity. The changing taste of societies is also posited as a flaw in NC. Recall the damnations heaped upon Walt Whitman & Charles Baudelaire, in the 1850s, for perversion & evil. Yet, now we recognize them as the American & European pillars to poetic modernity (not Modernism).
Despite these often manifest failings NC has its defenders to this day. In a famed retort called The Attack on Literature Rene Wellek charged that the major accusations leveled at the NC are false. RW answered the 4 major retorts against the NCs: 1) NCs were formalists with no interest in the humanity of literature. 2) NCs ignore the historical context of literature. 3) NCs bastardize literature to a science. 4) the NCs ‘close reading’ & ‘unity’ are pedagogical devices. RW asserts NC has not been vilified because it is wrong (although the bulk of it is) but for its correctness. RW believed that NCs were seen as bastions of Old Boy Elitism- & they were. Had they not been the reaction against their ideas may have modulated into a sane critical middle, rather than the hysterical PC Elitism which suffocates most contemporary criticism. I will briefly deal with some of these charges later on with some examples.
Let me end this introduction with a listing of some of the basic themes, or tenets, of NC: 1) a literary text is not a cultural artifact but a unified, self-contained, & self-defining piece of art. A reader needs no specialized nor special knowledge beyond the text itself to understand its meaning. 2) the meaning of a literary text is immanent in its unique structure. The goal of criticism is therefore to explain this ‘organic unity’ of the text. 3) a literary text contains interrelated images & linguistic elements. These motifs are important to the ‘organic unity’ of the text. 4) the images &/or motifs are vital to the meaning of the text. These objective correlatives reflect the thematic unity of the text. 5) every part of the text contributes to the meaning of the text. NCs want to explain the function of all pieces of the text.
Let me tackle each of these 5 tenets & examine the pros & cons vis-à-vis some poems.
A Cosmos Of 1
thrust of this tenet is that the artwork is an inviolate thing unto itself.
There are plenty of times that that is manifestly & undeniably true- but
only to an extent. Here is where we encounter 1 of NC’s greatest ills: absolutism;
the same malady that has afflicted the NCs latter-day counterparts- the PC
Elitists. Logically- & obviously- since words connote & denote things
other than the written word, there is no way a poem could ever be 100%
self-sustaining. But, it can come close to this on occasions. Whether this is
desirable, or indicates any greater success rate in art, is a tangential
question. Is the art all to itself? Does a poem fail merely because it is not
self-sustaining? I think not. To counter that NC claim let me present a
well-known poem by American poet Robert Hayden:
(for Bill and Sonja)
Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.
Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.
O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.
approach this in 2 ways: 1) is the poem good? & 2) is the poem
self-sustaining? Then let’s see the correlation between these 2 points.
Obviously the title directly references something beyond, something the poem is dependent on- in this case a famed painting. A good portion of the readers of this poem will envision the pastel flower painting right away. Yet, note how this is not simply a typical describe what you see & add a twist painting poem. The poem uses the title as a port to anchor the reader- then it sets sail away from that shore. The poem’s dedication, it could be argued, further undermines the poem’s independence. But, perhaps only RH, Bill, & Sonja have any reason to invest anything into the dedication.
Stanza 1 breaks the poem immediately from the title. It uses 2 more referents outside ‘poetry’, per se. Even 4 decades on the names Selma & Saigon bring back national points of pain & shame. But, in 400 years will it? Does it matter? I think line 2 gives us all we need to know of these places. They were not good. The political minutiae are immaterial in the long run- take that PC Elitists! Then we twist right back to the actual painting. So far we are almost wholly dependent on things not in the poem- save for the descriptions of the 2 1960s-era cities. We end with a rather vague description of the painting: serene, great, beloved. Quite a difference from the typical painting poem.
Stanza 2 opens with a very transcendent couplet. Its very awkward phrasing actually bolsters the sense of transcendence from the norm. The last 3 lines attempt to shimmer like the painting itself. Yet, there is still no real description. The poem has now inverted & is unto itself- the titular painting is no matter.
Stanza 3 then ends with this rapturous sense of loss. Not only does this poem both deny & adhere to the NC tenet- but it amply demonstrates the tenet’s silliness. Along with absolutism NC, & its subsequent PCE counterpoint, suffer from a drastic oversimplification in how their belief systems are applied. At a fundamental level we see, here, how NC was bound to fail in the long run- its basic tenet is merely a sometimes good application, not an ironclad law of literature- as if there could be such a thing. This great poem violates the core of the 1st central tenet NC posits. This basis for tenet 1’s failing, we will see, infects all the other points as well. Add in the fact that this poem, or any of RH’s poetry, would probably never be directly addressed (by virtue of its poet’s race) by the NCs is 1 of those niggling little things that gave rise to NC’s demise, & PCE’s subsequent rise.
Art As Life
& structure are 1. That’s what the 2nd NC tenet boils
down to. Also, a good critic must be able to notice & explicate this basic
organic unity, or synthesis of meaning & structure. Well, we do want critics
to act as intermediaries & break down some things within a work of art.
It’s the essence of a critics job- that, & to state whether the poem does
or does not succeed in doing so. Let us take a look at a poem of mine that
intimately embodies tenet 2- even as it violates the 1st tenet:
one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence,
or whose attitude is patronizing."- E.B. White
he lay on the bridge the seeming solidity of
movement was what he objected to The strands of
stuff that would hunker down in to that which is
not here But there on the page it seemed to
all relax him and the lion which sauntered by
Often in times like these he discovered it was
best to grant illusion its due pay the piper
and all that This was the source of thought of
reason of creativity i e creativity is
opportunism applied not inspiration divined
Furthermore it was not the overwhelm of clouds
that is the subject of this bit nor the beast
nor the bridge rather it is the simple fact
that you cannot give another a dozen eggs if you
only have half
. , , , . , , - , . , , - . . : , . , , , ; , .
I am not
going to expound at length on why this poem is a great example of ‘form
following function’, nor its overall greatness. That’s not the point of
my choosing it. I chose it because it absolutely embodies the 2nd
tenet of NC. This is, in fact, what the NCs meant when they declaimed tenet 2-
or at least what they ‘stated they meant’. But how many poems that you’ve
ever read actually embody this belief? The short answer is not many. In fact, I
could only think of this & several other of my own poems which do defile
this virgin territory. &, more importantly, to embody such with abiding
excellence that lifts the poem above mere gimmickry?
This poem succeeds especially well if you do know something of the art of the painter; although it is something a savvy reader might infer. The poem mimics Magritte’s poetic, surreal style & reliance on word ‘gags’ in his paintings by inverting that into sight ‘gags’ that contribute to the poem. The subject matter’s seeming schism with the title is in perfect logical keeping with Magritte’s artistic bent. The epigraph serves a vital function in basically stating what the poem shows. At poem’s end we see the punctuation missing from the poem. We also see, if we care to insert it, that the punctuation is in the correct order- although the reader, 1 presumes, is free to do what he/she chooses- thereby making the poem a participatory act. Yet, the title is very Classical, & invokes much of what the NCs draw their own rationales from. This poem, however, innovates & uses these traditions to extend that Classicism. By both using & going against the NC’s tenets this poem could correctly be called a success or failure (by NC standards). Yet, it is a poem that never fails to provoke admiration for its literary quality. Therefore, the schism between the NC belief system & the gut level system most lay readers have is something that strongly indicates that NC standards were fundamentally wrong, or possibly incomplete.
But, let’s think about what the NCs probably meant when they put tenet 2 out there- as opposed to the reality of its near total nonexistence. I am sure that this goes back to the silly NC obsession with ‘beauty’ & such. What they meant was that a poem describing, say, an urn, should have a smoothness of music to match the smooth beauty of the pot. This is ‘Classicism’ at its central being. But, any astute reader of poetry knows that meter is an utter illusion (or delusion- see my essay on Robinson Jeffers & the Metric Fallacy), for good music can actually be harsh sounding- yet be ‘good’ if by good 1 means apropos to assorted ideas, situations, & ideals posited by the given poem. This is the very nub of NC limitations/essence- but it’s a pathetically weak nub to hang a coat on. Does a great Shakespeare sonnet work merely because it’s lovely to hear- & about love? Or, does a ‘Surreal’ poem work simply because it may have images of a pelican, General Custer, & a movie starlet’s measurements in the text of 2 consecutive lines? No, there is alot more going on that such supersimplistic approaches miss. Magritte Nude Reclining is what- if 1 were to be absolutely literal to the NC ‘critical text’- the NCs meant- although we see how much that deviates from what they really meant. Ain’t it a kick that the very phrasing of their tenet is fundamentally key to its undoing? &, that there really were no poems to support their absurd posit (in those days, at least) only underscores the ongoing effeteness of NC particularly, & any –Ism generally.
Movers, Prime & Otherwise
The next bit
of mumbo-jumbo from the NCs is that images & lingual elements contribute to
the organic unity of the text. Well, yes & no. Yes- in the Duh!
aspect that, of course, poems contain images and lingual devices- it’s
literature, after all! But the answer is also no, in that the NCs meant that
these things are fundamental to the poem’s unity- or, ala tenet 1, they help
hermetically seal the poem off from the rest of the cosmos. Of course, they CAN
do that- but they fundamentally do not HAVE TO do that! This is
because while images & words, themselves, are important to the text (&
words are the text!) they do not necessarily divorce a work from the world about
it. In fact, they insuperably (to a 100% degree) CANNOT- only to certain,
limited, extents. Let’s examine a Judith Wright poem next:
The day was clear as fire,
the birds sang frail as glass,
when thirsty I came to the creek
and fell by its side in the grass.
My breasts on the bright moss
and shower-embroidered weeds,
my lips to the live water
I saw him turn in the reeds.
Black horror sprang from the dark
in a violent birth,
and through its cloth of grass
I felt the clutch of earth.
O beat him into the ground.
O strike him till he dies,
or else your life itself,
drains through those colourless eyes.
I struck again and again.
Slender in black and red
he lies, and his icy glance
turns outward, clear and dead.
But nimble my enemy
as water is, or wind.
He has slipped from his death aside
and vanished into my mind.
He has vanished whence he came,
my nimble enemy;
and the ants come out to the snake
and drink at his shallow eye.
This is an excellent, & probably great, poem. Trust me on that-
because I shall not explicate why to any great degree, as my point is to not
prove the poem’s excellence, but to relate this poem to the NC’s tenet. I
have issues with a few word choices but its ending is devastatingly effective.
This poem does not just depict the ‘Death Of A Snake’, but the continual
need for humans to battle their own fears projected in to the world- sometimes
justified, but often not. So, how does this poem relate to the NC claim that
images, words, etc. are vital to organic unity- in the sense that it makes the
poem a thing unto itself? Well, it doesn’t- & you’d be hard-pressed to
argue that any poem does. Poems rely on their ability to play off of a
reader’s experience. Again we see the utter silliness that lies behind NC
reasoning- if 1 were to call such stupidity that.
Yet, I’m sure, because of the poem’s formal leanings, a typical NC would fawn over the poem. But for its technical wizardry- not its profound psychological implications- despite NC rhetoric to the contrary. But, here is an example of a poem that can & has taken on a patina of meaning different & deeper from its original one. The snake can be seen as the female speaker’s symbolic sublimated fears of the masculine, & then the imagery becomes more than what is actually happening, & more than what is in the speaker’s mind, but a political allegory as well- whose ultimate outcome (post-poem) is to be played out. Another NC failure manifested by this poem is its rigidity, & failure to account for the changing tastes & philosophies that life evolves through. Simply put, NC was a dead end bound to run out of its time. A point that is always important to stress when dealing with criticism is not whether or not a critic is right or wrong about a particular poet, poem, poetic technique, etc. but the reasoning & rationale that informs the opinion; i.e.- the process behind it all is as important as the end result, because the end result could merely be the byproduct of an accident, chance, or the infamous 10,000 Monkeys effect. This helps evaluate if there is any coherent thought or rationale behind the critical approach, & if it’s reproducible from criticism to criticism (which helps determine its validity as an approach), or if it’s all just shooting from the lip, or hip, or….speaking of coherence.
Coherence At All Costs
Eliot’s Objective Correlative nonsense, which posits singular responses
to singular stimuli, is not really a NC posit- it actually predates NC- yet the
NCs clung to it as if it were- in spirit, if not word. Things must logically
outflow from something else, this is the basic dictum. This provides
‘thematic unity’- another highfalutin’, yet ultimately intellectually
sterile phrase. But how often does life (& especially our personal emotional
dramas) veer from logic? The OC was also, basically, TSE’s biases writ large,
& self-justified. The whole thing was totally & utterly dependent upon
some objective source clairvoyantly knowing a character’s or artist’s
intent. See? It is this kind of pretzel logic that hallmarks NC. OC is,
fundamentally, antithetical to the dictum & values the NCs championed- most
specifically the Intentional Fallacy.
Let us review a juicy little poem by Japanese poet Shuntarō Tanikawa & see what, if anything, objectivity has to do with it.
Twenty Billion Light Years Of Loneliness
Mankind on a little globe
Sleeps, awakes and works
Wishing at times to be friends with Mars.
Martians on a little globe
Are probably doing something; I don't know what
(Maybe sleep-sleeping, wear-wearing, or fret-fretting)
While wishing at time to be friends with Earth
This is a fact I'm sure of.
This thing called universal
Is the power of loneliness pulling together.
The universe is distorted
So all join in desire.
The universe goes on expanding
So all feel uneasy.
At the loneliness of twenty billion
Without thinking, I sneezed.
(translated by Harold Wright)
Well? The answer is obviously NOT MUCH! The poem, indeed, works precisely
because it is NOT objective. Subjectivity (in observation & drama) drips
from every line- blatantly so. The speaker’s humor, warmth, & irreverence
all contribute to the poem’s ‘singularity’- or is that ‘unity’? From
even the title where the 1st 4 words hew the objective line, on to
the last 2 words which kibosh it. Line 3 starts the veer to the subjective. Line
5 emphasizes it. Line 6 italicizes it. Line 8 mocks it. Line 10 stretches it.
Line 12 goes farther. Line 14 farther. Line 16- well, if the OC is not dead by
now, this total inversion (subversion?) does the proverbial undead/stake deal.
The whimsy & depth of this little fantasy poem are selling points, as well.
That aside- ask yourself: how many poems (whimsical or not) make similar detours from their starts? &, isn’t that a plus? Now, TSE actually seems to have meant that a character or situation must be believable- not a bad suggestion- IF you are sticking to straight drama- well, sometimes. See what I mean? Ultimately the OC & the rest of NC tenets descend to reductios ad absurdum.
(#5, if you’re still counting): Every part of the text contributes to the
meaning of the text. I.e.- everything in a poem matters- Duh! [Deux!]
What the NCs meant was that they wanted a justification for every iota in a
poem. While not a bad suggestion, off the top, there is 1 serious drawback that
any great artist will recognize: it kills the element of ‘magic’- for lack
of a better word. There is that alchemical reaction that all great art produces,
a synergy beyond description, that 1 just has to accept, lest fall into a
delirium of explicative froth that says nothing & lasts little longer than
the second it takes to read it. 1 can decode all the sources & meanings,
but- ultimately- there will be that bit of ineffable oomph that separates the
technically excellent from the flat-out great.
Let’s examine a terrific poem by 1 of the most underrated, but probably great, American poets of the last century- Weldon Kees. Let’s see its relation to this tenet- if any:
For My Daughter
Looking into my daughter's eyes I
Beneath the innocence of morning flesh
Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
The night's slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
Death in certain war, the slim legs green.
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
Of others' agony; perhaps the cruel
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
These speculations sour in the sun.
I have no daughter. I desire none.
This poem uses clichés- & inverts them & then its narrative pulls the rug out from under the sympathizing reader. In a sense this poem does contribute everything of itself in service to the poem. But, not in the way NCs would recognize. As example- the objective correlatives of the assorted clichés are totally subverted. This declichés the clichés, but also de-objectifies the correlative. Ah, the conundrum! Again, we see how simple-minded & poor NC is in relation to serious criticism of poetry. The great endline- which cements the poem’s very greatness, however, also would- technically- work against the poem in a NC’s view, for the very reason that nothing in the poem prepares us for it. I would argue, that that fact actually is in keeping with the NC ‘purpose’ of having all parts of the text contribute. But a strict NC would not. Again, the great flaws that damned NC to oblivion were absolutism, rigidity, & simplisticness. Yet, these 3 tenets are still found in NC’s reactionary critical descendent: PC Elitism, which vilifies all things NC. Why? Because, both systems were not based upon technical/critical means- rather upon political ends. Here surfaces 1 of the great abiding truths of human politics- which has poisoned poetry & its criticism of recent decades: Political thought is not graphed upon a line in 2 dimensions- but rather 3. It’s as if it were the equator on a globe- go far enough to the left or right, east or west, NC or PCE & you get the same poor results on the dark side of the world! Let’s looksy.
Tying The Noose
problem with NC- aside from the 3 specifics mentioned above- was that NC was so
vague in its conjectures that it really had no validity. Then, again, any
notion/theory of art that is so ironclad (& is not any theory for art such?)
is bound to suffocate the art it purports to value. This schism between what
they declared they valued & what they produced (especially, since the NCs,
as poets, were notoriously mediocre-bad) provided ample fodder to damn them
well. But it also provided the loam for the dastardly PC Elitists to take root,
with their equally dull & simpleminded tautologies in the opposite
direction. As with the NCs, PCEs are equally simple-minded in their declarations
that all art MUST serve the betterment of Mankind (or, as they prefer- Humanity)
politically. That the act of art, of any sort (& if of quality), by its
nature seems to better its observer, seems to have slipped by PCEs’ grasp.
But their silly dicta got its start totally in the NC’s prior contra-assertions. Yet, these 2 thought systems not only followed each other in time, & are opposing, but NC- in a way- actually melded in to PCE, even as it spawned it. It is not such a great journey, after all, between absolutisms- how often has the addict become the born-again religiot? Another aspect about NC should be evident from this essay’s approach vis-à-vis other essays you might read about NC. I’ve paraphrased & condensed most of the NC ideas, rather than drone on & on, quoting bloated passages filled with attempts at critical sleight-of-hand which says nothing. Most of NC writing was so dull & turgid that most essays about it simply rehash the top 8-10 quotable excerpts. While that shortens the time required to produce an essay it also shortchanges a discerning reader- thus my paraphrasings.
The major point to be reckoned is this: NC had some definite virtues- its assorted Fallacies- & some ludicrous demerits- the Heresy of Paraphrase- but it was the inability to provide depth & flexibility to their viewpoints, either way, that fossilized the cult, & proved their undoing. A demise that is proof that good & bad tend to get their respective dues over time- at least 99% of the time. Yes, some of their posits were common sensical, but all too often they did not adhere to their own strictures- either in criticism or, more tellingly, in their prose & poetry. Why? Because it fundamentally makes no sense to so suffocate & delimit 1’s art. The NCs’ writerly side rebelled against their critical cast- & rightly so! This, in itself, gives some pretty strong proof that the whole NC movement was politically, not artistically, based. Further evidence can be mounted by showing the lack of poetic corpuses addressed by the NCs from black, female, & other minority poets of their day. NCs also refused to embrace their own aims, which we’ve noted was evidence of an internal schism- but also they never even attempted to push their aims to their logical ends, & raise the bar higher- none of the 5 poets whose poems grace this essay were ever remotely associated with NC, yet each poem could be admired & damned by NC standards. Ah, the dread complexity of being a good critic! It’s so much easier when you have an –Ism to grind!
Speaking of which- let’s primp the bow that ties NC with its bastard spawn PCE. 1st off, let’s posit why NC thrived 50 years ago but PCE thrives today. The 1st notable thing about the 2 systems (internally) is that, aside from their seeming 180° political sentiments, the 2 –isms are not that different: they share absolutist stances politically, a rigidity of artistic mindset, that will soon date PCE to the millennium as easily as NC dates to the mid-20th Century, & an overriding simplemindedness that refuses to acknowledge complexities beyond their limited fields. As for the external let me reiterate a point whose consequences have never been fully addressed in the Academic halls nor the ‘Outsider’ poetic worlds: 50 years ago, in a given year, there were perhaps about 50 outlets for a published poem to appear. Nowadays there are 100-200 times that amount of venues. Rigidity ruled when there were fewer outlets. Laxity is king when outlets are plentiful. The net effect is that PCEs’ stance is, to a large degree, a justification for the need to simply fill the space. NCs’ stance was, in large measure, a justification for the need to screen out the riff-raff. However, by percentage, the rate of good poems/poets per 100 is about the same. The difference is purely access related.
However, just as NCs were totally intolerant of anything below or outside what they deemed literary ‘standards’, so too are the PCEs utterly contemptuous of anything that hints at some ‘standards’ to judging good art vs. the dreck of most art. You will be quickly branded & tarred as a bigot of some sort, anti-this or anti-that. To PCEs the idea of even a general, broad & flexible standard for measuring excellent writing is anathema, & evidence of some nebulous political conspiracy to ‘silence’ women & minority artists- aka ‘emerging voices/peoples’- a sickening & condescending euphemism, especially when applied to anyone over the age of majority. It’s almost as if PCEs are mute & dumb to the similarities they share with the NCs. Granted, I’m not lamenting that fact- I readily hope they join NC in the same tumulus. I only fear the monster that’s bound to come next in the evolution of bad APC- just imagine the bastard spawn of R.P. Blackmur & June Jordan: think of old Kurtz’s last words!
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