Reinventing New Criticism?

First published in University of Toronto Quarterly 56.1 (Fall 1986): 127-29.


Review of Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, edited by Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984)


In his poem “La Torre,” Charles Olson remarked that “The end of something has a satisfaction, / When the structures go, light / comes through....” This collection of essays, which arose out of a symposium held in 1982 at the University of Toronto, is presented by its editors as offering (along with other pleasures) a measure of this kind of satisfaction. Despite repeated interments, despite a general rejection of its central dogmas of the autonomy and the organic unity of literary texts, the New Criticism has continued to haunt our classrooms, and not least those in which lyric poetry is being studied. One primary purpose of this book is to contest this unreflective pedagogical practice, and to do so “on New Criticism's chosen ground, the analysis of poetic texts” (p. 7). The challenge is a timely one, for as Patricia Parker suggests in her introductory essay, the comparative neglect of non-narrative genres by recent theorists (itself in part a reaction to New Criticism) provides an occasion both for meditation on the limitations of their work and for a movement beyond those limits. In many of these essays, whose authors include some of the best-known literary theorists now writing in North America, as well as some quite brilliant younger critics, both functions are triumphantly fulfilled.

Yet as Parker and some of her fellow contributors are aware, their relation to the New Criticism is also one of continuity. The poem of Olson's from which I have quoted begins by proclaiming that “The tower is broken,” but ends with a duplicitous rebuilding of what is ambiguously the same structure: “It will take new stone ... to finish off this rising tower.” Similarly, one may suspect that this “new new criticism,” as Parker calls it, seeks less to complete the overthrow of its once-hegemonic namesake than (in a familiar deconstructive doublet) to supplant and supplement it—to “finish it off,” replicating its ideological functions in a mood of ironic dispersal rather than of unification.

It is one of the strengths of this book that criticisms of this kind are powerfully voiced within it. Jonathan Arac, who in his concluding essay defines the new new criticism as “a satire on the old, veering between parody and parricide,” argues that it “shares with the old New Criticism an emphasis that is textual and technical, more concerned with method than with scholarship, and fundamentally unhistorical, especially in its confidence about the extensive applicability of its operative terms” (pp. 347, 346). A field that had been opened up during the 1960s and 1970s is now, he suggests, being re-enclosed: and among the signs of that enclosure are a reduction of intertextuality to a purely literary system of exchanges between one poet or poem and another, and the historically invalid assumption (of questionable use even as a starting point for exercises in deconstruction) that a lyric mode of reading can be defined in terms of pure subjectivity.

These strictures apply forcibly to some of the writers assembled here: to Tilottama Rajan, whose emphasis on “pure lyric” as a “purely subjective form” (p. 196) leads to what may seem a reductively clever reading of Shelley; and to Stanley Fish, whose assessment of the way Jonson's poems define the community of their readers is vitiated by a bizarre misreading of the line which serves as its basis: “So with this Authors Readers will it thrive.” Ignoring the obvious possessive, Fish extracts instead the composite noun “Authors-Readers”—an unlikely rabbit to find in this particular hat, but one which fits neatly into his own theory. Other essays here may, for a variety of different reasons, attract equally partial readings. David Bromwich's study of parody, pastiche, and allusion pays eloquent tribute to two Canadian poets, Jay Macpherson and Daryl Hine—but at the same time may remind one of how systematically this volume neglects recent poets like Williams, Ashbery, or Al Purdy, who write in a more demotic idiom and stray further from the traditional canon of English literature. An essay by the late Paul de Man (cobbled together from two longer pieces, both already in print) is rhetorically brilliant, but contains traces of an oddly dated philosophical position. From the Cartesian bias of his pronouncement that “the very concept of certainty ... is the basis of all concepts” (p. 62), one might deduce the moves which follow: an elliptical argument of the form significo, ergo sum imports a deceptive causality into the relation between identity and signification, and thus quickly generates the conclusion that to recognize poetic voice as a reflexive trope is to dispose of referentiality. Another distinguished theorist, Fredric Jameson, offers us a sadly domesticated Marxism in his essay on Baudelaire: to learn from a Marxist that “in a situation of radical impotence, there is really little else to do than ... to affirm what crushes you” (p. 262) is, as Auden said of being goosed by a bishop, morally confusing.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming impression which this book leaves is one not merely of pedagogical usefulness (I am thinking in particular of Parker's introduction and of Northrop Frye's brief taxonomic essay), but also of theoretical and interpretative richness. An incisive feminist reading of Stevens by Mary Nyquist; bold extensions by Mary Jacobus and Cynthia Chase of Jonathan Culler's meditations on the figure of apostrophe; closely argued deconstructive analyses by Joel Fineman and Barbara Johnson; and a sequence of stimulating historically oriented essays by Eugene Vance, Sheldon Zitner, Annabel Patterson, John Brenkman, Herbert Tucker, Julian Patrick, and Eleanor Cook: all these may indicate that Arac's view of recent developments is, at the least, debatable.

And finally, there remains what I think is the best essay in the book: John Hollander's masterful discussion of poetic refrains, which might be said single-handedly to justify the whole enterprise. For as he suggests, writing with the authority of a fine poet as well as a perceptive critic, “in a strange way, some of the areas intruded upon by the theoretically oriented critic ... are just those in which the poet most privately dwells” (p. 88).