R.S. Crane is the greatest. I love this book. Get it back in print!

The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, U. Toronto Press, 1953

(Not least in that he led me to 1770s poem by Sir John Henry Moore, called The Duke of Benevento - a riot)

What Crane does among other things in this book is debunk, in a wonderfully ironic tone, most of the criticism of the last 3000 years or so, focusing however on 2 strands of 20th-cent. criticism : New Critics, and "myth criticism" (the method of discovering hidden themes, symbols, layers of meaning, which explain how Henry IV or Hamlet are really recreations of archaic myth or the Jungian racial subconscious). He shows that both trends are reductive in different directions, and by the end of this book you'll see a lot of affinities between standard modern lit crit and medieval pedantry (pseudo-science, pseudo-theology).

His argument is that what these critical approaches miss is the substance of poetry-making itself. What poets are about is the fashioning of "concrete wholes" (poems); what this process involves is the shaping of a form, which coalesces around a dynamic, creative idea. Poets & artists recognize this process : they experience the inability to write or compose anything, until this shaping idea, this ruling spark, manifests itself - the catalyst, which triggers the coalescence of the whole thing. Crane talks about it as happening with the writing of critical articles as well.

He describes the Poetics of Aristotle, almost alone in the history of criticism, as focused on the how of the poetic process itself: laying out a kind of layering of "default mechanisms". It's not a simple symbiosis of "form & content": form dominates & suffuses everything, uniting the material into an imaginative whole - in the same way that wood becomes different built things, or clay is shaped into various forms, so language is shaped to the organizing concept - the "plot" in dramatic & narrative poetry, the "argument" in many other modes. These layers of "default" (this is my own terminology, not Crane's) - in other words, Crane, via Aristotle, describes how the verbal texture, the language itself, becomes the "material" of the "thought", the thought in turn is the "material" of the characters, the characters in turn are the material of the plot - kind of an overlapping or layered spiral of formal energy. (You could find analogues in the design of kinds of poetry other than dramatic : diction/concept/speaker/argument, etc.)

When you start considering individual poems from this approach, as particular formal inventions worked out from a unique set of "plot" instigations, shaped into a unitary, irreducible aesthetic entity - you really are looking at poems differently from those approaches which involve cataloging the poem's meanings based on an analysis of the vocabulary (usually, as Crane shows, applied with some simple set of oppositions - the famous New Critical "tension"), or installing the poem in a preconceived set of anthropological, psychological or mythological theories.

For Crane, the matter hinges, as I've remarked earlier (yesterday), on whether the critic looks at poems as simply a special type of language use, or, on the other hand, poems are conceived as conceptual objects, formal events, the apperception and appreciation of which involves language to the same extent that we take an interest in the "clay" itself in pottery or sculpture.

This book came out in 1953. Much happened in poetry & criticism in the 2nd half of the century (Crane died in 1967). One way to look at the new movements of that time in American poetry (Lowell's Life Studies & confessionalism, "Deep Image" etc., NY School, Objective-Projectivism, Beats, etc.) as reactions against the pedantic, reductive methodologies promoted by New Criticism ("shape a beautiful object using formal diction & traditional technique which is self-contained and autonomous based on a skillful balance of opposing tensions"). But, as Crane shows, the overwhelming trend of literary criticism, since the Alexandrians and Horace, has been against the Aristotelian approach, & has favored philological and rhetorical analyses of the poem as a species of language, rather than, with Aristotle, as a type of art, an organic form, the mystery of the making of which can only be studied inductively, a posteriori. So that one can see, for example, that the Language poets' dialectical appropriation of Russian Formalist and New Critical philology, or the structuralist & post-structuralist resolution of literature into language codes and defunct language codes, respectively - that these "new" movements actually retain and repeat the ancient categorical biases : poetry is "decoded" as a rhetorical or linguistic phenomenon, and then recruited into whatever agenda the critic pursues.

Let's have a new approach, which focuses on the poem as conceptual whole, the product of a creative process - often a mimetic or dramatizing process - which involves forming an integral, beautiful representation, a unitary effect : irreducible to mere linguistic coding or critical appropriation. This is a theory for artists and poets, rather than for critics, philosophers & rhetoricians.

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