- Poetry and the Age
There was a time, quite long ago now, when a creature called the New Critic worked the classrooms of American colleges and universities and wrote articles that filled American periodicals with a rarefied strain of mandarin formalism. As we all know, this creature has vanished, and no miniature history of that tale is needed here. So long gone is he—and in point of historical fact, the New Critic was almost always a “he”—that when Frank Lentricchia wrote his pivotal After the New Criticism (1980) he was already addressing the apparent death of formalism, which, after its institutional eclipse, was in a second stage of subterranean resistance. Yes, Lentricchia argued, the reign of close reading to the exclusion of social echolalia or political lacunae had died, but the practice still operated on the lower frequencies. Lentricchia alerted readers to the fact that what they thought was ancient history was actually still at work, and dangerously so. New Criticism was still doing its shadowy job of waylaying the possibility of criticism’s larger stake in the world.
Perhaps Lentricchia’s idea that, while officially dead, the New Criticism is not really gone is still relevant today. For one thing, the heralding of a new age for American poetry criticism—one that is historicist, inter- and contextual, archival—seems to be ongoing, as if formalist ideology were not a historical fact but a contemporary threat. It was also made before Lentricchia wrote his book, by feminist “life writers” like Adrienne Rich, and it was made by Marxists and poststructuralists of all stripes, including the New Historicists and so-called language poet-critics. It is made today by figures as diverse as Jerome McGann, Juliana Spahr, and Maria Damon, three names plucked at random from among so many that it would be impossible to give even a hint of their legions. Despite the hegemony of postformalism—or, more simply, historicism—it has often been a ritualistic feature of [End Page 938] academic writing to establish how formalism is not adequate to the task of describing reading in the climates of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture and criticism. Why is this?
One illuminating fact is that the discourse on formal criticism seems so fundamental to the writing about poetry that it has virtually come full-circle from earlier days, and the New Critical interest in certain issues of form—irony, paradox, and tension in particular—have been preserved in an exteriorized form, not as a sole property of well-wrought urns but tangled with their cultural roots and branches. For example, the poet and critic Barrett Watten has theorized that there exists a “constructivist moment,” begun with the early modernists and ongoing today, in which the focus of productive and discursive attention shifted from the text as “literature” to the text as “material” invested and enmeshed in what he calls “cultural poetics.” By seeing the text as a site for critical investigation of culture, “what had once been an unquestioned locus of critical value, literature” has become “the material forms of culture” itself (xxiii). What is interesting about Watten’s approach—one that could be linked with a boom in critical attention to the material text that took place in the criticism of the 1990s and is still with us today—is that a kind of formalism actually reemerges, though with a much wider scope. The poem is no longer an abstraction to be realized through the printed word; it is now the page itself, a bit of actual cultural flotsam, a real shard of the world tessellated with everything else. This “everything else,” according to Watten, is what might be called the “form” not of literature but of culture. Aesthetics, from this perspective, works within and as culture, its formal construction revealing the obscured and mystified construction of the world in which...