- Classic Ransom
In a 1948 issue of The Sewanee Review celebrating John Crowe Ransom’s sixtieth birthday, Randall Jarrell remarked: “it is easy to see that his poetry will always be cared for; since he has written poems that are perfectly realized and occasionally almost perfect— poems that the hypothetical generations of the future will be reading page by page with Wyatt, Campion, Marvell, and Mother Goose.” No doubt, Mr. Jarrell’s estimation of Ransom’s work proves just, but his prognostication has proven dubious. In 1991, Brad Leithauser lamented that “for some time now Ransom has been on the wane,” and more recently Dave Smith has noted, regarding the poems’ lack of availability, that “there is now cause to assert that their appeal, even perhaps their existence, is a matter of some doubt.” Worse still, even among those who “purport to admire them,” as Anthony Hecht complained in 1994, the poems “are still read with a shocking carelessness.” With the Un-Gyve Press recently publishing The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom, a volume that not only restores Ransom’s poems to print after nearly a quarter-century but also brings all Ransom’s poems together for the very first time, the matter of the poems’ existence has been resolved, but the matter of their appeal has not, and this is our concern. Why should contemporary readers turn to Ransom’s poems?
For those interested in American literary history, the poems’ appeal should be self-evident. (Alas, “should be” and “is” long ago un-friended each other on Facebook.) Excepting Pound and Eliot, perhaps no poet-critic of the twentieth century exerted so broad and so profound an influence on American letters as Ransom did. A professor at Vanderbilt University and later at Kenyon College, Ransom taught [End Page 6] the likes of Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, James Wright, and Anthony Hecht, as well as highly esteemed fiction writers like Andrew Lytle, E. L. Doctorow, and Peter Taylor. Ransom himself won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1950, and his Selected Poems won the National Book Award in 1964. Moreover, his students won three National Book Awards and eight Pulitzer Prizes, among numerous other awards, and if one were to list his students’ own notable disciples, one could fill a Who’s Who volume of American literature the size of a small-town phonebook. Additionally, Ransom was a founding editor of the influential journal, The Fugitive, and was the founding editor of The Kenyon Review, where he was among the first to publish notable writers like Flannery O’Connor, while his students, Brooks and Warren, were the founding editors of The Southern Review, and both Lytle and Tate were instrumental in sustaining The Sewanee Review.
As a critic, Ransom wrote more than a hundred essays, characterized by their graciousness, perspicacity, and endless inquisitiveness, as well as three wildly underappreciated full-length prose works, God Without Thunder (1930), The World’s Body (1938), and The New Criticism (1941). In fact, Ransom coined the term, “The New Criticism,” and though the method of reading commonly—and rather vaguely—called “the new criticism” derives primarily from Brooks and Warren’s groundbreaking textbook, Understanding Poetry, and from the critical essays written by Brooks, Warren, Tate, and sundry others among Ransom’s former students, the method’s focus on textual analysis derived, in large part, from Ransom’s own understanding of poetry as the synthesis of a logical “structure” and an illogical “texture.” Whereas previous generations of critics and professors contented themselves with presenting biographical material about poets or with presenting impressionistic appreciations of Arnoldian “touchstones,” leaving readers to figure out how poetry actually worked for themselves, Ransom and his students set about the rigorous analysis of poetry as poetry, and their method gained popularity because it, quite democratically, provided ordinary [End Page 7] American students—generally not born into cultural privilege—with the tools necessary to appreciate poems as works of art.
Furthermore, Ransom was among the first professors to teach contemporary poetry. When he began his career as a professor, English-language literature itself had only been sanctioned within the...