Allen Tate: radical, avant-garde, anti-critic, and poet: one of the make-it-New-critics.
Seth Abramson is following in Thomas Brady’s footsteps—Seth is trying to comprehend what I figured out a few years ago: the crucial Fugitive/Southern Agrarian/New Critic role in modern American poetry, especially in the Creative Writing Program Industry, or, as it’s come to be known, the Program Era.
Seth commented on our blog last week and we are quoted on his blog in “There’s A War On in American Poetry (Part II): Were the New Critics the Original MFA-Killers?” July 8, 2012:
I saw a textbook example of the confusion over the role of the New Criticism in the advent of “creative writing” just yesterday, in a mini-essay on a poetry discussion blog. Someone wrote, on that blog, that “[t]he New Critics–who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee–hatched the Creative Writing Industry.” The first part is, of course, true: the New Critics were the “next phase” of the Southern Agrarian group. The second part is entirely a fiction. Not only does the historical evidence reveal no association between the New Critics and the Program Era, it also strongly suggests that the New Critics were aspiring MFA-killers many, many years before their ideological cousins, the avant-garde, attempted the same feat.
Seth doesn’t want to believe the New Critics were associated with the Program Era.
The reason is simple, and Seth’s agenda, despite the great research he’s doing, is very transparent.
Seth wants to be one of the cool kids.
He wants his beloved MFA programs to be considered cool by the Avant-Garde.
As Seth sees it, the academy is not cool. Nor are Southern Agrarian/New Critics. The New Critics are way not cool.
Seth would sleep with Marjorie Perloff before he would read one of John Crowe Ransom’s rhymes, or admit that Shelley was a genius and ought to be taught in the academy (shudder).
No, Seth wants nothing to do with classical learning or the Romantics or the New Critics. Seth embraces the “free studio” Writers Workshop model in highly subsidized MFA programs where teachers humbly “get out of the way”and let fortunate and funded students “find themselves” among their comrades in hip,”radically democratic, non-academic”creative writing environments.
Seth’s dilemma in a nutshell: he’s for democracy and believes in the democracy of teaching poetry in the “free studio” atmosphere of funded MFA programs, but the avant-garde, which he loves, is not democratic, and never will be. Both the avant-garde and the New Critics are elitist and Seth’s real agenda is to make the avant-garde more democratic.
Seth’s quixotic vision is admirable on the surface. He imagines poet millions trampling on professors, professionalization, elitism, priviledge, hierachy, and genius. As Seth sees it, the New Critics wanted to turn poets into professors. (If one reads the New Critics, one sees this is not the case, at all.) The New Critics themselves didn’t start MFA programs; on the contrary, they wanted them killed. (This is not really true, either. They may not have started MFA programs, but their surrogates did. Iowa belonged to the Fugitive/Agrarian/New Critics—Paul Engle was one of them).
In Seth’s rush to be cool and to make Creative Writing and MFA programs seem cool to people like Marjorie Perloff, he’s been blinded by labels and categories. (“Cool” is invariably fooled by over-reliance on false categories and labels.)
Seth’s two key distinctions are: One is either academic or not; one is either creative writing, or not.
Seth would have us believe that Paul Engle and Jorie Graham are not academics, or that someone with an MA or BA in English cannot be a “creative writer.”
In terms of history, Seth thinks that because none of the New Critics founded MFA programs, or because the New Critics served as Think Tank professors and textbook authors in the academy, this is proof they were hostile to MFA programs and Creative Writing, in general.
Now, Seth is correct that Creative Writing, per se, was never the ultimate goal of the New Critics.
The New Critics were highly influential businessmen—and their mission was simple: their own writing’s acceptance in the academy. But their execution, one might say, was complex. The New Critics were not really Critics, so much as Critic-bashers. They crudely assaulted other methodologies—in order that they might impose their own, which was merely a grab-bag of outrageous rhetoric intended to bomb the enemy—the academy as it existed—into submission. Read Allen Tate’s “Is Literary Criticism Possible?” and you’ll see exactly what we mean. How did Tate answer his titular question? No, it’s not. Only poems are possible. So much for the idea that the New Critics were more interested in Criticism and Hiearchy than in the flowering of new poems.
New Criticism’s rhetoric is the whole basis for the Creative Writing Workshop.
Here is the poet and prominent New Critic, one of the original Fugitive and Southern Agrarian members, Allen Tate, in that essay just mentioned:
There is no competition among poems. A good poem suggests the possibility of other poems equally good. But criticism is perpetually obsolescent and replaceable.
Is this not, in a nutshell, the philosophy of English and poetry in Higher Ed which has led us away from the rigorous teaching of classical learning right up to the Romantics and Poe, to the Brave New World, 20th century, freedom of the Creative Writing workshop? It is, indeed. Until Seth does a close reading of what the New Critics actually wrote, he should not be so certain that the New Critics had nothing to do with Creative Writing.
The New Critics need to be seen in both their narrower, self-interested context, as well as in their wider, historical context—as the American arm of Pound’s Euro-Modernists. The men who came to be known as Fugitives, and then Southern Agrarians, and then New Critics, did not wake up each morning concerned with the categories which Seth Abramson has assigned overriding importance—but a hard look at what really occured in these individual’s lives will impact, or should impact, Seth’s research, nonetheless. Seth must certainly understand that we should let the material provide us with ideas, rather than imposing our ideas on the material.
Seth sees division of labor within a company and confuses it with that company’s supposed ideology. He doesn’t understand the New Critics. But nobody really does. We will clear that up.
The ground has to be softened up. College administrators are simply not going to allow books of poetry to serve as the sole determination for undergraduate or advanced degree requirements overnight, or ever—no matter how attractive Seth, or students who hate to learn, find the idea.
Teaching kids “creative writing” might be OK for some poets, but founding and administering and making it successful is the sort of dirty work the New Critics were not not interested in doing. To effect a revolution in the academy requires “academicially conservative” creds. Yahoos don’t effect changes in school curricula. You need professors and theorists with an air of respectability—such as the New Critics, throwing off their quasi-racist Southern Agrarian robes, earned gradually over the years—to do that.
This is a common error the avant-garde, or radical democrats, such as Seth, make: they believe stuffy or high-brow always means conservative. The New Critics’ conservative exterior was nothing more than a necessary front that allowed them to deconstruct the academy.
The New Critics, with their Confederate flags and gin, made very clear in learned essays written in the 30s, 40s and 50s, that they hated the academy as it then existed. It was similar to the hatred Ezra Pound, for instance, had for it.
To put it in really simple terms: the Modernist poets in the early 20th century were outsiders who wanted in. In, if it couldn’t be popularity, was the Academy. The simplicity of this—a certain group of ambitious poets and poet/critics who associated with one another in various ways, and who were outside, and wanted in—should not put us off. In fact, ambition is the bouncing ball we should keep our eye on. What else is more real? Methodology? School loans? Academic professionalism?
One doesn’t need to get into a lot of ideological claptrap or aesthetic theory to tell this story. One doesn’t have to stop at a certain number of “Modernist poets” or worry about that label, or take it too seriously; it’s merely an historical handle.
We know the players: Ezra Pound, his colleague T.S. Eliot (father of New Criticsm), and so on and so on, with the various circles, connections, motives, and general aesthetic ideas. We know the places: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Harvard, Iowa.
The connections are not always easy to trace.
Just to take one example: Paul Engle, perhaps the most important player in Creative Writing, had Fugitive links. He was awarded his Yale Younger in 1932 (which gave him an important credential or calling card at the time) by a member of Ransom’s Fugitive Circle for his Iowa Master’s thesis. At this time the “New Critics” were still the “Southern Agrarians.” As one can readily see, this gets complicated very quickly and such research, as Seth already knows, is not for the faint of heart. Engle was also a Rhodes Scholar and studied in England—like almost all of the Fugitive/Southern Agrarians.
Robert Lowell was the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster: Lowell’s psychiatrist was—another Fugitive!—and he sent Lowell from Harvard to the New Critics’ castle in Tennessee, where Lowell famously camped out on Allen Tate’s lawn. Lowell studied with Ransom (and roomed with Jarrell) at Kenyon; Lowell and his famous name then became the first celebrity Workshop teacher at Iowa for Paul Engle.
Seth is a sincere radical democrat and so the actions of a small band of ambitious poets is not going to impress him, I know. But surely he needs to acknowledge that here the seeds of Creative Writing were being sown. Origins are everything: the rest tends to arrive with a little shrewd administration.
Let’s look at a passage from New Critic and poet John Crowe Ransom in his 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc.” Read this carefully, and it is easy to see that “criticism” is not really this New Critic’s concern. What Ransom is really interested in is “Contemporary Literature” (that is, poems written by himself and his friends like Allen Tate—well, this is natural, isn’t it?). The enemy to the New Critics in all their writings were the English Professors lovingly protecting their historical periods—while ignoring the new writing. This was the nut that had to be cracked. Creative Writing—getting contemporary poets into the academy as teachers—was simply one practical way of doing that. The New Critics pushed for the new writing against all sorts of already established criticism and scholarship—the New Critics, wearing their ‘scholarly, critical,’ respectable garb, were, in fact, soldiers for Pound, Williams, and the avant-garde. (Pound & Williams are both praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry (first ed. 1937) whereas Poe, for instance, is attacked.) Listen to Ransom, without any evidence, making his grand pronouncements, and note the attack-dog method:
It is not anybody who can do criticism. And for example, the more eminent (as historical scholar) the professor of English, the less apt he is to be able to write decent criticism, unless it is about another professor’s work of historical scholarship, in which case it is not literary criticism. The professor may not be without aesthetic judgments respecting an old work, especially if it is “in his period,” since it must often have been judged by authorities whom he respects. Confronted with a new work, I am afraid it is very rare that he finds anything particular to say. Contemporary criticism is not at all in the hands of those who direct the English studies. Contemporary literature, which is almost obliged to receive critical study if it receives any at all, since it is hardly capable of the usual historical commentary, is barely officialized as a proper field for serious study.
Here is contmporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature? They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods. So are their favorite pupils.
Note the awareness of succession—“so are their favorite pupils.” The New Critics were in this for the long haul. Like any avant-garde, Ransom and the New Critics knew what they were up against: the historically-minded English Departments. Ironically, it wasn’t criticism that motivated the New Critics; it was “contemporary literature” that motivated them, and criticism of it, criticism that should have been given to it—i.e., their writing and the writing of their friends—the whole Modernist, little magazine, avant-garde, unpopular, crew.
In this same essay, Ransom seeks to severely limit criticism as it had been practiced up until that time. And recall the remarks of Tate quoted above. The New Critics, as conservative as their reputation was and is, were and are, in fact, far more New than Critic. The New Critics were the tweedy American wing of Pound’s Avant-Garde Modernism. Listen to Ransom again, attempting to curtail criticism. Note the attack on book reviewers, as well as professors of literature. This is the angry voice of the avant-garde, begging to be included:
What is criticism? Easier to ask, What is criticism not? It is an act now notoriously arbitrary and undefined. We feel certain that the critical act is not one of those which the professors of literature habitually perform, and cause their students to perform. And it is our melancholy impression that it is not often cleanly performed in those loose compositions, by writers of perfectly indeterminate qualifications, that appear in print as reviews of books.
Professor Crane [ally of Ransom’s at U. Chicago] excludes from criticism works of historical scholarship and of Neo-Humanism, but more exclusions are possible than that. I should wish to exclude: 1.Personal registrations, which are declarations of the effect of the art-work upon the critic as reader. …2. Synopsis and paraphrase…3. Historical studies…4. Linguistic studies…5. Moral studies…6. Any other special studies which deal with some abstract or prose content taken out of the work.
Why exclude all these things? Ransom wants to destroy humanistic, critical scholarship. This is transparently his goal, and for the aforementioned reason: the old gasbags in the English departments are failing to give contemporary (avant-garde) literature by people like Ezra Pound and Allen Tate, a chance. To place so many restrictions on criticism, as Ransom does, is to leave it with nothing but a false objectivity (because all its tools have been taken away from it) and so it can do nothing but react blandly and favorably to the contemporary work, such as Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At a Station in the Metro,” which are highly praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry.
Isn’t this what Creative Writing does? It throws out critical scholarship, historical scholarship, and virtually all teachable criticism in the name of indiscriminate “creativity” in a “free” environment. The philosophical underpinnings, as well as the practical work being done by Rhodes Scholar Paul Engle at Iowa—the Mother Ship—come right from the Rhodes Scholar crew known as the New Critics. The English contribution (Richards, Leavis, Empson, Austin) will have to wait for another day.
Seth is correct that the New Critics were not interested in bringing an MFA program to every college in the country—that had nothing to do with their personal ambitions—but this doesn’t change the fact that the New Critics, for their own personal motives, created the philosophical model—which is a kooky one, since, let’s face it, teaching “creativity” by essentially not teaching it, by essentially not having any criticism, is just a kooky idea.
Much is made of creative writing teachers “getting out of the way” of their students. Can you imagine Edgar Poe “getting out of the way,” if he were an instructor? Of course he would not. Poe was the original “genius” who believed anyone could be a “genius” with the proper method. He would have something to teach. We can read Poe’s essays and know this. The idea of a teacher “getting out of the way” is absurd, and feeds into the idea that students can magically “learn” by not being taught anything and grooving on Deweyesque “experience.” This is not to say that there are times the teacher should know when to shut up, but teaching either occurs or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, why do we need the pretence of any sort of “program” in the first place? “Experience” can be had anywhere. (Of course we know the answer: it becomes all about who gets credentialed, etc)
Historically, Seth has made much of the fact that Creative Writing really began at Harvard in the 1880s. But there’s no evidence that Harvard in the 1880s was a literary renaissance, as Seth implies. And why did it take so long for MFAs to arrive after the 1880s? Seth trumpets the accomplishments of the Harvard Monthly during that period, but as Seth quotes the rival Harvard Advocate back then, it was just the “latest literary fad” which occupied the minds of the Monthly editors. Seth insists that “creative writing” is, by nature, “radically democratic.” But these are finally just labels. They don’t help us. The New Critics are labeled “conservative.” This is not even close to the truth.
To say, as Seth does, that American poetry was in a woeful state in the late 19th century and needed Walt Whitman to rescue it, is mere opinion. Little radical uprisings here and there do not a “Renaissance” make. Whitman was a woeful prose writer who wrote a few inspired passages of poetry which the pre-Raphaelites admired—to make Walt Whitman a key pillar in the history of American Poetry and Creative Writing is quaint, at best.
Once again, Seth, is half-right. Harvard in the late 19th century/early 20th century is crucial in following the development of Modernism in literature. William James, who, with the help of nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, taught Gertrude Stein there. T.S. Eliot went to school there. George Santayana taught Wallace Stevens there. Wallace Stevens ran in the same circles as Allen Ginsberg’s poet father; Marianne Moore, who edited “The Dial” in the 20s; and William Carlos Williams. Stevens and Ransom traded essays praising each another. The answer is not so much what as who.
This is the same old avant-garde story which crops up every decade or two: the pretentious and insistent carping at mainstream culture and literature due to jealousy and/or loose morals. We see it at Harvard in the 1880s, we will see it with Pound, we will see it with Ransom/Tate.
Seth tells us that the brightest at Harvard in the 1880s hated American literature as it then existed and turned their weary eyes to Europe. Sound familar?
Seth quotes Santayana (who will later reside comfortably in fascist Italy) from those golden days of Harvard in the 1880s, not only attacking “the polite and conventional American mind,” but uttering this bit of wisdom: “We poets at Harvard never read anything except our own compositions.” (!!) Here, in the 1880s at Harvard, is the solopsism of the insular creative writing workshop mentality fully on display.
So perhaps Seth is onto something.
The problem with Seth’s radical ‘creative writing’ democracy is this. He ends up winning the argument by saying: My response to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition is: a billion trillion poems!! This comes out of Allen Tate’s radical formula: one good poem suggest another. and another. and another. and another.
You can’t teach a billion trillion poems.