Overweening Generalist

Friday, August 12, 2011

Practical Criticism

In my previous warblings I addressed the idea that some of us (although no one who's reading this blog, probably?) may be inundated by the easily-accessed opinion of the virtual crowd, and how this might be stifling the at-times exhilarating experience of interacting with some thing and one's own nervous system, and...evaluating for oneself?

I could let on that if I find out something is wildly popular and much "liked" by the crowd, I probably will not like it, but that's not true. I'm sure there are some very popular things that I "digg" too. Anyway...

Anyone heard of I.A. Richards? By the mid-1920s, as an English professor at Cambridge, he was tired of theorists writing about how poems were received by readers; he wanted to find out. He set out to make the apprehension of poetry as a scientific endeavor. It was the spirit of the times, and Richards was something of a mad man; in some ways he was England's version of Pound.

                                     I.A. Richards (1893-1979), a serious character

So, with some of England's brightest students on hand for field-work, he collected poems by Shakespeare, Ella Wheeler Cox (who?), John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and poets with names like Philip James Bailey, Wilfred Rowland Childe, J.D.C. Pellew, and even a person named "Woodbine Willie."

He handed the poems in groups of four to his students and asked them to read each poem as many times as they pleased, and to count how many times they had read each poem. And he asked his students to record their perceptions on a separate sheet of paper, which they handed in. Richards called the handed-in sheets "protocols."

Here's the catch: none of the poems had their author's name attached to it.

Caveat: with people like Donne and Shakespeare, Richards updated the language so that it wouldn't be a dead giveaway that these guys were from the 17th century.

Richards records his findings in his 1929 book Practical Criticism. You would think these students - majoring in English at one of the greatest universities in the world - would've seen Donne for how profound he was, and that Woodbine Willie fell short in a few ways. Or you might have guessed - because I'm the one bringing this up - that these bright people gave horrendously inane comments about the nameless poetry.

Richards actually wonders, if any of us were in the same situation, would we have done any better? Because his students seemed to not tell Shakespeare from Ella Wheeler Cox. Richards himself never gives an outright critique of any of the poems he selected, but his scattershot remarks based on the endlessly non-insightful comments the students made reveals a master of the close reading of poetry, and indeed Richards was one of the pioneers of "close reading."

(I recently read a delightfully candid and ultimately deeply lugubrious book that came out earlier this year or late last: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by "Professor X." He didn't want to tarnish the good name of the schools in which he functioned as an adjunct professor, teaching English 101 for maybe a tenth of what a tenured professor would get. And his college students often can't write a coherent English sentence; they shouldn't even be in college. I doubt things have gotten much better on campuses since Richards's time, but maybe I'm wrong...)

Now: here's my question, and I hope you enjoy pondering it as much as I do: when we read Richards, he's not taking on the tone of some jackoff NeoCon like Allan Bloom (he of the best-seller in the 1980s in Unistat, The Closing of the American Mind), or any academic scold of any sort. He truly does seem to conduct the material that ends up in Practical Criticism like a scientist would treat his data. Now the question: if the readers seemed to enjoy J.D.C. Pellew far more than John Donne, isn't that right for them? Just because Oxford dons and Yale professors have been telling everyone that Donne, Hopkins, and Shakespeare are far far FAR better than the other obscure names...who's to say what's great?

It's a funny and profound book of literary criticism, and I just thought some of you might want to look at it if you haven't already. Pound did some similar experiments, which I'll write about some day soon. Pound's virtuoso student Louis Zukofsky wrote A Test of Poetry, which seems in the same vein as Richards, albeit much later, and more playful and not so much the "science" experiment.

From blind taste tests of $50 glasses of wine versus $5 glasses (some very interesting findings there, by another intellectual prankster), to the the Can You Tell If This Painting Was Done By An Abstract Expressionist or an Elephant? tests, here are some situations in which we cannot fall back on the "wisdom of crowds" (the jury's still out on the ontology of that "wisdom") or "experts."

I say: the hell with it. So it turns out I liked the $5 wine more than the $50 stuff. Big effing deal if I actually prefer the elephant's work to Jackson Pollack (or someone closer to an elephant's style). And why should you care if you you're not supposed to like Ravel's Bolero more than Schubert's Trout Quintet? 

Quoting Robert Anton Wilson, "Like what you like, enjoy what you enjoy, and don't take crap from anyone!"


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Great blog, as always. I might reread that wonderful book, "A Test of Poetry" by Louis Zukofsky, soon. Would anyone like to join me in this project?

michael said...

Thanks, Daddy Wags.

I would do a reading of Zuk w/you but am currently chest-deep in a (no kidding) 1300 page history of West Coast poetry, for which I will write a review; a few conspiracy books; researching challenging territory of alternative economic ideas; an ongoing study of avant literary techniques and movements and their adherents; and yet another re-reading of Rorty. Among other things.

Have you tried Craig's List for a local salon, run by you? You'd be a natural. And you'd get to interact with humans incarnate. There ought to be para-UC Riverside freaks who have a lot to say residing not far from you?

Dianne Heath said...

This is so true but you say it with such eloquence. I think at some point literature can become name brand. For example a smaller blog and a New York Times article can have the same concept (and even be from the same author without the people noticing) however the New York Times article will be appreciated more because of the name. I agree with liking what you like and not because of it's apparent popularity. Wonderful blog post!

michael said...

Jeez, thanks Dianne!

Yes: this phenomena of reacting automatically to a sign rather than the thing in itself: we all do this to some extent, I assume. I know I do. But as a part of zen or mindfulness or whatever you wanna call it, I try to NOT react, and instead, pause, mentally step back and see if I can perceive in something like a naive way. When I'm successful at it I feel like I've been INVOLVED in something, even if ever-so-slight a thing.

I would guess this is related to creativity in some way, but it's only a guess. What other ways can we make ourselves THINK for ourselves?

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Thanks for your suggestions, Dr. Johnson.