Poetry: Theory and Criticism

Cultural criticism/cultural studies
Developing in the 18th and 19th centuries among writers such as Jonathan Swift, John Ruskin and, especially, Matthew Arnold, cultural criticism as it is practiced today has significantly complicated older notions of culture, tradition and value. While Arnold believed in culture as a force of harmony and social change, cultural critics of the 20th century sought to extend and problematize such definitions. Theorists like Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, and those connected with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England—as well as French intellectuals such Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault—described culture not as a finished product but as a process that joined knowledge to interest and power. Cultural critics critique the traditional canon and focus their attention on a variety of texts and discourses, tracing the interactions of both through an eclectic mix of interpretive strategies that include elements of economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and new historicism. In critiquing the traditional canon, cultural critics avoid privileging one cultural product over another and often examine texts that are largely seen as marginal and unimportant in traditional criticism, such as those connected to various forms of pop culture. Essentially cross-disciplinary, cultural criticism and cultural studies have become important tools in theorizing the emergence and importance of postcolonial and multicultural literatures.

A poststructuralist theory mainly based on the writings of the French intellectual Jacques Derrida.

Deconstruction posits that meaning, as accessed through language, is indeterminate because language itself is indeterminate. It is a system of signifiers that can never fully “mean”: a word can refer to an object but can never be that object. Derrida developed deconstruction as a response to certain strains of Western philosophy; in the United States, deconstruction was the focus of a group of literary theorists at Yale, including Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman.

Used as a method of literary critique, deconstruction refocuses attention on a work as open-ended, endlessly available to interpretation, and far beyond the reach of authorial intention. Deconstruction traces how language generates meaning both within a text and across texts, while insisting that such meaning can only ever be provisional.

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Elliptical poetry
A term coined in 1998 by poet and critic Stephen Burt in a review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes. In the piece, which first appeared in the Boston Review, Burt describes elliptical poets as those who “try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” Burt’s description of elliptical poetry emphasized its quick shifts in diction and referent, and use of occluded or partially obscured back-story. A special issue of American Letters and Commentary was devoted to elliptical poetry, sparking debates over contemporary trends and schools in American poetry.

Burt pointed to several poets whose work commonly exhibits these features, including Mark Levine, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Liam Rector.

Feminist theory
An extension of feminism’s critique of male power and ideology, feminist theory combines elements of other theoretical models such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction to interrogate the role of gender in the writing, interpretation, and dissemination of literary texts. Originally concerned with the politics of women’s authorship and representations of women in literature, feminist theory has recently begun to examine ideas of gender and sexuality across a wide range of disciplines including film studies, geography, and even economics. Feminist theory emerged from the struggle for women’s rights, beginning in the 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft’s publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Important feminist theorists of the 20th century include Betty Friedan, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Elaine Showalter, Carol Gilligan, and Adrienne Rich.

Formalism (Russian)
A brief but influential 20th-century critical method that originated in St. Petersburg through the group OPOYAZ, and in Moscow via the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Important Formalists included Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky.

Formalism viewed literature as a distinct and separate entity, unconnected to historical or social causes or effects. It analyzed literature according to devices unique to literary works and focused on the “literariness” of a text: words were not simply stand-ins for objects but objects themselves. Formalists advanced the concept of ostranenie, or defamiliarization, arguing that literature, by calling attention to itself as such, estranged the reader from ordinary experience and made the familiar seem new. Formalism’s tendency to collapse form and content is somewhat similar to New Criticism’s approach, though its main influence was on structuralism.

Gender studies
An interdisciplinary approach to the study of gender, sexual categories, and identity.

As a discipline, gender studies borrows from other theoretical models like psychoanalysis—particularly that of Jacques Lacan—deconstruction, and feminist theory in an attempt to examine the social and cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity as they relate to class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Like gender studies, queer theory also questions normative definitions of gender and sexuality. As approaches to literary texts, gender studies and queer theory tend to emphasize the power of representation and linguistic indeterminacy.

A type of literary criticism based on the writings of German philosopher Karl Marx. In its simplest form, Marxist criticism attempts to show the relationship between literature and the social—mainly economic—conditions under which it was produced.

Originally, Marxist critics focused on literary representations of workers and working classes. For later Marxists, however, literature became a document of a kind of knowledge and a record of the historical conditions that produced that knowledge. Like cultural criticism, Marxist literary criticism offers critiques of the “canon” and focuses on the ways in which culture and power intersect; for a Marxist critic, literature both reproduces existing power relations and offers a space where they can be contested and redefined. Important 20th-century Marxist literary critics include Georg Lucáks, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams, and Frederic Jameson.

New Criticism
Name given to a style of criticism advocated by a group of academics writing in the first half of the 20th century. New Criticism, like Formalism, tended to consider texts as autonomous and “closed,” meaning that everything that is needed to understand a work is present within it. The reader does not need outside sources, such as the author’s biography, to fully understand a text; while New Critics did not completely discount the relevance of the author, background, or possible sources of the work, they did insist that those types of knowledge had very little bearing on the work’s merit as literature.

Like Formalist critics, New Critics focused their attention on the variety and degree of certain literary devices, specifically metaphor, irony, tension, and paradox. The New Critics emphasized “close reading” as a way to engage with a text, and paid close attention to the interactions between form and meaning. Important New Critics included Allan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, and F.R. Leavis. William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley coined the term “intentional fallacy”; other terms associated with New Criticism include “affective fallacy,” “heresy of paraphrase,” and “ambiguity.”

New Historicism
A critical approach developed in the 1980s through the works of Michel Foucault and Stephen Greenblatt, similar to Marxism.

Moving away from text-centered schools of criticism such as New Criticism, New Historicism reopened the interpretation of literature to the social, political, and historical milieu that produced it. To a New Historicist, literature is not the record of a single mind, but the end product of a particular cultural moment. New Historicists look at literature alongside other cultural products of a particular historical period to illustrate how concepts, attitudes, and ideologies operated across a broader cultural spectrum that is not exclusively literary. In addition to analyzing the impact of historical context and ideology, New Historicists also acknowledge that their own criticism contains biases that derive from their historical position and ideology. Because it is impossible to escape one’s own “historicity,” the meaning of a text is fluid, not fixed. New Historicists attempt to situate artistic texts both as products of a historical context and as the means to understand cultural and intellectual history.

A term coined by William Carlos Williams in 1930 that developed from his reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World. He described it as looking at a poem “with a special eye to its structural aspects, how it has been constructed….” Louis Zukofsky expanded the term and attempted to articulate its principles when he guest-edited the February 1931 issue of Poetry.

He included Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Carl Rakosi. Later, the poet Lorine Niedecker was closely associated with this movement. These “objectivist” poets, Zukofsky noted, were Imagists rather than Symbolists; they were concerned with creating a poetic structure that could be perceived as a whole, rather than a series of imprecise but evocative images. For more on objectivism, read Peter O’Leary’s feature, “The Energies of Words”. Browse Objectivist poets.

Postcolonial theory
A theoretical approach to analyzing the literature produced in countries that were once colonies, especially of European powers such as Britain, France, and Spain. Postcolonial theory also looks at the broader interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized by dealing with issues such as identity (including gender, race, and class), language, representation, and history.

Because native languages and culture were replaced or superseded by European traditions in colonial societies, part of the postcolonialist project is reclamation. Acknowledging the effect of colonialism’s aftermath—its language, discourse, and cultural institutions—has led to an emphasis on hybridity, or the mingling of cultural signs and practices between colonizer and colonized. The Palestinian American cultural critic Edward Said was a major figure of postcolonial thought, and his book Orientalism is often credited as its founding text. Other important postcolonial critics include Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Frantz Fanon.

Defined variously as a reaction to modernism or merely the movement that followed it, postmodernism remains a controversial concept.

As a term, it tends to refer to an intellectual, artistic, or cultural outlook or practice that is suspicious of hierarchy and objective knowledge and embraces complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, and diversity. It includes other 20th-century theoretical movements such as poststructuralism and deconstruction, mainly through a common emphasis on discourse and the power of language in structuring thought and experience. Because it attacks traditional concepts of history, knowledge, and reality itself—arguing that “truth” is culturally and historically specific—postmodernism has often been accused of relativism. Many of the central postmodernist theorists are French and include Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard.

A school of thought that responded negatively to structuralism’s insistence on frameworks and structures as access points to “truth.” Poststructuralism, like deconstruction, emphasized the instability of meaning. While structuralism regarded language as a closed system, poststructuralism identified an inevitable gap between signifier and signified.

In poststructuralism, the reader and not the writer became paramount: the author’s intended meaning, because it could never be truly known, was less important than the reader’s perceived meaning. Like other postmodern theories that interrogated cultural assumptions, poststructuralists believe in studying both the text and the systems of knowledge that produced that text. Poststructuralism is associated with many French writers and thinkers, namely Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

Psychoanalytic theory
A critical approach influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work on the unconscious and human behavior. Freud believed that the existence of three competing impulses in the psyche—the ego, id, and superego—and the conflict inherent in child-parent relations structured human responses to the world. Initially, psychoanalytic literary theory consisted of applying psychoanalysis to either the author or the main character of a work, seeking unconscious or latent meaning underneath the manifest language and analyzing the symbols contained in a given work. Freud himself wrote many essays in this vein, applying his theories to characters such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ibsen’s Rebecca West.

Influenced by Jacques Lacan, later psychoanalytic theory focused on the unconscious and language and shared some concerns with deconstruction and poststructuralist theory. Psychoanalytic theory has been enormously influential on a number of other theories, such as reader-response and feminist theory, as well as on individual thinkers. For example, critic Harold Bloom’s theory of the struggle between “strong” and “weak” poets owes much to Freud’s Oedipus complex.

Reader-response theory
A theory, which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to poststructuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them. Unlike text-based approaches such as New Criticism, which are grounded upon some objective meaning already present in the work being examined, reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. The reader-response critic’s job is to examine the scope and variety of reader reactions and analyze the ways in which different readers, sometimes called “interpretive communities,” make meaning out of both purely personal reactions and inherited or culturally conditioned ways of reading. The theory is popular in both the United States and Germany; its main theorists include Stanley Fish, David Bleich, and Wolfgang Iser.

A movement of thought in the humanities, widespread in anthropology, linguistics, and literary theory, and influential in the 1950s and ’60s. Based primarily on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism considered language as a system of signs and signification, the elements of which are understandable only in relation to each other and to the system. In literary theory, structuralism challenged the belief that a work of literature reflected a given reality; instead, a text was constituted of linguistic conventions and situated among other texts. Structuralist critics analyzed material by examining underlying structures, such as characterization or plot, and attempted to show how these patterns were universal and could thus be used to develop general conclusions about both individual works and the systems from which they emerged. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was an important champion of structuralism, as was Roman Jakobsen.

Northrop Frye’s attempts to categorize Western literature by archetype had some basis in structuralist thought. Structuralism regarded language as a closed, stable system, and by the late 1960s it had given way to poststructuralism.

Textual criticism
A branch of literary criticism concerned with analyzing and determining the accuracy of texts. By examining the documents themselves in print and manuscript form—as well as any associated documentation such as letters, journals, or notebooks—textual critics attempt to identify and remove errors resulting from multiple transcriptions and printings and restore the work to its most original state. They also seek to present the text in a format that benefits readers and scholars, often with facsimile reproductions of the original manuscripts or print versions, along with a critical apparatus explaining textual variants between versions, critical commentaries, and bibliographies. Textual criticism developed out of ancient, classical, and Biblical scholarship, but has increasingly been used to deal with variations found in much modern literature, whether as a matter of typographical error, authorial revision, or historical and cultural textual support. Recent prominent textual critics include W.

W. Greg, Fredson Bowers, G. Thomas Tanselle, D.C. Greetham, Peter Shillingsburg, and Jerome McGann.