Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Has the literary academy destroyed poetry?

The success of the New Critics, all of whom were poet-professors, inspired the next three generations of American scholars to focus on espousing, or at the very least consciously employing, critical methods as their means of professional advancement. Every decade brought a new wave of critical schools and techniques, eventually culminating in mostly theoretical approaches to literature. Each new method, however brilliant—and these methods often were quite brilliant—usually became more remote from the actual holistic, intuitive experience of poetry. As criticism and theory became a mandatory part of the curriculum, their presence reduced the number of classes students took in imaginative literature. (Memorization had already vanished from the classroom.) Trained in this system, students mastered complex strategies for analyzing an art in which they had little direct experience and less appetite. Theoretical fluency replaced wide reading of primary sources. Poems became texts to be deconstructed into power strategies and signifiers. Inexplicably, enrollment in literature courses began to decline.

Please understand I am not making an argument against the New Criticism, critical methods, or literary theory as intellectual disciplines. I am myself a critic and take great pride in that side of my writing. My argument concerns what happened to several generations of students, especially those who were not literature majors, when their classroom experience of poetry consisted mostly of technical analysis without being supplemented by other approaches to the art. For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation foster. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?

No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project. The rise of analytical criticism initially seemed an entirely reasonable and beneficial development. The time seems overdue to assess its broader impact on the art.
However, there are poetry slams and hip hop and they has escaped this process. So far.

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