I. A. Richards' "Practical Criticism"

This book, published in 1929, is one of those that started New Criticism and with it, a whole new attitude toward literary criticism. It's surprisingly enjoyable. Richards doesn't use any fancy language (although you can tell he's a Brit), so there's no jargon or pretension to put up with while reading.

It's got a fascinating structure: he was a prof at Cambridge University, and he gave out 10 or so poems to his class, without telling them who wrote each or what it they were called, and told everyone to respond in writing in whatever way they wanted to. So at the end of this experiment he has hundreds of these responses, what he calls "protocols" for some reason, and "Practical Criticism" is his analysis of the responses. He approaches the whole thing very scientifically: he sifts through the protocols and finds the problems that his students have with each poem, then identifies them. He says there are ten (10) obstacles that get in the way of the real meaning of a poem, from plain misunderstanding to the reader's own random associations (which he calls "irrelevant"), to more philosophical hurdles like the question of whether a poem is good if it preaches a political or moral viewpoint that you disagree with. Each of the poems he gives out happily brings up one of the 10 dilemmas, so everything is covered.

I'm not super far into it, but he plans to tell us about what he thinks the best way to read a poem is, or to be more specific, what the best method of criticizing a literary work is. He's got chapter sections called "The four kinds of meaning", and "Inhibition as the complement of sentimentality", and "Sincerity and intuition" that I'm looking forward to. He's very much tying together psychology and criticism, although he admits that it is elementary psychology he is using, and avoids any attempt to discover the underlying motives of the students in writing their protocols.

A couple of good quotes:
"That the one and only goal of all critical endeavors, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication may seem an exaggeration. But in practice it is so."

"Ambiguity in fact is systematic; the separate senses that a word may have are related to one another, if not as strictly as the various aspects of a building, at least to a remarkable extent."

"When we have solved, completely, the communication problem, when we have got, perfectly, the experience, the mental condition relevant to the poem, we have still to judge it, still to decide upon its worth. But the later question nearly always settles itself; or rather, our own inmost nature and the nature of the world in which we live decide it for us. Our prime endeavor must be to get the relevant mental condition and then see what happens."

This last quote is of particular interest to me because it places Richards exactly on the time line of literary criticism. The idea that a poem is a "problem" to be "solved" is no longer a firm idea to have: it has been killed by the "Death of the Author" crowd and buried by the poststructuralists. But even so, by saying "our inmost nature and the nature of the world", he allows for a lot of the change in the meaning of Meaning that would come twenty and thirty years down the road. Richards' main ideas are ones promoting close reading and being aware of one's own reactions and emotions to a text and how they might influence your opinions while reading it.

The last part of the book is Richards' attempt to introduce a better way of teaching poetry and other literature. Fun stuff! I'm looking forward to it.

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