Test Your New Critical Methods[1]

        Before you begin, clear your mind of all non-New-Critical interpretive baggage, no matter how familiar and cozy.  Remember that your goal is not merely to describe the poem, and it certainly is not to “react to the poem” (the “affective fallacy”) or “discover the author’s intentions”!  You are analyzing a verbal object whose denotative and connotative meanings form certain kinds of structures which make the poem better or worse. 

1)  First, determine what tensions are operating in the poem by pointing out their occurrence in the poem’s language.  Quote the poem—paraphrase only with great caution.  Resist the urge to substitute paraphrase for objective interpretation (i.e., the heresy of paraphrase).  Tensions can be caused by actions, concepts, and entities opposed to each other, especially in connotation as well as in denotation. They may show up in images, similes, metaphors, and symbols, as well as in denotative content.  Look for thematic repetition and variations on themes to indicate formal (vs. accidental) structure in the work.  Read very closely! 

2)  If the “verbal artifact” really is a poem, you also should talk about the way the poem’s rhyme and/or rhythm, as well as typographical structure, like line-breaks and stanza structure, help to support the operation of those tensions.  In a really good poem, form and content should be inseparable. 

3)  Does the poem achieve unity by means of a single theme which resolves the tensions in the topic it describes?  Explain how it does so.  That’s the New Critical “thesis.”  Ideally it should express some understanding you could claim was relevant to understanding human experience.

4)  You will judge the goodness of the poem by the degree to which its dominant theme  resolves, usually with some poetic use of figurative language (irony, ambiguity, paradox), the thematic tensions you have discovered, and incorporates the poem’s complex, multiple views of the topic into an organically unified whole.

Class Discussion: What might be some of the problems, faulty assumptions, and/or pitfalls inherent in this approach to the study of literature?



[1] Taken from the website, http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng215/New_Criticism_terms.htm