The Chronicle Review

How Poets Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Academy

September 08, 2017

James Fryer for The Chronicle Review

It was, at one time, a striking fact that many of the most prominent and respected poets of the early 20th century were also prolific literary and cultural critics. A century later, the idea of the poet as critic seems relatively mundane. Indeed, a critic is one of the things we tend to expect any serious professional poet to be. Poets write closely argued essays for little magazines like Boston Review, n+1, and Guernica and book reviews for major media outlets like The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. Poets teach courses in critical theory to graduate students and publish abstract philosophical statements of poetics alongside their new creative work. Poets organize conferences whose participants and audiences are other poets. And poets are, increasingly, not just the foremost experts on poetry in our culture but the only experts.

This state of affairs can be fairly described as one of modernism’s legacies. To be sure, the combination of poetic and critical-prose writing into a single vocation is by no means a modernist invention — there is a long and august tradition of poets who also wrote criticism, including John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold. But the durable association between poet-critics and modernism persists because modernist poet-critics did play a distinctive part in literary history, one that still affects us today.

In the tumultuous period that began in the late 1910s and ended in the late 1940s, poet-critics began to consolidate their cultural gains by making a durable place for literary modernism in the American social order. They did so with the support of large bureaucratic institutions like research universities, government agencies, and philanthropic foundations. What is exceptional about these poet-critics is not the fact that they wrote criticism, nor is it the particular type of criticism they wrote. It is that they participated, as none of their predecessors had or could have, in the life of bureaucracy, aligning themselves with large institutions at a time of radical instability in the cultural economy. They were not just poet-critics; they were poet-administrators.

In the first couple of decades of the 20th century, aristocratic values justified support for modernism. Its wealthy patrons — people like Scofield Thayer, Lady Rothermere, Arthur Spingarn, Carl Van Vechten, and John Quinn — understood modernism as the 20th-century iteration of Matthew Arnold’s "best which has been thought and said." The audience for this kind of work was never assumed to be very large (it often was as small as a single individual collector), and the rhetoric of smallness and sparseness was often utilized.

The term "little magazine" (which was in use before the modernist era, but was ubiquitous during it) is an example of this, as are the names of several of the most important little magazines of the modernist period: The Little Review, The Smart Set, Coterie, among others. Indeed, it was the little magazine (along with the undergraduate college, another institution structured by the values of exclusivity and smallness) that served as the central institution and paradigmatic organizational form of the high modernist period.

The modernist poet-critics participated in the life of bureaucracy. They were not just poet-critics; they were poet-administrators.
But the combination of two world wars and the market crash of 1929, as Thomas Piketty has argued, initiated a "euthanasia of the rentier" (a phrase Piketty borrowed from John Maynard Keynes). The capital reserves of the class that had supported the experiments of modernism and the avant-garde were seriously depleted, or sometimes wiped out entirely, by these shocks. The 1920s were the last decade in which elite literary production was supported primarily by wealthy patrons.

In place of the vanished aristocratic patrons came a set of interlinked bureaucratic institutions: the federal government, philanthropic foundations, and universities. All three served a similar role of protecting modernism and modernists from an unregulated free market that was assumed to be uninterested in, if not actively hostile to, the survival of the arts, and poetry in particular.

Indeed, as the old order crumbled amid war and depression, poet-critics sought shelter in these institutions — and came to play important roles in them. Archibald MacLeish served President Franklin D. Roosevelt, first as librarian of Congress and later as director of the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures. Sterling Brown worked as director of the Office of Negro Affairs for the Federal Writers’ Project. R.P. Blackmur acted as adviser to the Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation.

But it was the academy that did the most to support and promulgate modernist explanation. By the end of World War II, more and more poet-critics were ensconced in the university. The romance between modernist poet-critics and academe goes back at least to the early 1920s, when T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood attracted the notice and respect of professors like I.A. Richards (who tried, and failed, to interest Eliot in joining the fledgling Cambridge English School in 1920). By 1945, poet-critics and the academy had made it official: Figures like Eliot, Blackmur, Allen Tate, and William Empson were eminences in the academic world as much as in the strictly literary world of the little magazines.

There was some resistance to the incorporation of modernism and its discursive traditions into the universities. But for the most part, poet-critics saw academicization as an opportunity, and seized it. In his groundbreaking 1993 monograph Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism (Princeton University Press), Langdon Hammer insists on the mutual benefit to both poetry and criticism that academic specialization offered: "Poetry was criticism’s way into the university, a form of knowledge through which New Critics like Tate established their authority without advanced degrees, against the resistance of historical scholars. … Criticism was poetry’s way into the university too. The hyphenated form poet-critic expressed an addition, a further development: it indicated a poet with the capacity not only to write poems but to reflect on them, to write about them, and to teach them."

Of all the poet-critics of the modernist era, it was John Crowe Ransom who invested most deeply in the institution of the university. Ransom, who taught first at Vanderbilt and later at Kenyon College, where he founded the important little magazine The Kenyon Review, was motivated not only by his commitment to the values of humanism but also by his awareness of a looming crisis within the professoriate. "I have an idea," he wrote to Tate in 1937, "that we could really found criticism if we could get together on it. … The professors are in an awful dither trying to reform themselves and there’s a big stroke possible for a small group that knows what it wants in giving them ideas and definition and showing the way."

In 1948, Ransom received a three-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fund the Kenyon School of English, a summer program dedicated to training undergraduate teachers in criticism and critical theory. Around the same time, Blackmur was awarded a similar grant to administer the Christian Gauss Seminars at Princeton. It would be philanthropically supported academic programs like these, rather than little magazines, that provided the way forward for the kind of discourse that modernist poet-critics had inaugurated.

To a greater extent than any of his contemporaries, Ransom sought to "found criticism": to give it a foundation in the practical and financial as well as the theoretical and intellectual sense. The need for theoretical explanation and the need for institutional support both underpinned Ransom’s decisive call for a more rigorous, university-based culture of criticism. "The artist himself … should know good art when he sees it," Ransom wrote in a 1937 essay, "but his understanding is intuitive rather than dialectical — he cannot very well explain his theory of the thing":

It is from the professors of literature, in this country the professors of English for the most part, that I should hope eventually for the erection of intelligent standards of criticism. It is their business.

Criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic, and this means that it must be developed by the collective and sustained effort of learned persons — which means that its proper seat is in the universities. …

Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals. Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism, Ltd.

Already in 1937, Ransom sounds as if he were drafting a grant proposal, and indeed one can draw a direct line from "Criticism, Inc." to Ransom’s proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation for what would become the Kenyon School of English. Ransom envisioned a summer school populated by the most brilliant exemplars of the trend that he had already christened in his 1941 book The New Criticism. Poet-critics were disproportionately well represented among the faculty, as they had been in Ransom’s book; fellows in residence over the course of the program’s first three summers included William Empson, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, Kenneth Burke, Robert Lowell, and Delmore Schwartz. Access to such charismatic poet-critics, rather than any substantive content or methodology, was the primary attraction of the School of English. "The modern critics are publicly known by virtue of their writings," Ransom’s proposal states. "But if these students could study personally under several of them as instructors, their own critical understanding could be instructed, and would be less private and uncertain. And since the students of English today are the teachers of English tomorrow, the teaching of English might be improved appreciably within a generation."

These terms — "improved appreciably within a generation" — would have been music to the ears of philanthropists who sought to cultivate lasting social change in ways that could be measured objectively. Moreover, where little magazines were, almost by definition, polemical and partisan, an institution like the Kenyon School of English was conceived from the start as gradualist and pluralistic. "The School … will not permit itself to be identified exclusively with any one critical ‘position,’" Ransom emphasizes. The school’s intention was not merely to advocate for immediate curricular or theoretical change within academic criticism, but to address root causes. Moreover, where the little magazine addressed itself to the elite, already-educated reader, a project like the Kenyon School dedicated itself to the cultivation of a specific cadre of nonelite, undereducated readers, its raw material the hundreds of young soldiers back from the war with a thirst for literature.

For the first time, then, the essentially elitist, aristocratic critical agenda long advocated by modernist poet-critics like Eliot could appear as a populist educational project. This was a new vision of modernist criticism, one completely compatible with the most respectable democratic values but still intellectually rigorous and committed to high critical standards. What would guarantee entry into the ranks of the literary elite was not innate sensitivity or genius, as aristocratic poet-critics like Eliot had once imagined. Rather, it was education in the most formal sense, open in principle to anyone. For the first time, there was a credential in the art of criticism.

Ransom’s idea — that the "proper seat" of literary criticism was in the universities — has gradually come to seem self-evident, but it was only one of many possible outcomes. It is also an idea whose time may be passing. The landscape designed by and for the modernists is still where contemporary poets, critics, and scholars dwell, even if it is now partially in ruins. The administrative projects undertaken by modernist poet-critics between 1920 and 1950 underlay the formidable achievements of the Anglo-American literary culture of the subsequent 60 years — and produced new problems that we and future generations of poets, critics, and scholars still have to reckon with.

If the struggle of the modernists was to make peace with bureaucratic institutions without compromising the purity and quality of their work, the question for those who have come after them has been whether to challenge or sustain that peace. The modernist union of poetry, criticism, and bureaucracy has had many obvious benefits: Certainly the levels of comfort, prosperity, and productivity enjoyed by several generations of Anglo-American poets from the postwar era onward as a result of their connection to bureaucratic institutions are nothing to minimize.

But in many ways poets have traded reliance on an aristocratic elite for a technocratic one — the patron for the administrator. The particular kind of cultural compromise that the modernist poet-critics normalized has made it harder to conceive of an autonomous poetic culture that exists apart from bureaucratic institutions. In an age of labor-market crises in academe and dwindling resources for the arts in both the public and private sectors — not to mention rampant populist anti-intellectualism and skepticism even on the part of elites about the value of the humanities — that may be exactly the future that today’s poet-critics and scholars most need to imagine, whether they want to or not.

It is common to complain that American poetry culture, as it exists today, is too exclusive, unequal, or artificial. This is true, but that culture is also incredibly fragile. While we may not be facing a crisis of the magnitude of those that necessitated the shift from aristocratic to bureaucratic support — the 1929 crash, the two world wars — there are plenty of cracks in the edifice the modernists built, and we shouldn’t grow complacent. Much of what we view as our robust vernacular culture of poetic composition and instruction could easily be decimated with a stroke of a university administrator’s or foundation officer’s pen.

Are there new institutional havens out there to which today’s poets (and critics) can turn? Can the market, or civil society, sustain the kind of professionalized poetic activity that has been supported by the academy and other institutions for the past 60 years? Will today’s poets need to return to something like the old patronage system, in which a few exceptional geniuses are subsidized while the majority of would-be professionals are neglected?

The answers are unclear, in part because the need to provide them has not yet become acute: We have not yet abandoned the citadels that the modernists established. Indeed, we should continue to defend them. But we should spend at least as much time and energy surveying what lies beyond.

Evan Kindley is a visiting assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. His new book is Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture (Harvard University Press).