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We Are Going, Gentlemen

"Poetry is the language of the state of crisis."
—Stéphane Mallarmé

When Cleanth Brooks died at 87 in 1994, a great era of American literary criticism ended. Brooks had been one of John Crowe Ransom's prize students at Vanderbilt, and when Ransom issued the call for a method of criticism of poetry that would not fall prey to the errors of earlier generations, Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, another of Ransom's protégés, responded with Understanding Poetry, perhaps the most influential literary textbook ever written. Ransom, Brooks, and Warren thus became forever associated with the New Criticism, a movement which took, not very accurately, its name from Ransom's 1941 collection of essays evaluating important recent critics (neither Brooks nor Warren was among them).

In a note to the instructor in the first edition of Understanding Poetry, Brooks sought to avoid some of the common "temptations" that resulted in study of substitutes for a poem instead of the poem itself. These included "paraphrase of logical and narrative content," "study of biographical and historical materials," and "inspirational and didactic interpretation." Instead, Brooks and Warren proposed "close reading" of the poem, focusing on it as a consciously crafted aesthetic object that was...

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