I was a student at the University of Chicago in the thirties, when the New Criticism dominated literary discussion everywhere. The Chicago variant was called the Chicago School of Criticism and included such stellar academic performers as Ronald Crane and Richard McKeon. Their ancestral guru was Aristotle.
I took a course in Practical Criticism with Ronald Crane in which we spent all of an academic quarter analyzing “Sailing to Byzantium” and concluded that the only useful criterion in judging a poem was its complexity. A poem was good or bad on the basis of a plot in which various elements such as image, idea, rhythm, emotion, etc., contrast or confirm and resolve. The tensions of which a poem was made constituted its worth.
I still think that the textual approach to criticism, espoused by the Chicagoans, is the best way to deal with an aesthetic object. In painting, a study of pigment and pattern in Jackson Pollock, for example, is useful. Unfortunately, much recent criticism in poetry is focused on contextual matters like the poet’s life, the poetic movement to which he belongs, the period of history he lives in, etc. These matters make for trivia, amusing bits of information, appropriate to “Jeopardy.” They do not help us to understand and evaluate poetry.
I think the reviewers in Poetry should consider revising their approaches to the art.
Hastings-On-Hudson, New York