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Jill Peláez Baumgaertner
Poetry: Why Bother?
I came of age intellectually during the 1960s, among heirs of the New Criticism, and before the other "isms" had insinuated themselves into the teaching of literature. "The poem is all there is," I remember one of my undergraduate professors saying. "Nothing else is important except the words you see on the page." A poem was self-contained and self-sufficient, we were told. It would explain itself. All we had to do was read the poem, work it like a field, and we would find the key to meaning in its sounds and image patterns. Everything in the poem would point to the truth of the poem, the truth of the poet, the truth of human existence. It was that simple. Truth was available for those who were willing to work to find it.
Which, of course, was not simple at all. Poems, we learned, were like machines that could be taken apart, analyzed, diagrammed, and reassembled—except that we rarely got around to reassembling them. The intricacies of interpretation were mastered by those who practiced the acrobatics of analysis, an art so coolly rational that it could discard context. Historical, theological, psychological, political, biographical, cultural contexts were beside the point.
This rigid system of interpretation has now given way to its exact opposite, perhaps an inevitable response to the stringencies of New Critical pedagogy. On the one hand, we should hardly regret the demise of an approach that arrogantly dismissed contextual criticism. Every poem, after all, is written at a particular time in a particular place by an author with particular biases. On the other hand, now we often hear that the poem is important only insofar as it reveals its own, its author's, or its culture's deficiencies and prejudices in the inevitable struggle for power—which means that an individual poem is important only insofar as it reveals problems, not the least of which is its assumed inability to speak clearly. Most would agree that these days the interpretation of interpretation ...