Lean, Mean, Cleanth Machine; CB; Poetry's BFF
So, imagine the upbringing of one of those flashy French theorists—Paris, the École Normale Superieure, turtlenecks, sunglasses indoors, Pernod, American groupies. Now conjure up the opposite, and you have me. I was born in Murray, Kentucky, to a Methodist family. My parents were kind of kooky, and I never had such a hot relationship with my mom, but no damage done. Oh, yeah: I was also a Southerner, through and through.
Work & Education
I was that rare bread of professor: I actually enjoyed teaching, liked my colleagues, and didn't stir up (too much) trouble—intentionally, at least. After I received my degree from Oxford (I did get out of the South—just made me love it more), I returned to the United States to stir up a hornet's nest in the academy with the idea that—get this—reading poetry for its own sake, and not to make a point about history, politics, or ideology, was actually worth doing. I spent many years at Louisiana State University before I moved on to Vanderbilt, where I really got the party started. Vanderbilt was a veritable hive of intellectual activity. There, I got to party with big names like Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom. These crazy kids and I started literary movements like the Southern Agrarians and the Fugitives (cool names, huh?). Warren and I even collaborated on a few textbooks, like Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. We were all about appreciating literature and putting poems under the microscope to look at stuff like form, structure, meter, rhyme scheme, imagery, and other formal components. I held other academic positions at University of Texas at Austin and Yale, and needed a pile driver to collect all of my honorary doctorates, fellowships, awards, and fancy memberships. By the way, I wasn't out fishing on the weekend; I was cranking out foundational works on the poetry of the American South, William Faulkner, rhetoric, and tradition. My tour de force was The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947)—that one got me a gig at Yale, where I stayed until 1975, at which point I was the Gray Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric.
I received a classical education in my early years and then went on to Vanderbilt and Tulane. I hit the big time when I became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (Exeter College)—that's nothing to sniff at. It was just the beginning of a very long and important career.
My attitude toward politics: stay out of my sonnet! I just wasn't into political readings of literature, and thank goodness my career took place long before identity politics appeared on the scene. In fact, people could never pin down exactly what my political beliefs were. They assumed that because I didn't believe that the political context of a poem was worth considering it meant that I was anti-politics or even conservative. Some people have even called me a "reactionary" and a "proto-fascist" (source).
When I was a young thing, I wrote an essay called "A Plea to the Protestant Churches." Inspired by my disgust for Roosevelt's New Deal, I got my knickers in a twist that all this government aid to the people was going to replace a Christian God with a bunch of Communist thinking. To me, religion required a deep faith in supreme values. I believe that religion and literature have a lot in common. They're not just philosophy; they aim straight for the soul. As I said in my book Community, Religion, and Literature, they both reveal the "truth about human beings." I also said that in our post-Enlightenment era, with all of its facts and objective truths, literature has "assumed the burden of providing civilization with its values." But please don't let poetry become a religion. Everything in moderation, please.
Activities & Interests
Meter and rhyme scheme (tied)