A long, long time ago, there were three topics people had to avoid in mixed company: politics, religion, and poetry. That's right: people actually used to get steamed about poetry, storming out of rooms, dashing off negative reviews in academic journals with circulations of over 600, and throwing perfectly good whiskey sours on each other, all over how to read a poem.
The Golden Age of the poetry smackdown was the early 1950s. It's hard not to get a little misty thinking about poetry's unresolved tensions. Better yet, it's so sweet to think that people actually gave a hoot about poetry's unresolved tensions once upon a time.
The debate to which I am referring is the one stirred up by New Critics and their legions of opponents, chief among them the "Old Historicists." This debate has often been characterized as "intense," "fierce," "belligerent," "agro," and "psycho." Ink spilled like blood across the beaches of Normandy when these rivals took to the pages of the academic journal Sewanee Review from 1947 to 1953.
The grudge match was fierce, with Cleanth "The Wordist" Brooks versus Douglas "The Contextualizer" Bush. These men weren't fighting over the era's most pressing issues—like what would happen to all of the Third Reich's SS officers after the Nuremberg Trials, or how to contain atomic power—they were fighting about more important things, like the poem "An Horatian ode upon Cromwell's return from Ireland," by the 17th-century English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell. That's right. We're talking real-life stuff.
Although Brooks attempted to mend fences with Bush, the New Critic's assertion that "the literary historian and the critic need to work together" (source) was not enough to bridge the divide. Eventually, the Old Historicists retreated to their respective corner to lick their wounds, but a new enemy was on the rise: it was the New School—also referred to as the New Partisans. Once again, it was Game On.