Study Guide

New Criticism Buzzwords

Close Reading

The close reading is the New Critics' calling card; if the New Critics were a merry band of superheroes, their Bat Signal might be a magnifying glass zeroing in on the lines of a poem. Basically, all you need to do in order to complete a close reading is, um, read a text closely. Duh.

Right, so, when you're reading, you just pay attention to every little element of the text's form (its metaphors, its juxtapositions, …) and then you hash out the relations between that form and the text's meaning. Close readings can be exhausting, and they can also be as fun as a barrel of monkeys. But of this, we're sure: English classrooms today would just be a bunch of nonsense without the close reading.

Thanks, New Critics—you really did us a solid with this one.

Form

You like following rules, don't you? No? Um. Well, form, in poetry, is all about following the rules. Like, sonnets traditionally have 14 lines, and those lines are written in iambic pentameter.

Of course, novels can have "forms" too—anything that uses literary devices to draw out its central themes has a form. But the New Critics were all about the poetry, so that's what we're focusing on here.

Oh, and don't forget: some rules were made to be broken. Strict poetic forms exist partly because things get really interesting when poets start going "off form."

Technique

We're pretty sure we just said this, but poetic techniques are all of those fancy shmancy devices that poets (or other writers) use in order to give their texts complexity and nuance. Need an example? Alrighty: a rhyme scheme is one kind of poetic technique.

You know, AABA BBAA and all that jazz. Good, glad we're on the same page now.

Ontology

This is a big word for the study of what life is really about: human nature, the meaning of existence, etc. The New Critics were fond of this word because they believed poems were a kind of ontology—a particular way of studying of human life. And the poem's form—its way of expressing what us people are all about—is what they believed made the poem different from boring old prose.

Text

C'mon, you know what a text is. Any piece of writing, from a poem to a grocery list, can be a text. But some scholars are fond of using this word to refer bits o' literature because they believe the other prominent option— "work"—puts too much emphasis on a text's author. Since, you know, he or she worked to create the text. And the text is his/her life's work.

Given that those gnarly New Critics 100% hated autobiographical analyses of literature, it's easy to see why they preferred the word text. But you can use whichever word you please. We're just happy that you're reading, whether you're reading texts or works or whatchamacallits.

Irony

There are a lot of different kinds of irony, but the main idea is this: there's a fascinating, and sometimes humorous, contradiction between what someone says and what they mean. Or what someone expects to happen, and what actually happens—like, when a girl gets left at the altar, only to meet the true love of her life in her would-be-groom's best man.

In plays and movies and other things you can get your eyeballs on, we can find yet another kind of irony: the irony that arises when the audience knows something that the characters do not. And often, hilarity ensues.

Just take our word for it: whatever you do, do not listen to Alanis Morisette's song "Ironic" in order to get a better idea of what irony is. Man, we love the gal, but she wasn't so up on her definition of the term. Or, the examples she supposedly gives of irony in her lyrics are intended to be ironic in that they're not actually examples of irony…

Whoa, deep. Help us, we're digging ourselves into a deep, dark hole of close reading over here, New Criticism-style.

Ambiguity

As our man William Empson would argue, ambiguity is what makes poems poems. Unlike other kinds of writing, which can be straightforward, poems (and maybe novels?) are specifically designed to be left open to interpretation. How much fun would it be to read Shakespeare if you and your classmates couldn't argue over the "true meanings" of some of Hamlet's best lines?

We thought so.

Paradox

A paradox is a kind of contradiction—the kind that still manages to ring true to you when you hear it. See, often, the elements of a paradox are only superficially contradictory; poets often use paradoxes in order to point to the fact that two seemingly opposite things are actually quite interrelated.

Like, remember how in "Composed upon Westminster Bridge," William Wordsworth talks about the city of London as "naturally beautiful"? And the city's buildings bleed into the sky and the sky bleeds into the buildings, and all of that? Delicious. And deliciously paradox-y.

Now, the New Critics loved them some close readings. And paradoxes were one of their favorite poetic techniques. Give a New Critic a metaphor, and he will be busy (analyzing it) for an hour; give him a paradox, and he will be busy for days.

Intentional Fallacy

This is the idea that William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, that dynamic duo of the New Criticism movement, are most famous for. What's the "intentional fallacy" all about?

It's exactly what it sounds like. The notion is this: studying a text through the lens of what an author intended to say is a fallacy. In other words, trying to apply every little autobiographical tidbit you've ever learned about an author to your understanding of a text will get you nowhere, say the New Critics.

Why? Because the world of the poem is, inevitably, different from what was going on in the author's head when she wrote it. So why not just study the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text?

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