|Cleanth Brooks (October 16, 1906 - May 10, 1994) was an influential American literary critic and professor. He is best known for his contributions to New Criticism in the mid-twentieth century and for revolutionizing the teaching of poetry in American higher education. His best-known works, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) and Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), argue for the centrality of ambiguity and paradox as a way of understanding poetry. With his writing, Brooks helped to formulate formalist criticism, emphasizing “the interior life of a poem” (Leitch 2001) and codifying the principles of close reading.
Brooks was also the preeminent critic on Southern literature, writing classic texts on William Faulkner, and co-editor of the influential journal, The Southern Review (Leitch 2001).
|"I first read "The Well Wrought Urn" in 1978, when I was a first year grad student. Now I assign it for English majors taking their final undergraduate seminar. "The Well Wrought Urn" is a collection of essays on various poems. The essays were published in various journals in the 1940s. Why is the book still read? It is read because these essays are superb examples of literary criticism at its best: insightful, accessible, graceful, witty. It is read because when one reads a poem, then reads Brooks' essay about it, then reads the poem again, one learns a great deal about how to understand poetry and gain from it meaning and pleasure. Brooks' insights aren't the only valid insights into these poems, but they are good ones. It's not that we read these essays to understand these specific poems, but to understand how to approach any poem. There's a lot of interesting literary criticism available in libraries, though far more is not very interesting or graceful. Few essays, however, are more helpful to students as tools for teaching the technique of literary analysis. Of course, Brooks, as a New Critic, is using a style of literary criticism not presently trendy. Still, the technique of discovering insights about poetry is still the same, no matter what the theory one uses.
The review below this one is worthwhile, but I would suggest that the author misses the joke. What he takes as condescension is a condescension that includes the readers within the circle of initiates. It doesn't scoff at the reader. Thus, it is meant to help English majors think that they are a sort of blessed priesthood who have been initiated into the secrets of the fellowship. (When I was in grad school, that's what I thought we were.) Of course, this is all somewhat tongue in cheek and meant to be witty.
About twelve years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Brooks, then quite elderly (I don't know if he is still alive), present a paper at a conference. I remember him as slim, polite, self-effacing--the essence of the Southern gentleman at his best. "
"This book, written nearly a half-century ago, has never been out of print. To read it is to see why. With Cleanth Brooks, who taught at Yale for most of his career, you feel as if you are sitting in a seminar with the most brilliant professor you've ever known, one who is also a true gentleman with extraordinary solicitude for his students/readers. He takes you through the poems line by line and helps you to *see* the artistry of the poet at work. And so sparkling is his prose style that the essays are themselves works of art. This book is especially appropriate for students who are just beginning to appreciate poetry. "
"This is the kind of elegantly written criticism that makes one want to take poetry seriously. One finds no rant or cant, no impenetrable jargon. Brooks takes a broad selection of English poems across periods and styles, and analyzes their rhetorical structure. He seeks the essence of poetic thought and offers the notion of "paradox" as a possible key. The usefulness of extra-poetic ideas is not denied, but he rightly insists that a poem's meaning is not reducible to a simple prose statement. If it is so reducible, then the poem may be judged as true or false by the historian, scientist or philosopher. The book also contains several essays of generalization and the texts of most of the scrutinized works. One of the most satisfying books on the rhetoric of poetry that I've read. "