Practical criticism by I. A. Richards

3:03 PM


I have some poetry books lying around which I just can't finish reading. I usually put novels on a deadline: x number of pages per day. I can't do that with poetry. Or can I? (cue evil smile and raised brow) No, I can't. We can't read poetry as we read prose.

So, I set the poetry aside and began reading Practical Criticism by I. A. Richards instead. It has been an enormous help. Richards is considered the father of New Criticism, so his book is all about close reading.

He begins the book as an experiment. He gave his students a poem without any further information - they didn't know the author, the date, nothing. This meant the poem could have been written by Shakespeare or by a four year old. 

He took students' analysis and used it to help us effectively analyse a poem. In case you are wondering, the major difficulties he pinpoints are:

1) The meaning of the poem

2) The sounds and rhythm of the poem

3) The images that are (or that are not) in the poem

4) Your own personal experiences - they cannot determine if a poem is good or not

5) Stock responses

6) Sentimentality

7) Inhibition

8) Doctrinal adhesion

9) Paying  too much attention to technical details

10) Prior demands made upon poetry as a result of theories on criticism

Keeping all of these items in mind seems like a good way to start tackling poetry. However, I don't see myself finishing all those poetry books any time soon. No wonder poetry books are not usually best sellers.
How do you read poetry? Can you finish a whole book on poetry or you concentrate only in a few poems at a time?

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2 comments

  1. New Criticism was definitely useful to me in helping with close reading. Honestly, though, it is more than twelve years since I finished my literature degree and sometimes I feel like I've lost the ability to analyze! Which is not really true, but these days I go about it in a more big picture/emotional/instinctive way. I also think that the information age has done for my attention span. :S

    You can definitely dip in and out of most poets. I don't think that this is in any way a bad thing to do, and you may find anyway with some poets that there are only a few or even one poem that you like. But I have to admit that if you really want to come to grips with a poet's work, you have to sit down and read a lot of the poems, and in a somewhat sustained way. You start to see how the poems reflect and interpret each other, for one thing.

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  2. Funny you mentioned having a more emotional response to poetry. One of the books I need to finish reading is a poetry anthology, Penguin's poems for life, and they select the poems based on topics not on poets. They probably did this because people are much more after the effect poetry has on them than a specific poet.

    I also feel my analytical muscles are getting weaker after finishing college! This is why I'm trying to keep it up going after poetry, but I lately I've been a bit lazy and sticking to prose most of the time... xx

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