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A Close Reading, "New Criticism" Style


by Con Chapman


When Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford reported to work for “New Criticism” proponents Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at the Southern Review, Stafford described the scene thusly: “Letters from contributors are received with shrieks of laughter, mss. are sneered at, rejection slips go out furiously.”

 

Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell, Paul Mariani

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Warren:  “Your sonnet?  We stuffed it in a hole in the attic to keep the squirrels out.”

 

Dear Diary:

Day One of my summer internship at the Southern Review.  I've promised myself—and you!—to keep a journal of the literary greatness that I will be surrounded by, cross my heart and hope to die.  They say the only way to become a writer it to, you know, write, but so far I'm just doing menial stuff.  Getting coffee and hominy and grits and bacon for the big breakfasts that Mr. Warren and Mr. Brooks eat, emptying the trash at the end of the day.  This place is very organized—there are separate bins for poems, essays and short stories.

Got2Go—I get to drive a load of rejection slips down to the post office!

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Brooks, Warren:  ” . . . so I wrote ‘Despite your work's evident merit—oh, why lie?  You couldn't write your way out of a overnight book return chute.'”

Diary—

I can't believe how much fun this internship is!  Yesterday I got to sit in while the editors reviewed new manuscripts.  We had more fun than a barrel of monkeys (is that a cliché?) reading submissions from “big names” like Eudora Welty and William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe—how pathetic they seem when they're begging!  Mr. Brooks read Faulkner's cover letter aloud.  “I am submitting herewith the morganatic issue of a perfervid night in the swamps of unprotected miscegenation that his sister whom he knew but did not know was his sister down through ages of that family who in their desire to not just endure but prevail and . . . I had a point here, but it is lost now, lost like the scions of that benighted land.”

“Get to the freaking point!” Mr. Warren screamed with laughter as he cut the stamps off of the self-addressed envelopes for his collection.  I have heard  he is a closet philatelist, which is why I try to stay away from him at our “TGIF” parties.  I wish somebody would hurry up and invent the birth control pill!

TTYL—have to find a hazardous waste site that accepts hot, steaming confessional poetry.

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Stafford, Lowell

 

Diary Dearest—

I'm beginning to wonder whether the “close reading” that the “New Criticism” calls for isn't a bunch of “hooey.”  I know, I'm supposed to discover how a work of literature functions as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object, but Mr. Warren and Mr. Brooks seem to have a slightly different method.

Mr. Brooks takes all the poems, puts them in the back seat of his Nash Rambler convertible, drives into town with the top down (hey—I'm starting to sound like a poet!) and whatever's left when he gets back he accepts.

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Mr. Warren's method is more judicious, and perhaps comes closer to the scrupulous ideal of the New Criticism as it has been imparted to acolytes like (such as?) myself.  He goes into the bathroom with a stack of submissions and whatever's left when he comes out, gets in.  I don't know what he does with the rejects.

First thing on my “to-do” list for today is to call a plumber.

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“Another rejection from the Southern Review!”

 

Oh Diary!

I am completely over the moon—they've accepted one of my poems for publication in the fall issue!  Now I can go back to Vanderbilt a “published poet”!  One who succeeded where wannabes like Delmore Schwartz failed!

Of course, I had to work hard to persuade the editors of my bona fides.

They both snore a lot in the morning.

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