To Be or Not To Be…Intellectual

“The general point, of course, is not that either poetry or drama makes no use of ideas, or that either is ‘merely emotional’–whatever that is–or that there is not the closest and most important relationship between the intellectual materials which they absorb into their structure(,) and other elements in the structure. The relationship between the intellectual and the non-intellectual elements in a poem is actually far more intimate than the conventional accounts would represent it to be: the relationship is not that of an idea ‘wrapped in emotion’ or a ‘prose-sense decorated by sensuous imagery.’

“The dimension in which the poem moves is not one which excludes ideas, but one which does include attitudes. The dimension includes ideas, to be sure; we can always abstract an ‘idea’ from a poem–even from the simplest poem–even from a lyric so simple and unintellectual as:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again

Anonymous circa 15th Century

“But the idea which we abstract–assuming that we can all agree on what that idea is–will always be abstracted: it will always be the projection of a plane along a line or the projection of a cone upon a plane.” – Cleanth Brooks

Firstly, I have Cleanth Brooks describing poetry that’s pleasing to the ear, or generally pleasant poetry, as unintellectual.

Secondly, I have to take time to explore the meaning of “abstracted.”

Thirdly, I have to try and identify with and relate to Brooks’s analogy of ideas and dimension.

Lastly, I have to identify the purpose of, and then justify/validate the reason why this dimensional analogy helps me to read and understand poetry in a way that may be better or worse than how I read poetry in the first place.

The fun is piling up over here kiddos…

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2 Responses to To Be or Not To Be…Intellectual

  1. noranoir says:

    Honest reaction: Mr. Brooks’ writing here is poorly worded. It’s also a lot of crap. I hate courses that load the textbooks with a bunch of pompous pseudointellectualbabble, and the students are forced to swallow this crap and regurgitate it only for the sake of clearing another hurdle.

    Abstracted means to me, in this instance, to make a plane with unpredictable and odd peaks and valleys, not so flat and linear, to distort with the mind, but in the past tense. And really, I don’t know many who can agree on the same idea, as he suggests. That is a one in a million situation, unless the reader has been told by a snob or the author what to think. Everyone will drink in a poem, and even in sharing the same idea at times, the affect for each reader is as unique as a fingerprint. So the phrase in the script above, is almost entirely true… in a classroom or snobby book club where people actually discuss poetry and the ‘right’ interpretation is doled out as if it were the gospel.
    So how does that jiveass analogy help one to read and understand poetry? It doesn’t. Because the idea he conveys is abstract itself. It’s an analogy. If I want to find or sense or glean ulterior meaning from a seemingly unintellectual poem, casting the ho-hum words through a prism to break it into sparkling hues of every sort, it is my discretion. I would hope that maybe everybody realizes they have the potential to do this, but some of the peons in your class might not. So I could see where Mr. Brooks analogy gives them a new perspective, but they probably don’t give a shit. Otherwise they would have been thinking critically about this before.

  2. LK says:


    Being on the creative end, learning the tenets of criticism is like venturing into the land of the enemy to explore and take notes. The worst is when I learn this is how “they” decide if a work is “worth preserving.”

    Brooks’s essays are, indeed, pent up as though a 2×4 were up is tight you know what, probably because he may have tried to write a poem and did terribly at it. What’s funny is the attitude he takes which stands nearly in the polar opposite of your view (stuff I haven’t bothered to post, but can be found in his “Well Wrought Urn” and “Formalists Critics” essays), but with perspective to the whole of the history of criticism, we learn that his ideas hold weight as principles in judging a work, and are already deemed, in some cases, outdated.

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