100 Books to Maketh A Woman no 9 ‘Practical Criticism’ by I.A.Richards

The art of knowing where we are wherever, as mental travellers, we may go is the main subject of the book…

I’ve been reading what is – or was – in academic literary circles, an extremely  well-known book, I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism and discovering that it is one of the books that has shaped me. This is where some of the ideas I solidified into ‘Get Into Reading’ originated and so I’m reading and  laughing in recognition of this text-based DNA like someone meeting a long-lost long-longed-for relative: so this is where it came from, that concentration on the words of the text itself, that sense of entering, inhabiting the text.

I’ve never read it before and yet it’s a key life text for me, its ideas are in me, are part of me.

This is one of the powers books have – the power of holding and spreading ideas, and they do it in symbiosis with people.  I was influenced by people who were influenced by this book.

I’m remembering two teachers : Ken Moss was Head of English at Liverpool Community College when I did A levels there in the late 1970’s, and his Practical Criticism class was my favourite thing in the college week. Tony Barley taught me on Practice of Criticism when I was first year undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool – 2.00pm on Thursdays. What I was learning in both these classes, with engaged, enthusiastic teachers, was how to read, how to concentrate on and creatively enter a text.

They were two very different men but they shared a practice. And yet the practice, though rigorous, allowed flex room for individuality. There was nothing doctrinaire about it, and that was what I loved. It was real and happening now, it was responsive, alive. It did not feel like a ‘lesson’, though there were moments in both classes where I knew I was learning, and sometimes when I knew I was being taught. ‘Being taught’ is pretty much out of fashion now as a pedagogical idea but anyone who has been taught, when they wanted to learn, by a master or mistress of an art or science, will know that it is  one of the deepest and  most powerful human experiences, possibly on a par with  love or the existence of a new baby.

Certainly in Ken Moss’s or Tony Barley’s class, something like magic would happen. You began with marks on a page and ended with a lived experience. The poems (it was usually, but not always, poems we read) expanded under our concentrated gaze, came alive, filled the room and my headspace. I can remember where I was sitting in the classroom when I read my first Shakespeare Sonnet with Ken Moss, ‘They that have the power to hurt and will do none’, Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

We spent two hours as a class working our way through – or into – the poem. It’s a complex, shifting, mental, emotional model of being uncertain about someone else. Is this person  hurting (going to hurt) me? You can’t paraphrase it because it keeps moving, as our thoughts do. You have to enter it and  experience those  mental twists and turns. At the end of the class I knew I had had an experience that had changed the lights for me. That there could be so much in fourteen lines and that I could have  been part of  the process that  dug it all out!  It was like falling in love –  I  wanted to read and read more poems in this way. Luckily, as well as  our weekly Practical Criticism sessions, Ken was also teaching us to read Hopkins’  The Wreck of The Deutschland and Shakespeare’s King Lear. That year of study for A level was one of the most intellectually joyful and exhilarating of my life.

I never thought of this close reading process, as some people did, as ‘tearing it apart’. That seemed far too destructive a metaphor for what we were doing. We were investigating it, yes, putting it under some sort of microscope but we didn’t have to destroy it to do that, on the contrary, though we didn’t have the technical equipment to provide the metaphor in the 1970’s, it was more like what we now know as whole body scanning. It always offended me when people called it ‘tearing it apart’.  For we were actually building up. It was a process I’d liken more to making music – there is technique, and that’s vital, and you do break  pieces down, and rehearse them over and over, until you’ve got it, but only ever as part of a bigger building up process. We had to get inside the lived experience of the  poem itself. We had to be it. Reading like this was always a creative process, a new making.

I realise as I write that I am hitting up against  a perennial difficulty for us in The Reader Organisation: the problem of trying to describe what happens when people experience a Get Into Reading group. It’s like, as poet Les Murray says of poetry, like sex. Hard to define, and  covering a very large spectrum, but you know it whenever you experience it.

But to return to I.A.Richards. When this book was first published in 1929, very few people read English at University, and most of those few were very well-educated public school pupils. Richards conducted a series of experiments, asking  those who attended his Cambridge lectures to read and then write about a selection of poems about which they knew nothing (neither the author nor historical context – they had  no context, only the poem). Without reputation or history, most of the respondents foundered, and in a way that I found (as someone who taught University level Practical Criticism in the 1980’s) amazingly familiar. But that  is not the big interesting thing about Richards’ book. No, the big thing  is his overpowering  sense of the value and underestimated importance of response to poetry.

In the Introduction he writes;

My second aim is more ambitious and requires more explanation. It forms part of a general attempt to modify our  procedure in certain forms of discussion. There are subjects – mathematics, physics and the descriptive sciences supply some of them – which can be discussed in terms of verifiable facts and hypotheses. There are other subjects – the concrete affairs of commerce, law organisation and police work – which can be handled by rules of thumb and generally accepted conventions. But in between is the vast corpus of problems, assumptions, adumbrations, fictions, prejudices, tenets; the sphere of random beliefs and hopeful guesses; the whole world, in brief of abstract opinion and disputation about matters of feeling. To this world belongs everything about which  civilised man cares most. I need only instance ethics, metaphysics,morals, religion, aesthetics, and the discussions surrounding liberty, nationality, justice, love, truth, faith and knowledge to make this plain. As a subject-matter for discussion, poetry is a central and typical denizen of this world. it is so both by its own nature and by the type of  discussion with which it is traditionally associated. It serves,therefore, as an eminently suitable bait for anyone who wishes to trap the current opinions and responses in this middle field for the purpose of examining and comparing them, and with a view to advancing our knowledge of what may be called the natural history of human opinions and feelings.

I was knocked out by that wonderful list – the vast corpus of the  middle ground between the facts of science and the rules of thumb of practical experience. That body is the body of what we ‘think’ but that verb – as Richards’ list shows! – is far too small for all the human activity that goes on under its name. It is, in fact, our inner life, and  those parts of it we are willing or able to share with others. Poetry gives us access to  and language for this sphere in a way that little else does.

The other big thing that Richards’ begins to do is to make the connection with psychology. In discussing the writings of the students ( he terms these writings ‘protocols’ maybe using the word in the sense of ‘draft’ ) he begins to see that people, their personality, their experience – cannot be  separated from their reading. (Of course they can be separated, if you make reading, as so often in formal literary learning, a formality. Set up hoops and watch the students jump. But here, because students were thrown back upon themselves, they had no  professional equipment with which to disguise themselves, and so can only -mostly- read as people) This personalisation is the beginning of a new field on intellectual inquiry, Richards guesses;

The indispensable instrument for this inquiry is psychology. I am anxious to meet as far as may be the objection that may be brought by some psychologists, and these the best, that the protocols do not supply enough evidence for us really to be able to make out the motives of the writers and that therefore the whole investigation is superficial. But the beginning of every research ought to be superficial, and to find something to investigate that is accessible and detachable is one of the chief difficulties of psychology, I believe the chief merit of the experi- ment here made is that it gives us this. Had I wished to plumb the depths of these writers’ Unconscious, where I am quite willing to agree the real motives of their likings and dislikings would be found, I should have devised something like a branch of psychoanalytic technique for the purpose. But it was clear that little progress would be made if we attempted to drag too deep a plough. However, even as it is, enough strange material is turned up.

His motive is literary and pedagogical, not psychological or psychoanalytic, but  he rightly wants to make a strong a connection between the two modes of inquiry. ‘Literature’ is never just an aesthetic thing in itself. Besides, I think, Richards is arguing for  literature, particularly poetry and our responses to it, as way of understanding what it is to be a human being.

Navigation, in fact the art of knowing where we are wherever, as mental travellers, we may go is the main subject of the book. To discuss poetry and the ways in which it may be approached, appreciated and judged is, of course, its prime purpose. But poetry itself is a mode of communication. What it communicates and how it does so and the worth of what is communicated form the subject-matter of criticism. It follows that criticism itself is very largely, though not wholly, an exercise in navigation. It is all the more surprising then that no treatise on the art and science of intellectual and emotional navigation has yet been written ; for logic, which might appear to cover part of this field, in actuality hardly touches it. That the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication may seem an exaggeration. But in practice it is so. The whole apparatus of critical rules and principles is a means to the attainment of finer, more precise, more discriminating communication. There is, it is true, a valuation side to criticism. When we have solved, completely, the communication problem, when we have got, perfectly, the experience, the mental condition relevant to the poem, we have still to judge it, still to decide upon its worth. But the later question nearly always settles itself ; or rather, our own inmost nature and the nature of the world in which we live decide it for us. Our prime endeavour must be to get the relevant mental condition and then see what happens. If we cannot then decide whether it is good or bad, it is doubtful whether any principles, however refined and subtle, can help us much. Without the capacity to get the experience they cannot help us at all. This is still clearer if we consider the use of critical maxims in teaching. Value cannot be demonstrated except through the communication of what is valuable.

In 1929, under the influence still of Matthew Arnold, literary criticism felt much if its task was to judge whether something was good or bad. The protocols are funniest when the writers take on this task with only their straight faces to cover their ignorance. (Thus one very self-assured reader writes, “The impression received was one of the self-satisfaction of the author (I do not say ” poet “) : a spinster devoted to good works, and sentimentally inclined, or perhaps Wordsworth.”). That fashion is less overtly with us these days and anyway is based on different ideas of what ‘good’ might  be. But it seems to me that  our first act as a reader is still too often to judge: much of what we practice in Get Into Reading is the patience of holding off, waiting, reading a bit more. Learning to read more slowly is learning to read more fully. Richards’ sense of the necessity for this fullness in the face of an acceleratingly developing technical world is powerfully apposite to our current situation and fantastically useful reminder of why, humanly,  literature matters.

Not that anyone who has been reading this blog would need such a reminder. But there are very few of  you! That a book like this should be languishing so totally out of fashion, almost utterly unused, unbuilt-upon is a  dire indictment of the state of English Literature.

You can glance at it here but I’d advise getting hold of a paper copy. Read it and let’s meet sometime, somewhere, to discuss it. It is a manifesto of sorts. And god knows, we need one.

On Habit

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between different meanings of the word  ‘habit’. Dictionary.com offers 11 (slightly Americanised) different takes :

  1. an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
  2. customary practice or use: Daily bathing is an American habit.
  3. a particular practice, custom, or usage: the habit of shaking hands.
  4. a dominant or regular disposition or tendency; prevailing character or quality: She has a habit of looking at the bright side of things.
  5. addiction, especially to narcotics (often preceded by the ).
  6. mental character or disposition: a habit of mind.
  7. characteristic bodily or physical condition.
  8. the characteristic form, aspect, mode of growth, etc., of an organism: a twining habit.
  9. the characteristic crystalline form of a mineral.
  10. garb of a particular rank, profession, religious order, etc.: a monk’s habit.
  11. the attire worn by a rider of a saddle horse.

It is meaning numbers 1-8 that most concern me, though when I looked up the history of the word, (Online Etymology Dictionary) I was interested to see that it was early connected to the Monk’s habit from the Latin, habitus “condition, demeanour, appearance, dress,” and that made me think that, of course, the special habit worn by Christian monks in the 13 century was not just a form of dress but an outside marker to the habits of the wearer  – appearance as a form of being.

Thinking about this sent me looking for poems about habits ( got some? let me know please via comments) and I found this, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, which touches on the habitual daily practice, the habit of one’s body and the connection of this, for GMH  to the habit of a priest:

The Habit of Perfection

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

I’m interested in the way habits of the body (silence, for example) begin as sensory practice, but build to inner reality in this poem. Hard for Hopkins, who loved the beauty of the world so much, to force himself into this  retreated blank of sense! Yet through  not hearing, not speaking, not seeing, he finds  music, eloquence and sight… Something in me (as no doubt something in Hopkins) shies away from this rejection of sensory. Balance up your sense of him by reading this poem alongside one of his madly-loving-the-world poems, such as Pied Beauty.

I’m taking delight in gardening at the moment ( yes, despite the weather) mainly thanks to Emma, who has been clearing back the overgrown stuff for me, and it’s the plant-related meaning that has been pulling me toward these thoughts. In plants ‘habit’ is still deeply connected to that very early meaning  – that how a thing looks/lives is what it is  – for example, a plantswoman might tell you that the Hardy Geranium, ‘Anne Folkard’ has ‘a lovely trailing habit’.  But what your plantswoman would also mean is that ‘Anne Folkard’ is lovely and trailing. She grows in her characteristic, habitual way.

While I’ve been thinking about the habits of certain plants, I’ve started wondering how the word connects to our more common usage of the word, as in good or bad habits, or, leaving moral judgements aside, just plain things you do, characteristic behaviours. (And as my own habits, good and bad are of enormous and frustrating interest to me, I’m signing up for wayoflifeapp and will report back on how I get on with it).

The habit of a plant  – its general form or mode of growth – is both how it grows and essentially, from one point of view, what it is. The word ‘habit’ seems to exist at that point where something that is not fixed – but rather, growing – becomes fixed.  That’s an interesting place.  Does Jane Davis have a habit in the same way Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’ does?

This usage of the word points to Nietzsche’s thought that ‘we become what we are’. I’ve always liked the two sides of that aphorism, which seems to determine us even as it denies determinism. As a human individual in process of growing, or as a member of a family, that is surely often how it feels.  People grow into themselves.

It’s been surprising to me to realise that some of  the habits and practices I unconsciously built into the Get Into Reading model come from things I learned as a child. My mother, divorcing in the mid-1960s, aged about thirty and with four children  – the oldest, me, not yet 10, the youngest a babe in arms – took a pub, because it seemed a good way of earning a living with the kids on the premises. Childcare, work and social life all wrapped up! Our pub was Parliament Place, just off Liverpool’s Upper Parliament Street, in Liverpool 8.

That’s my little sister in the centre of the group of girls on the far pavement, and that’s our pub on the corner, the pub with no name, affectionately know to its friends as The Little House. My sister says the two tiny tots in the back of the mini pick-up are our brothers. Where was I?  In the long hot summer of 1968…I’d be 12. I had a job in the Arab grocery shop round the corner in Stanhope Street. That shop man, name forgotten, let’s call him Ali, cooked a fine mutton and potato stew which he used to share with me. It tasted unlike anything I’d ever eaten. I’m thinking as I write, cumin? Coriander? I worked there and on a cooked meat stall in St John’s market. Later, but not much later, it might even have been later that year, Saturdays consisted of walking down into town and hanging out in the International Section of Central Library or the Walker Art Gallery.

There were kids behind the doors in our street who didn’t go out until they were five and had to be sent to school. Florrie Bird, aged nine and going on forty, would sell you her granny, they said, for sixpence. Patsy Flanagan was one day a teenage girl in our street and then the next a bruised prostitute on the corner of Hope Street, with dead, drunk or narcotised, eyes. We lived, in that two bedroom flat above the pub, with mice, scabies, lice, fleas. Our Mum drank heavily into the night – what times! what lock-ins! what parties !  -and fought with Tony, and became, in a couple of years, addicted to alcohol. They were the worst of times, and yet while we lived them, they seemed the best of times.

I think she felt free, after her divorce, and enjoyed the sense that she was good at something. And she was: in the pub, there were huge social differences and yet a rough equality before the law and, usually, a social tact which meant that people’s deficiencies were overlooked or turned into bearable jokes. Wit in conversation was prized above all, along with any kind of storytelling, good singing or comedy, and, though we laughed at it, snappy dressing was also a talent. But everyone, even those with no social offerings, had a place here. Barry, in his filthy coat, always had that corner by the door of the bar. Margaret and June drank port and lemon disapprovingly in the parlour. Chinese Jim, Paddy and Molly, the Lucas boys with their acne and greasy hair, handsome Bo, Ace and Jimmy in sharkskin suits. It’s a small pub on a corner in a very small street and was a local for I guess about sixty households, many of whom even then were still connected to the  sea, the Port of Liverpool, the docks, and lived within a couple of hundred metres walk. And we had the itinerant drinking wanderers and occasional repertory actors from the old Everyman. People knew each other’s habits.

Occasionally the social order broke down and a fight would erupt and I’d wake up to that excitement, scuffling and shouting, tables and chairs scraping the floor, banging over, then the pub door slamming. One night I looked out of my top floor garret window to see two men squaring up to each other, circled by everyone else. One of these guys took off his jacket and handed it back, then put a hand to his head and removed a toupee and handed that back, before dancing forwards, stepping sideways, fists up. Everyone laughed at the toupee-lift but Gerry was too angry to hear them.

If someone had a talent, whatever it was, it was appreciated; poker, stolen goods, even lying. Sailor John might recite John Donne or a Shakespeare sonnet. A drunken old actor would do us a great Shakespeare soliloquy, or Marv could do a Johnny Cash. All offerings received with gracious pleasure by your host, my mother, Betty, a lovely barmaid landlady, welcoming and witty.  There were boundaries about nastiness and violence: Prue and Margaret, posh old birds both of them, who had fallen or drunk themselves down into very hard times, were welcome when relatively sober and restrained, but when they got pissed and snooty, lording it over everyone and shouting  ‘Ignorant uneducated people!’  or yelling at Mum’s boyfriend Tony, ‘You’re nothing but a kept man!’  they were barred out. Violent men were tolerated to a point, in that we might  all be scared of Ronnie, but  people would eventually team up to eject him. Most of the time my mother created an atmosphere in which these disparate people would accept and enjoy themselves and each other. Her recipe for life was written into me as habit: ‘enjoy it’.

The single-minded pursuit of pleasure is often the sign that someone is on the run from pain. My mother’s determination to be happy soon tipped over into not taking on the challenges of real life, which, after all, is a very tough one and needs solutions more creative and complex than whisky.   I spent a large part of my early adult life unlearning a lot of blot-it-out stuff I learned at my mother’s side in the pub. But when what was left of Betty was cross-fertilised with my experiences in the literature tutorials of Mr Brian Nellist (learn by loving things, learn by appreciating), and the mind-set of my husband Phil, with his insistent demand that reading should be about finding what moves you, then – wonderfully – the new created thing, this gracious species that is the Get into Reading model, was generated. Pub, and pulpit, and personal. I’ll talk about pulpit  bit another time.

Meanwhile, for this habit of pleasure in the shared human, I thank you, Mum.