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.