Brooks and Poetic Language

  • “But the poet has no one term. Even if he had a polysyllabic technical term, the term would not provide the solution for his problem.” Cleanth Brooks.

Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994), a major figure in American New Criticism, here explains that ambiguity, paradox, tension, and connotation are all central to poetic language. The specific poet in question is Wordsworth, who, in one of his sonnets, describes the evening as both “breathless” and “calm.” A paradox? Brooks suggests that “there is no final contradiction, to be sure: it is that kind of calm and that kind of excitement, and the two states may well occur together. But the poet has no one term. . . .” In other words, other words won’t do. Poets need readers to experience the clash and harmony of many terms in order to understand and feel “one” concept. For more, see Brooks’s essay, “The Language of Paradox” in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), and Wordsworth’s poem, “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free.” (Originally posted April 10, 2012)