Analysis and “Ruining the Fun”

  • “Secondly, and more seriously, it has been deduced from this belief that you are liable to destroy the poem if its meaning is discovered, that it is important to preserve one’s innocence about the meaning of verses, that one must use sensibility, and as little intelligence as possible.”

This is from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (originally published in 1930; this is from the revised third edition, page 20). He’s talking about analyzing poetry, but you could apply his view to any art. The central idea is simply that using your intelligence to understand a work of art will not ruin good art, and any view that seeks to restrict your appreciation to the so-called innocence of “non-understanding” is mistaken.

Empson elaborates on this as the quotation continues: “People suspect analysis, often rightly, as the refuge of the emotionally sterile, but that is only to say that analysis is often done badly. In so far as such destruction occurs because you have used your intelligence it must be accepted, and you may reasonably expect to become interested in another poem, so that the loss is not permanent, because that is the normal process of learning to appreciate poetry” (21).

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)