By Dana Gioia

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Poetic speech was always stylized—usually either chanted rhythmically or sung, sometimes even sung and danced in chorus. In oral culture, there is no separation between the poet and the poem. The author is a performer who vocalizes the words. Creation and performance are inseparably linked. Without writing, a ‘text’ has no existence outside the auditory performance. What matters is not fidelity to some invisible Platonic text, but the efficacy of the performance in casting a spell of heightened attention over the audience—whom the poet or performer can actually see.

It wasn’t a forbidding category of high literary art; it was the most pleasurable way in which words could be put together. Poetry was used in schools at least in part because it was considered more engaging than prose for children. Even in the late nineteenth century, poets such as Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson, and Kipling were international figures who outsold their prose competitors. But poetry’s existence on the pages of books, even the best-selling books, represented only a fraction of its cultural presence.

Ironically, the emphasis on textual analysis and critical theory also had a parochial quality. In its attempt to train everyone in the specialized techniques of professional academic study, it mistook the basic goal of literature courses in the general curriculum. The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors; its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings. The second impact was on the profession itself. The success of the New Critics, all of whom were poet-professors, inspired the next three generations of American scholars to focus on espousing, or at the very least consciously employing, critical methods as their means of professional advancement.

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