Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Renaissance Poetry

I picked this book up at the library because they didn't have the one I wanted and this looked like a pretty good intro. It is, and it isn't. It isn't a good intro to Renaissance poetry per se, coming from someone who doesn't know much about it and really needs a book that uses broad strokes to characterize the works and critical approaches to the works. But the introduction itself is an excellent brush-up on some major critical perspectives.

The editor starts by comparing new historicism (which is new) to New Criticism (which is old). New Critics (Eliot, Leavis, Brooks, etc.) seek for paradox, ambiguity, complexity, and unity in the poems. Looking for timeless, universal meanings embedded in the technical effects of the poetry, the New Critics overlooked political, social, and historical contexts which might be just as formative as the individual literary genius, the author. This kind of reading stresses the autonomy of art, of language, and of the literary genius, from historical circumstances.

New historicists and cultural materialists see literature as part of culture, participating in larger cultural practices which are always historically inscribed. But these readings do not seek for "real" events or "true" history as much as they seek the ways in which literature springs from a historical and cultural need or impetus. Literature and history are seen as open to interpretation, and history is not static but dynamic, the result of a clash of ideologies or powers. Culture is "not made up of abstract values, intellectual ideas, or creative achievements, but rituals, experiences and habits which structure daily life according to prevailing social norms" (5). Major critics include Geertz, who focuses on how culture is a symbolic expression of status; Althusser, who focuses on how culture is the means by which the ruling class maintains dominance; Williams, who focuses on how the dominant energy is always in struggle with an emergent energy, which may use or be opposed by residual energies; and Foucault, who focuses on culture as a way to create 'subjects' and gain power.

Using these critics, we can look at aspects of early modern culture, such as the court and the role of poets and poetry in the court, as ways that individuals, classes, or ideologies gain and maintain power . . . and ways in which that power is subverted and resisted.

Feminism questions many of the self-congratulatory myths about the Renaissance, even the term "Renaissance" itself, as being white upper/middle-class male centered, noting that there was no explosion of knowledge and art for upper and middle-class women at this time, whose freedom was arguably more curtailed than that of the medieval lady. The editors discuss the "strategies used by male courtiers to control Elizabeth" and ways in which the Petrarchan language of the poetry of the Elizabethan court both bolstered and undermined Elizabeth's power. They also discuss the silencing nature of the blazon, which dissects a woman and does not allow her a voice.

The editor also summarizes psychoanalysis, race studies, and lesbian/gay studies before discussing the organization of the volume, which is larger Spenser-based but also considers the English lyric "in terms of the development of early modern subjectivity" (23).

Reading this confirmed in my mind that I would like to figure out "what kind of critic" I am. I am really interested in Raymond Williams' theories of dominance, emergence, and residual energies, especially as they relate to carnival. But how will I ever say anything new if using that rubric? And I don't know a lot about economics and so many new historicists come out of a foundation in Marxism, which I don't have. I also really like feminism, but again, I'm not sure I have the background to be a feminist scholar. A friend of mine and I were discussing the difference between being a feminist politically and in your career; I don't know that I am cut out for it, career-wise. I love performance criticism and feel the most comfortable there; it feels natural to me. But don't I need some sort of ideological framework?

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