Treasures from John Crowe Ransom teach pleasure of reading

Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, edited, and with an introduction by Thomas Daniel Young and George Core. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press. 430 pp. Indexed. $32.50. Opinionmakers (not a nice word) have a new term: aliterate. It refers to the many among us who know how to read but don't like to, and so don't, at least not for pleasure.

The appearance of John Crowe Ransom's letters remind us that many of us would have grown up aliterate were it not for some high school teacher who by example showed us what we now call the pleasures of the text. Reading is hard work, but if you know what you are doing, it is intrinsically satisfying. Ransom was one of the poet-critics who appeared after World War I and taught generations how to read and enjoy it, to treasure it.

Like the other Southern writers that Ransom addresses in these letters (including Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren), he inspired not only other writers but many teachers of English as well. When these and other so-called New Critics began their work in the 1920s -- it has been called a revolution in reading -- American literature was not taught in the schools and contemporary poetry had no standing in institutions of learning. Through essay, textbook, and poem, these men helped change that.

Brooks and Warren wrote ``Understanding Poetry''; it is still in use. Tate edited anthologies of fiction and poetry and wrote many essays as well as poems. Ransom, who may have been the most important of all, edited the Kenyon Review (for a while the most important critical journal), and taught poetry at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He attracted Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell to Kenyon.

It is clear from these letters that Ransom had a breadth of vision that included the other men. With other Southerners of his time and place he had tried to establish a model of a nonindustrial society in which culture would take the place of politics; unlike others, he saw the futility of activism of this sort. In poems and critical essays Ransom went on to create a preserve for what he calls ``values'': ``elements of experience that have quantitative importance of availability for repetition, elements that are persisting cores of experience. . . .'' He would later call them ``precious objects.''

Readers of his poems (written mostly between 1922 and 1925, they provided him a lifetime of contemplation) learn to treasure these elements -- the ``willows, clouds, deep meadowgrass, and the river'' of his poem ``Vision by Sweetwater'' -- and so learn to treasure the poems.

What Ransom and his fellow Southerners did was to teach us that reading was not a process of abstracting a message but of entering a world. Ransom wrote to Allen Tate in 1922: ``The most delicate piece of work that a poet has to do is to avoid a misleading connection in his phrasing. There must not be a trace of the expository philosophical method, but nevertheless the substance of the philosophical conclusion must be there for the intelligent reader.''

If the poet has to avoid ``misleading connections,'' so does the reader of poetry. While poetry seems to invite a kind of free association of ideas, memories, and images, Ransom would teach us not to indulge the temptation. The pleasures of reading go beyond fantasy. Reading in Ramsom's sense is a strategy against the ideologies that flourish in our media-saturated culture. Since Ransom, even poetry has fallen to the ideologists, as the critical ``isms'' of Marxism, structuralism, and semiotics suggest.

While these isms dominate colleges and universities today, Ransom's letters can help us rediscover the pleasures of reading. It may be steep, but the way back may well be the way forward.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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