The formalist approach to poetry was the most influential in American criticism during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, and it is still often practiced in literature courses in colleges and universities in the United States. Its popularity was not limited to American literary criticism.
In France, formalism has long been employed as a pedagogical exercise in reading literature in the universities and in the lycées. In England in the 1940’s and 1950’s, formalism was associated with an influential group of critics writing for a significant critical periodical, Scrutiny, the most prominent of whom was F. R. Leavis. There also was a notable formalist movement in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s, and, although championed by René Wellek in the United States, its influence at that time was primarily limited to Slavic countries.
The formalist approach in the United States was popularized by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks, all four southerners, all graduates of Vanderbilt University, and all, in varying degrees, receptive to the indirections and complexities of the modernism of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats. The critical method of Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks that came to be known as New Criticism, was, in part, developed to explicate the modernism of Eliot, Joyce, and Yeats. A fifth critic, R. P. Blackmur, not directly associated with the Vanderbilt group, made important contributions to the formalist reading of poetry in The Double Agent (1935) and in essays in other books. He did not, however, develop a distinctive formalist method.