Kenneth Burke Essay - Critical Essays

Burke, Kenneth

Burke, Kenneth 1897–

An American critic, poet, and translator, Burke was among the first of the New Critics. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

That Burke has a distinguished mind is not to be doubted; that verse is the best, or even an adequate vehicle for its expression is, to my mind, dubious, though I would not want to do without "The Conspirators," and would wish Burke to persevere, in the hope of producing other poems as cleanly, secretly good. In the main, nevertheless, a great, theorizing blight has fallen over Book of Moments. In his attempt to hold himself to the use of his "shifting personalities" notion of the poet's role, Burke has deprived his work of a central core of feeling, of a uniting and coordinating sensibility which might have given the poems a kind of collective power, a power of realizing to some extent the mind of the author,… rather than that of creating authentic works of art…. There is therefore an air of fragmentariness about Book of Moments; most of the best things in it, in fact, are fragments, like the proposed poem on Roosevelt (which I should like to see completed, by Burke or someone). Further, you get the feeling that dialectical cleverness is being given too much of the burden of expression: though Burke can link any number of things with at least a tentative cord of reason, he is much less successful in fusing perceptions in an urgency of feeling. There is little sense of necessity in his figures; instead, there is that of ingenuity, manipulation….

As a poet Burke is an amateur, at his infrequent best a good one, and it is a kind of irony Burke himself would appreciate that we look to him for the amateur's virtues: naïveté, deep-felt passion flashing out through clumsy, imitative passages, prosodic awkwardness, building-better-than-he-knows-in-a-way-that-may-turn-up-something. But because of his long acquaintance with poetry he must simulate at least some of these qualities, and is not really given a fair chance at the spontaneity and rawness of perception that the gifted sometime practitioner must rely on for his successes. He has not, save in a few rare instances, the poet's feel of words, but knows, instead, their accepted poetic usages.

James Dickey, "Kenneth Burke" (1956), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 28-31.

This reprint of Burke's 1931 novel [Towards a Better Life] illustrates the fact that an interesting mind cannot produce a thoroughly dull book, although it may come dangerously close. This almost novel, or anti-novel as Burke calls it in the Preface, recalls the kind of experiment in form that was exciting critics in the twenties and thirties, and the kind of ironic and detached playfulness that comes from using a narrator whose memory and veracity improves as he learns more about himself. Perhaps the central flaw in Towards a Better Life is the narrator-protagonist, a prig who does not quite understand the difference between an insight and a cliché and whose sickly egotism leads him to assume that the world eagerly awaits detailed reports of his emotional temperature. Yet despite the flaws, there is a kind of fascination in watching the splendidly bright Kenneth Burke shine through his pretentious and dense non-hero….

The result is a book that is as interesting structurally as almost anything written in the period and intellectually stimulating in the way that only epigrams can be, but a book whose virtues just are not mutually compatible.

Lee T. Lemon, "Incompatible Virtues," in Prairie Schooner (© 1967 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1967, pp. 350-51.

It is a pleasure to note the return of Kenneth Burke's novel, Towards a Better Life, which has long been a rare book in every sense, but is now available in an attractive new edition. The work might be categorized as confessional, related in kind to Rousseau's defensive letter to the world, related in that and in several other ways to the comic apologia of Dostoevski's famous underground grotesque, and presided over, variously, by the ideational as well as esthetic influence of Flaubert's correspondence and Remy de Gourmont's Une Nuit au Luxembourg. Burke's story unfolds the progressive quandaries of an intellectual whose ambitious but perfectionistic mind so works upon every chance for human good and happiness that he is finally reduced to a molluscoidal retreat for which all other vital resources have been sacrificed. Yet his defeats are not merely functions of his character; as presented, the American milieu would in fact seem to be out of key with the best potentialities of mankind. Given the milieu, however, the defects of this man's virtues work inexorably against him. The novel's allusions to evolutionary determinism tend to universalize the particular life cycle, lending more tragic overtones, more widely applicable ones at any rate, to certain of the protagonist's last words: those which reflect, although in a somewhat different voice, de Gourmont's helpful suggestion that the evolution of man might ultimately reverse itself, thus allowing a perversely joyless, sacrifice prone, morally self-perfecting, and rather absurdly "perfected" mechanism to lapse into its original formlessness.

Neal J. Osborn, "Toward the Quintessential Burke," in Hudson Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 308-21.

One of the most engaging images of dangling man in modern literature is Kenneth Burke's Towards a Better Life, a book of notable salience in the dispute of Art and Life.

Burke wanted to write his book as a realistic, objective novel, lively in event and character, with a palpable background in Greenwich Village. But his first efforts in this standard direction were so dismal that he reviewed his terms of reference, and concluded that the form, excellent for others, was to him a nuisance; that is, it did not allow him to write as he wanted to write. It struck him, and the lineaments of his talent seemed to agree, that any plot would answer, so long as it allowed him to indulge his favourite modes of expression. These consisted of six pivotal procedures: lamentation, rejoicing, beseechment, admonition, sayings, and invective. So his second decision was to move in reverse: to begin with his favourite stylistic gestures and to deduce from these a 'corresponding' assembly of characters and a sequence of events loosely designated as plot. As he said: 'Facit indignatio versus,' which I should at some risk translate: "An author may devote his entire energies to rage purely through a preference for long sentences."…

Meanwhile we ask a prosaic question: what kind of book are we reading? It is certainly not a novel, nor was it meant to be. In ascriptions of this kind we are well advised to consult Northrop Frye's account of the several forms of prose fiction. Then it appears that Burke's book is not a freak, a sport of Nature, but an example of a distinguished tradition, the anatomy. It answers in every respect to Frye's description: it deals 'less with people as such than with mental attitudes'; its characterization is 'stylized rather than naturalistic,' presenting people 'as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.' The anatomist sees evil and folly 'as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry.' The narrative is 'loose-jointed.' The writing 'relies on the free play of intellectual fancy and the kind of humorous observation that produces caricature.' The anatomy presents 'a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.' The masterpieces of the genre include A Tale of a Tub, Candide, the Anatomy of Melancholy, Headlong Hall, and Brave New World. Let us say, then, that Towards a Better Life is an anatomy of dissociation….

It is not enough to say that Towards a Better Life is beautifully 'written,' if by this praise we mean to consign the book to an anthology of Prose Style. However peculiar its origin, it is in fact one of the most moving books in modern literature, as well as one of the purest anatomies. Like John Neal [the protagonist] Burke is skilled in 'the hilarious aspects of distress'…. [In] Towards a Better Life the absurdity is evenly divided between John and the world: neither has any reason to ascribe to the other a monopoly in ill will. This has the effect of keeping the book's air clear. John never denies the world, or complains of the arbitrary nature of its arrangements. Indeed, if his troubles were of this nature, this would have to be a different life, a different book….

Burke now reads his book as a ritual of rebirth, an example of a pattern which he finds in many modern novels and poems; which he calls the 'sprout-out-of-rot' literature. This description is to account for those works in which the materia poetica is unwholesome while the work itself gives an impression of hygiene and sanitation. He still thinks of Towards a Better Life as 'a terrorstricken novel,' appropriately enough for the year of its inception, 1929, but he would now emphasize the intimations of renewal which sprout in its later pages. In this reading John Neal dangles between tragedy and comedy; the tragic grotesque is Burke's name for his hero's place. The squirming of the book is designed to force John from tragedy through the tragic grotesque into comedy. Towards a better life; that is, toward comedy….

In Burke the comic proof is style. While John Neal dangles, twists, and squirms, his author maintains his style as the last ditch of possibility. There is hope, the book implies, as long as the sentences stay true. Faith, hope, and charity are not dead as long as grammar, logic, and rhetoric continue to act.

Denis Donoghue, in his The Ordinary Universe (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Ordinary Universe by Denis Donoghue; © 1968 by Denis Donoghue), Macmillan, 1968, pp. 210-20.

During a career of writing beginning in the early 1920's, Kenneth Burke has worked in so many forms and on so many subjects that he may deserve to be acclaimed as the universal man of modern, mass democracy. He has written poems, short stories, a novella, a novel, essays of literary criticism, reviews of all kinds of books, and a chronicle of musical events; he has addressed audiences of all sorts, not only students and professors of literature, but also psychologists, sociologists, theologians, and even the radicals of the Communist-inspired American Writers' Congress; and he has ranged, in his writing, over a variety of subjects appropriate to audiences of such diverse composition. Such breadth of activity might well have left both his followers and his critics far behind him, silent in awe. Instead, Burke's writing has provoked outspoken responses, both in praise and in blame. Indeed, Kenneth Burke is probably the most controversial literary figure of the past fifty years in America. He is said to have the finest speculative mind of our time; he is adjudged an irresponsible sophist. Leaving a lecture by Burke, one may hear "A superb system!" from one side and "Sheer chaos!" from the other. From a single, exasperated idolater of Burke, one hears him decried as "mad" and lauded as a "genius," even in one and the same sentence. (p. 5)

No perspective upon poetry and criticism could be further from that of the New Critics than Burke's is. However, because Burke, as the complete propagandist, uses the values, vocabulary, and symbols most fashionable in his age, the surface of his writing sparkles with terms linking him to critics like Cleanth Brooks and R. P. Blackmur. Contributory to the confusion caused by this ingratiating device is the fact that Burke earnestly strives to be at one with even those who differ most from him. (pp. 35-6)

Merle E. Brown, in his Kenneth Burke (American Writers Pamphlet No. 75; © 1969, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1969.

While Kenneth Burke's critical and philosophical work is characterized by, and redoubted for, its formidable dialectical prowess, his poetry excells by its immediacy and absoluteness. Like Herbert Read, he defines the lyric as the expression and evocation of a "unified attitude towards some situations more or less explicitly implied"…. In this sense, the poem sums up a motive; it is a moment which "summarize[s] the foregoing and seminally contain[s] the subsequent". (p. 120)

Burke's poetry at its finest pleases by the absence of pose, its directness and honesty earned by a simple verbal, musical grace, with occasional touches of what he calls the "flat-tire of satire"…. Its attractiveness differs from the primarily intellectual brilliance which the reader of modern poetry is accustomed to find in the troubled complexity of the texts, as when almost the total range of a word's dictionary meaning is compressed into its occurrence in a poem. (p. 128)

Basic to Burke's thought and life is an outspoken dislike of progress, technology, machine civilization, and cults of efficiency. In his early work, this attitude is manifest in his radical Bohemianism. It later separated into two strains. One is an agrarian, "metabiological" stance akin to that of Thoreau, the Jeffersonians, and the Populists. In a sense, this attitude is almost Confucian and has, in its extreme, come close to a denunciation of science as a pretext for sadistic rat-torturers. Yet lately Burke has tried to make peace with technology by recommending a neo-Stoical resignation…. The second aspect of Burke's anti-scientism is more specifically anti-capitalist and has led him to sympathize with the Communist movement, though his communism was highly individualistic and romantic. One important factor in the attraction that communism had for him was, paradoxically, its collectivism, in which Burke hoped to find the basis for the artistic communication which his esthetic theory required. Burke also hoped to find comic, skeptical, and humanistic elements in communism, but he found instead only humorless, doctrinaire, and dictatorial rigorism. Communism does no longer figure in the Motivorum Corpus, though Burke persists in his unorthodox use of some of Marx's ideas. (pp. 155-56)

Burke heavily relies on Freud, although he has made important reservations and never applied psychoanalysis to the symbol-mongering kind of paraphrasing poems. Burke transcended Freudianism by extending its categories such as coercive selection, distortion, condensation, displacement, and so on, to language as a whole. Freud's "dream work" becomes Burke's "language work." As he sees it, language in general, not only in its idiosyncratic private uses but in every single one of its specialized technical variants—physicist, sociological, psychological, poetic, and others—serves as so many "terministic screens" which select and deflect reality as they reflect it…. (pp. 159-60)

The beautiful and the good, wisdom, poetry, humanism—these are categories that characterize the life and work of Kenneth Burke. As he sees it, all these concerns are ultimately rooted in, and merge with, language. Thus, Dramatism-logology, as one form of a secularization of religion, can perhaps best be summed up by re(?)translating the first Logological sentence from the temporal into the essential: in principio est verbum. (p. 161)

Armin Paul Frank, in his Kenneth Burke, Twayne, 1969.

Kenneth Burke's collected poems are of a piece with his studies of literature and language; the individual works range from the eccentrically inventive, through the just plain intellectually playful, to the profoundly wise…. The exciting moments in Burke's poems are, perhaps, fairly few and far between. But they are there, and poets, like the rest of us, are to be judged for their best.

Lee T. Lemon, "The Best of Burke," in Prairie Schooner (© 1970 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1970, pp. 80-1.

Burke must be accustomed to both praise and blame, as a glance at the huge book Critical Responses to Kenneth Burke will show. He has been hailed as "the foremost critic of our age and perhaps the greatest critic since Coleridge", and he has been dismissed as "a Yankee crank", a "crackpot with a panacea", a "circusrider", indulging in intellectual "capering" and "larking"….

There is nothing wrong with Burke's wanting to be a philosopher and to search for a universal system. Still, it remains true that Burke assimilates literary criticism to his general project. He himself admits that this view "has a measure of justification". It can hardly have surprised him, as this observation has been made many times before by both admirers and dissenters. I am in good company when Burke expressly refers to "literary critics [who] have quarreled with the author for neglecting the problems of literary criticism proper". Burke defends himself by saying that "no other course was open to him" and that his project takes him often "outside the realm of literary criticism proper". Surely this is no sin and it may be a virtue. Still, it absolves the historian of literary criticism from discussing Burke's thousands of pages (some five million words) devoted to his peculiar combination of psychoanalysis, Marxism, semantics, and pragmatism, just as the historian of criticism has no obligation to discuss Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Hegel's Logic as such….

[Whatever] Burke's reservations, his basic approach to literature has been psychoanalytical and has become more exclusively so in his recent practice. Years ago Burke recognized that the Freudian method uses a "heads I win, tails you lose" mechanism, but in his later writings Burke uses the "free-association" method without restraint as "a truly liquid attitude towards speech". This allows him to equate almost everything with everything else, to transform any word into any other on the basis of the most tenuous phonetic resemblance, and thus to reduce any meaning to a latent unconscious meaning largely scatological. Literary criticism with Burke becomes often a game which he himself calls "joycing", a word which contains an allusion not only to Joyce but apparently also to a translation of "Freude".

René Wellek, "Kenneth Burke and Literary Criticism," in Sewanee Review (© 1971 by The University of the South), Spring, 1971, pp. 171-88.

Here is a sort of monkish metaphor for what Burke does: he illuminates texts. In its application to criticism the figure tells us one of the things we most expect from critics, that they should offer us particular enlightenment about particular works, showing us things we had not seen and that, once seen, compel us to acknowledge their truth and significance. In its more medieval aspect the figure suggests an independent activity integral to the other and, in Burke's criticism, identical with it: as in the illuminations of the Book of Kells, Burke is using the text while weaving up his own designs.

Most simply put, he can get more thoughts out of a book than anyone else can, evoking in his reader time after time a mixed attitude of surprise, gratitude, and chagrin—"yes, of course, why couldn't I have seen it for myself?"—while at the same time, in the same gestures, often in the very same sentences, he is developing a method and a terminology which the reader, if he will, can master for application elsewhere.

Howard Nemerov, "Everything, Preferably All at Once: Coming to Terms With Kenneth Burke," in Sewanee Review (© 1971 by The University of the South), Spring, 1971, pp. 189-201 (also included in Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics, by Howard Nemerov, Rutgers University Press, 1972).