Kenneth Burke Burke, Kenneth (Duva)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kenneth (Duva) Burke 1897–

American critic, philosopher, translator, poet, and short story writer.

Burke has been considered a very difficult critic to classify. Because of his advocacy of a close reading of the text and his strong interest in the theories of I. A. Richards, Burke has been associated with many of the New Critics. However, believing that the "main idea of criticism … is to use all that there is to use," Burke draws upon his knowledge of linguistics, psychology, theology, and sociology to produce a diverse body of literary criticism.

Burke's perceptive and complex reading of a text has brought him great acclaim from his fellow literary theorists. Yet his audience has been limited to this select group due to the eclectic and erudite nature of his approach.

(See also CLC, Vol. 2 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Isidor Schneider

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Counter-Statement"] is a work of revolutionary importance introducing a principle that brings a natural, not a dialectic, clarity into the field of esthetics. It is important (in spite of its title) as statement. What there is in it of counter-statement is of less consequence.

Mr. Burke's new principle is so sane, so sure and useful a standard for esthetic judgment that one wonders how it could have been possible for the many thoughtful and brilliant writers on the subject to have avoided discovering it. The fact is, of course, that the principle is implicit in the work of all sensitive critics, but has never been released in direct statement and has, therefore, never been available for direct application.

The clue to it, I believe, Mr. Burke found in I. A. Richards's experimental studies in the psychology of reader reactions. Richards, coolly exposing his students to unidentified examples of poetry and tabulating their responses, probably provided Mr. Burke with the original data for his discovery, which is announced and developed in the two remarkable essays, Psychology and Form and The Poetic Process. The subsequent essays, Lexicon Rhetoricae and Application of Terminology, form a more ambitious but, to my taste, a less necessary and less palatable restatement and elaboration of the idea in the form of a new vocabulary of rhetoric….

[The principle] is, in essence, a new view of rhetoric. This word itself has become so disreputable that to call a book "rhetorical" is to condemn it offhand. It is confused with bad rhetoric and is conceived of as a set of professional tricks employed to cheat and confuse the reader….

Mr. Burke says that rhetoric, far from being artifice, is the most natural and constant feature of literature. It is formed to the reader's desires, which it stimulates and fulfills. It is a use of the reader's emotions by a technique that knows how to arouse them, allay them, charge them and discharge them, concentrate them and scatter them by rhythm, by contrasts, by delays, by evasions; in short, by being psychologically the master of the situation….

In the part of the book to which the title "Counter-Statement" may be applied, we change from the serene and broad light of discovery to the flickering lanterns of controversy. Recalling that the content of most classical literature was familiar to its audience and that the writer then obtained his effects by his unhindered play with the prepared mind, Mr. Burke makes a comparison with modern writers dealing with audiences whose minds are unprepared who can be appealed to chiefly by the shocks of surprise, by a constant supply of new information. Realism is the literature of information; and as opposed to the psychology of form using rhetoric, the psychology of information uses the more primitive, the blunter method of plot surprises.

In this analysis Mr. Burke overlooks, I think, two important considerations. First, that the appetite for information is a strong one and its appeasement can be and is as esthetic as any other. Secondly, that the content of realism is, in its way, as familiar to modern audiences, as the content of the classics...

(The entire section is 19,518 words.)