In this article, Ong argues that while poems have always been compared to various kinds of objects, the tendency to equate poems with objects is especially strong in 1958.  In the first section of a five-section article, Ong cites critics such as Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, Rene Wellek, Austin Warren, and T.S. Eliot, all of whom discuss poems as objects (for example, the poem as an urn, a skeleton, or the result of chemicals working on each other).  Ong also cites poets who refer to their creations in terms of objects; Archibald MacLeish, for example, refers to poems as "globed fruit," "old medallions," "sleeve-worn stone," and "a flight of birds" in "Ars Poetica."

This tendency to equate poems with objects, Ong states in the second section of the article, is fine, but it cannot fully express the true nature of poems, for they originate as utterances, which cannot be fully expressed in the written word.  What is expressed when a poem is heard (rather than written) is a "mysterious" thing that reminds people of the "interior condition" that is "life."  While science, philosophy, and even criticism seek to explain the utterances of the world, there remains something that is beyond explanation, something we get when we hear a poem but not when we read it.

How criticism approaches poetry and other works of art, the topic of the third and fourth sections of the article, is affected by the fact that all forms of art are really about the oral tradition, the basic mode of communication between human beings.  This point is illustrated well by Aristotle's assertion that music is the most imitative of the arts.  While people often think of Aristotle's definition of imitation as visual representation of nature, this assertion shows that to imitate through sound gets people closer to reality than imitating through images or written words.

If it is then agreed that criticism must look at art as something more than an object, Ong argues in the last section of the article, there are four issues in criticism that must be examined differently once an aural-oral approach is taken.  First, the issue of boundaries in a work of art is changed.  While critics such as Brooks and Robert Penn Warren make the poem into parts of a whole, Ong thinks that the boundaries of a work of art are less defined, specifically because of the work's aural-oral origin.  Secondly, the boundaries of genre also change.  Because a critic concerned with the aural-oral aspect of art thinks about the fact that a historical person created the work, the critic cannot accept the boundaries of genre as easily as the critic who wants to think of art as an object.  Thirdly, attention to aural-oral redefines the role of the critic.  The critic becomes part of the dialogue between the artist, the viewer, and the work itself, and the critic becomes more self-aware of his/her own position and limitations in this dialogue.  Finally, attention to the aural-oral aspects of art opens up discussion about history and the artistic tradition.

Unlike views of knowledge that rely on sight and tend to employ a cyclical view of history, views of knowledge that focus on the aural-oral adopt an evolutionary approach to history that encourages self-awareness not only in the critic but in works of art themselves.  Once this self-awareness occurs, the study of literature can progress from an incomplete approach, in which  utterances are ignored, to a more complete understanding of poems and other forms of art.

In this article, Ong re-examines many of the themes from his earliest work, including "Imitation and the Object of Art," "The Meaning of the 'New Criticism,'" and "The Jinnee in the Well-Wrought Urn."  While in the earlier articles, Ong supported, for the most part, the ideas of the New Critics, here Ong seems to have moved away from them with his emphasis on the aural-oral nature of poetry.
 

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