New Critical Television
I. A. Richards’s Sense of Poetry (October-December 1957) and its sequel Wrath of Achilles (January-March 1958) added poetry appreciation to the diverse televised lectures broadcast by WGBH-TV in its first years on the air. Harvard professor Richards was an interesting choice. He ranks among the most prominent twentieth-century literary critics. Generally credited with pioneering the approach known as New Criticism, he also helped develop the Basic English approach to language education. Richards denounced mass media as culturally debasing throughout his career. Despite this, he was also a prominent advocate for educational television. Before Sense, he collaborated with Christine Gibson and M. H. Ilsey to produce French Through Television, which was the surprise hit of 1956, WGBH-TV’s first year on the air. Sense and Wrath aired Thursday evenings at 8:30 pm, against NBCs Dragnet. Both shows were kinescoped to allow recirculation on the fledgling National Education Television network (ancestor to PBS). In its promotional material for Sense of Poetry, NET touted Richards’s “background and insight” as well as his “dramatic flair.” It remains unclear, however, whether Richards’s programs aired outside Boston. WGBH’s Lewis Barlow produced both series.
Produced by Lewis Barlow and featuring "Professor and Lowell Television Lecturer at Harvard University" I. A. Richards, Sense of Poetry (October-December 1957) and its sequel Wrath of Achilles (January-March 1958) belong to a pioneering set of televised lectures featuring professors from a range of disciplines. These programs were funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation and organized by the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. Formed in 1946 to support educational broadcasting on radio and television, the Council’s members included, in addition to WGBH and Harvard, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, the New England Conservatory of Music, MIT, Boston University, Tufts University, Northeastern University, and Boston College (“Lowell Institute Has”).
The Lowell television lectures represent a time when major philanthropic, cultural, educational institutions, and broadcasters united in experimental efforts to put “culture on air” and thereby broaden educational access (“Lowell Institute Puts”). Richards’s contributions also derive from a distinctive period in the history of literary study, when a set of procedures for the close reading of poetic language known as New Criticism dominated the English Departments of American universities. Richards’s work in the 1920s and 30s is generally credited with pioneering his approach, although by late 1950s he often found himself at odds with it (Russo). Indicatively, the WGBH shows are peppered with derisive asides about the irrelevance of contemporary literary scholarship. Unlike the more scientistic New Critics, Richards was committed to projects of general education that might now be called “interdisciplinary.” He presented poetry as humanism’s standard-bearer, the best possible means of assessing and elevating social values. In the televised lectures, an emphasis on Platonic themes anchors this project.
The privilege Richards accords poetry exists in dynamic tension with his interest in media experimentation. Throughout his career Richards derided mass media, often in hyperbolic terms, for producing “dehumanized social animals” instead of “self-controlled, self-judging, self-ruling men and women” (Russo 1989: 516). Yet he was also a prominent advocate for educational uses of mass media. Sense of Poetry and Wrath of Achilles were not his first forays into television. A developer of Basic English, Richards had a long-standing interest in language education. In WGBH-TV’s first year (September 1956 - August 1957), he collaborated with Christine Gibson and M. H. Ilsey to produce the surprisingly successful French Through Television, which aired 159 half-hour broadcasts (Glick 56).
Although he has a certain retro charm, Richards’s televised performance in Sense and Wrath could not be called dynamic. He gets little help from the camera: its relentless medium close-up is interrupted only by the text of poems Richards reads at length, which scroll in white characters down a black screen. On rare but memorable occasions, Richards offers a chart, a device also employed in his classroom lectures at Harvard according to the Crimson, which references his “famous diagrammatic slides” (“I. A. Richards”).
The vococentrism of these series is partly the point. In episode six of Sense of Poetry, which discusses Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Richards explains that “Poetry, like music, is a sound art.” Hearing this, one cannot but wonder whether Sense of Poetry might have worked better on the radio, where Richards’s memorable diction for favored terms like “beauty” would not have competed for attention with his unruly hair and cramped visage. (WBGH-FM did rebroadcast Wrath of Achilles on Monday nights at 10:00). However important the subject matter, this was not great television. Although WGBH (Channel 2) clearly found an audience in 1957, it seems likely that Richards would have had difficulty drawing viewers from NBC’s Dragnet on WBZ (Channel 4), with which he shared the Thursday, 8:30 pm timeslot.
Educational series contemporary with Sense and Wrath included lectures on psychology, science, and art. Of these, the science and art series are notably more televisual in style than Richards’s poetry appreciation classes. The art program Open House, for example, took advantage of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which had been wired and lit for television broadcasting by 1956. In this show, the camera is free to guide the viewer’s attention by roaming the surface of the artworks being described--a technique now termed the “Ken Burns effect.” Of Science and Scientists clearly had a much bigger budget than Richards’s shows. Its episodes used stock footage to illustrate key points, employed a cast of scientists as opposed to a single lecturer, and staged dynamic lab experiments to punctuate the professors’ explanations. In their presentation styles, the art and science shows seem to extend traditions of educational filmmaking and, rough as these early programs were at times, to anticipate PBS staples like NOVA.
Richards’s programing in contrast looks like a televisual dead end, an immature or ill-conceived vision of what the medium could do for education. True, Wrath of Achilles makes a concession to visuality by deploying Greek sculptures as “springboards for the imagination.” Yet there is little effort expended to showcase the dynamic properties of the statues. They appear not as three dimensional objects but rather as still slides projected alongside the host's talking head. Moreover, Richards’s reliance on handheld notes, which required him regularly to look down from the camera, differed notably from the practice evident on other shows, which used cue cards held offscreen. Although the archive provides no conclusive explanation for this distinctly leaden visual style, it is easy to imagine that constraints of time, budget, and imagination conspired with Richards’s principled commitment to the spoken word.
Despite all this, Richards earned a primetime slot, got not one but two programs on the air with WGBH, and in so doing furthered what for him was a longstanding effort to use mass media to teach. His shows were kinescoped to allow recirculation on the fledgling National Education Television network (ancestor to PBS), suggesting a broad possible audience. The information NET provided its distribution centers touts Richards’s “background and insight,” as well as his “dramatic flair” (“Individual Program”). It remains, unclear, however whether Richards’s programs aired outside Boston.
Educational programs devoted to literature, and poetry specifically, were not uncommon at this time. In its first year, WGBH-TV devoted more than one-hundred and eleven program hours to literature, 8% of the total. “Linguistics” programs, like French Through Television, accounted for 7% of the total hours, and the most common type of programming, news, accounted for 23%. One-third of the literature programs that first year were produced by WGBH itself, and these included From Shakespeare to Auden, The Poet Speaks, and Poetry in the Great Hall. WGBH-FM had previously broadcast poetry programs, so presumably these shows developed strategies that worked on the radio. Perhaps one day these shows will also be available online to allow comparison with Richards’ style. Harvard provided no other “Lowell Television Lecturers” from its English Department, but this may have been because Ford Foundation support for faculty release time was limited and soon ran out (Lowell Institute).
Three decades before his work with WGBH, Richards had insisted that poetry and mass media were antagonists. In Practical Criticism (1929), he argued that “mechanical inventions, with their social effects, and a too sudden diffusion of indigestible ideas, are disturbing throughout the world the whole order of human mentality, that our minds are, as it were, becoming of an inferior shape--thin, brittle and patchy, rather than controllable and coherent” (320). To this familiar problem--for what mass medium has failed to prompt comparable complaints that it stupefies and disturbs its users?--Richards offers a now-familiar solution: “Poetry, the unique, linguistic instrument by which our minds have ordered their thoughts, emotions, desires . . . in the past” offers “the most serviceable” means to right our thinking in the present (320).
A decade after his work for WGBH, Richards argued that TV was the best available means for building global education in English. In Design for Escape (1968), he declared that “the most capable channels for such teaching are film, film-strip, tape, records, picture text, TV--modern media, extant or to be--computer-handled” (3). He cautioned, however, that a "new, severe, and most exacting puritanism of purpose” would be required “to keep the distracting temptations of these media at bay” and to counter TV’s “powerful sedative action” (20). Retrospectively, the WGBH shows do seem like they might have resulted from a “puritanism of purpose.” Perhaps the severity of Richards’s tone is best understood as an attempt to steer between the Scylla of distraction and the Charybdis of sedation.
The situation in 1968 is clearly complicated by the fact that Richards denounces the very medium he deems “most capable”: "Who in the habit of watching much current TV,” he asks, “or of studying typical devotees under the spell and the expectations it has taught them to bring to it, can feel any great upsurge of hope when TV is mentioned as a major instructional force?" (Design 19). In phrasing his rhetorical question, Richards makes an interesting distinction between skeptics “in the habit of watching” television and the “typical devotees” enchanted by it. For the question to make sense, the group of skeptical viewers must include both himself and his readers--habitues familiar enough with the medium to lament its devotees’ educational prospects. So what was Richards watching in ‘68? Who knows? Perhaps his guilty pleasures included Star Trek, finishing its second season that spring, or the long running Gunsmoke, which had been on since ‘55 and was completing its second season in color.
Regardless of what he was actually watching, Richards’s conviction that television would be good for us only if it could be something else recalls early-century efforts to develop film as an art form. Around the time Richards was inveighing against mechanical reproduction in Practical Criticism, imagist poet H .D. and her Pool Group collaborators were at work on their landmark avant-garde feature film Borderline (1930). Like so many modernists of the interwar period, the Pool Group’s hostility to mainstream commercial cinema inspired calls for greater attention to the distinct possibilities of different media forms. They did not mean to save poetry from film, but to explore the expressive possibilities of each medium through their work in the other. Similarly, although more devoted to instruction than poetic expression, educational filmmakers had by 1930 developed stylistically distinct films for classroom use as well as a system for distributing them (see Orgeron, et al., Achland and Wasson). In contrast to these efforts to expand what media can be and do, Richards insists upon prophylaxis; either poetry counteracts mass media’s mental derangement (1929) or, if media are to provide privileged pathways for literary education (1968), their naturally seductive tendencies must be controlled by a sternly literary super-ego.
Just as Richards’s 1929 approach eschewed modernist engagement with film, his 1968 approach avoided televisual experiment. One example of such experiment, the artists’ collective cum think tank Raindance Corporation was founded 1969. Through its journal Radical Software and how-to manual Guerrilla Television this organization promoted a host of activist video and television projects bridging educational institutions and community groups. Richards can perhaps be forgiven inattention to these upstarts. Their artistic, political, and scholarly predilections seem so very different from his own. Still, the example of Practical Criticism suggests that lack of interest in media experiments outside poetry (or after Pound) characterized Richards’s entire career. He seems supremely confident in his ability, first, to make sweeping pronouncements about audiovisual mass media and, second, to evaluate them primarily by assessing their capacity to transmit selected literary accomplishments of prior epochs.
Richards plays the part of the literary traditionalist well, with his appeal to timeless truths transmitted from Plato through Keats to You, the Student; his insistence that the sense of great poems may be discovered simply by listening, really listening to them (in circumstances carefully controlled through professorial selection and guidance); and, of course, the conviction that civilization will fall if we don’t all learn Homer.
During the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 90s, the power of classical poetry to act as a touchstone for present day conditions came under fire. For many, that contention seemed irresponsibly to equate the experiences of long dead white men with those of all human beings. Nonetheless, tradition had its defenders. For this reason, twenty-first century viewers may feel they recognize a political call to arms when Richards propounds Homer’s relevance in the seventh episode of The Wrath of Achilles. “These nightmare horrors,” he declares, “however ancient The Iliad may be, are with and in us today.” He cautions that we must remember what the epic tells us about who we "most deeply are” and concludes that "We'll help men in the future best if we don't forget ourselves." Students of literature trained after 1980 must ask: “What do you mean ‘we’? If “the human” is the issue, why single out The Illiad from than any number other works, including films with humanist ambitions such as, for example, Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress? And honestly, must ‘we’ search out in our depths truths manifest on the page?” Other viewers may find Richards an exemplary spokesman for values and standards that late twentieth-century English Departments swept aside. These responses are as anachronistic to Richards’s program as they are, in a way, predicted by it. Richards was doing something truly surprising, especially understood from the later standpoint of the culture wars, in trying to present literary “high culture” on TV.
For both sides in the interminable culture wars, arguments over literary and human value now drag along with them a host of arguments about how culture and education should be funded and managed. This terrain of argument differs significantly from that of the 1950s. Nonetheless, the commitment to claiming universal human value for Homer’s epic by reading it on television seems abidingly strange. What makes it strange is Richards’s insistence on treating TV as both poetry’s enemy and its instrument of salvation, if only the professors could learn to control technology’s contaminating power.
Richards’s promotion of a view of poetry that later commentators would understand as “conservative” is ultimately less notable than his difficulties in grappling with the fact that media make sense differently. No form of human expression simply transmits content; each informs it. Poetry, as a form, is neither more nor less interesting than any other.
Rather than developing an awareness of form or medium through his television work, Richards appropriated a communications model developed by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver’s 1949 Mathematical Theory of Communication. The introduction to the book Wrath of Achilles (1950) concludes with Richards’s port of this influential approach, complete with a diagram. In the model, information has a “source” (“Homer” with all the uncertainty that entails), passes through a “transmitter” (Richards), takes form in a “signal” (the printed word), which necessarily involves the incorporation of “noise,” before finding a “receiver” (“certain subsystems . . . in you”), and “destination” (your consciousness, a mystery comparable to “Homer”). Richards trusts poetry to get the message through, despite the attendant noise (25).
Richards’s interest in this type of approach almost certainly precedes the framework appropriated from mid-century information theory. His pioneering 1920s survey research for Practical Criticism, for example, demonstrated that students weren’t interpreting great literature in the ways their professors expected them to, and called for new (noise cancelling?) pedagogies to correct the problem. “That the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication may seem an exaggeration. But in practice it is so,” wrote Richards (11). In any case, the signal/noise metaphor stuck. He references this communications model and repeats his hope that the signal will be received in Sense of Poetry episode five, the second of two installments devoted to Andrew Marvell's “The Garden.”
Theories of mediation reject the transmitter-as-encoder, receiver-as-decoder communications model, and instead emphasize the noisy “signal” as the source. Doing so makes it possible to investigate the social and semiotic relations different forms of mediation afford. From this point of view, it is a mistake to think of The Iliad as a “message” that has to defy noise-inducting encoding in order to be properly received. It is also a recipe for bad TV, since it requires one to treat that medium as an enemy, a vehicle whose properties must be resisted rather than exploited. In transposing his lecture style from classroom to television studio, Richards behaves as if trying to demediate his programming content, the better to distill its Platonic essence. Instead of making poetry a television sensation, he professed a more modest (but recognizably paradoxical) aim of preserving its sense.
For the next decade, Harvard and WGBH continued to collaborate in working out what form educational television might take. They produced a variety of shows, among them for-credit course programming under the aegis of the Commission on Extension Courses, a cooperative open-enrollment effort led by Harvard but also involving the other institutions comprised in the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council. The first TV courses for college credit were offered in the fall of 1959: European Imperialism, taught by Harvard history professor Robert G. Albion and A Study of Revolutions, by Harvard history professor Crane Brinton. Students taking these courses for credit were “expected to attend occasional conferences and the final examination” (Commission 21-22). Throughout the 60s the Commission on Extension Courses continued to use television to expand the audience for its general education program. Brinton’s course, for example, was offered on Polaris submarines as part of an arrangement with the U.S. Navy (“Atom Submarine’s”). From this start Havard and WGBH would build PACE (Program for Afloat College Education), a two-year degree that would record 6,000 registrations for forty courses by the time it ended in 1972 (Shinagel 223).
Meanwhile, WGBH became more interested in drawing larger audiences to its programs. Although the station shared with Harvard an investment in producing television that improved audiences while also attracting them, it was increasingly clear where the institutions’ audiences and broader programming goals diverged. In order to preserve Channel 2 for shows addressing a more sizable audience, WGBH in 1966 began planning to move its K-12 educational programing, “The 21 inch Classroom,” to its new UHF channel (Glick). Technical difficulties delayed Channel 44 until 1967 (Lowell Institute). By the fall of 1968, however, WGBH was offering the Commission on Extension Courses four half-hour segments of prime time on the UHF channel at no cost in order to move the taped lectures off Channel 2. As WGBH General Manager Hartford N. Gunn, Jr. explained in a letter to Harvard’s Reginald H. Phelps, Chairman of the Commission on Extension Courses, the station had already scheduled the cultural events show On the Scene, the demonstration program Exploring the Crafts, and the appreciation program Meet the Arts for 7:00-7:30 timeslots, where Louis Lyons and Bob Baram’s news programs had already seen ratings boosts of 50%. Lyons, curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism from 1939 to his retirement from Harvard in 1964, had pioneered televised news criticism and commentary with his show the Press and the People in 1958.
Although much of the programing from the 1960s is not available, documents suggest that Harvard’s for-credit shows continued the ultra-low-budget “taped lecture” approach, while WGBH’s public affairs, how-to, and cultural interest shows developed the genres and styles that have grown familiar to viewers of public television. In November of 1969, the premiere of Sesame Street began a new chapter in televisual education. Supported by the two-year old Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation, the well-budgeted show drew upon a decade’s worth of experience in TV education to build a new audience: preschoolers. Notably, it called upon Harvard psychology professor Gerald S. Lesser not as a talking head but rather as an advisor behind the scenes. At some point in the 1970s Richards’s former producer Lewis Barlow worked on the show.
By negative example, then, Sense of Poetry and Wrath of Achilles assisted in the discovery of what U.S. public television would be. If Richards failed to set a New Critical approach to Romantic poetry on the path that lead from Press and the People and Of Science and Scientists to the The NewsHour, NOVA, and Sesame Street, his experimental efforts nonetheless merit our attention. They preserve a moment when it seemed unexceptional to discover scholars of significance at the heart of mass media experiments in education. Accordingly, these early days of television education may hold lessons for moments when new media and established educational institutions interact. The early twenty-first century is such a moment, as scholars from across the disciplines work to imagine how the internet might alter higher education.
Special thanks to Allison Pekel, Leah Weisse, and Karen Cariani of the WGBH Archives and to Rachael Stoeltje of the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive.
Acland, Charles R., and Haidee Wasson. Useful Cinema. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
“Atom Submarine’s Crew To Become ‘Harvard Men’.” Herald Tribune 2 Sept. 1960. Clipping. WGBH Archives. f. 287823
Commission on Extension Courses. University Extension Courses: Fiftieth Anniversary Program 1959-60. 1959. WGBH Archives. f.287823.
Glick, Edwin Leonard. “WGBH-TV: The First Ten Years (1955-65).” Ann Arbor: dissertation, 1970.
Homer. The Wrath of Achilles: The Iliad of Homer. I. A. Richards, trans. New York: W.W. Norton, 1950.
“I.A. Richards Terms ‘Radar of Perception’ Key to Understanding.” The Harvard Crimson 11 May 1964. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.
“Individual Program Data: The Sense of Poetry.” Educational Television and Radio Center, 20 Feb. 1958. Indiana University Libraries Film Archive.
Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council and WGBH Educational Foundation Annual Reports 1956-1966. WGBH Archives.
“Lowell Institute Has Fifth Birthday; Niemans Discuss ‘American Ideas’.” The Harvard Crimson 4 Feb. 1952. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.
“Lowell Institute Puts Culture On Air.” The Harvard Crimson 10 Oct. 1951. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.
Orgeron, Devin, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible. Learning with the Lights Off : Educational Film in the United States. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Phelps, Reginald H. Letter to Hartford Gunn. 31 July 1968. WGBH Archives f.349421.
Richards, I. A. Design for Escape: World Education Through Modern Media. New York,: Harcourt, 1968.
—–. Practical Criticism. London: Kegan Paul, 1930.
Russo, John Paul. I.A. Richards : His Life and Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Shinagel, Michael. “The Gates Unbarred”: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910-2009. Cambridge, Mass: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009.