Cleanth Brooks is famous for making the interesting claim that the structure of a poem or tragedy is similar to the structure of a kite. In order for a kite to function properly it must include its tail. One would imagine that the tail of a kite would weigh the kite down, but paradoxically, it is a requirement that allows the kite to rise to unprecedented heights. The same is true for a work of literature as shall be henceforth explained. Irony in literature works in the same manner as the tail
Brooks implies that there is no point in tragedy if there is no irony which to decipher in the same way that there is no point to a puzzle if it is already put together. Likewise, the irony of the kite is that its tail is supposed to weigh it down, but does not. In fact, it is what gives it support and even serves to propel the kite even higher, just as the “counterthrust” that Brooks talks about gives more force to the “thrust.” It is the harmonization of opposites that composes the organic whole. Contradictions only remain as such until the reader applies his critical thinking and explication skills and can then understand them as parts of the organic whole. Every unit of the literary work is crucial in finding the text’s meaning, in assisting the text’s growth, and in balancing the text’s tensions. Brooks utilizes this metaphor to exemplify that which illustrates the substance of organic units in a text. He illustrates this organic unity of literature by focusing on the function of irony in its structure, as is implied by the appropriate title of his essay.
Irony, paradoxes, contradictions, and “counterthrusts to the thrust” create literary situation that set up a certain tone and mood for the reader. It is irony which makes a work of art delectable to its consumer, and metaphors which paint a agreeable picture in the reader’s mind to make the work more interesting. Brooks claims that “The poet wants to ‘say’ something. Why, then, doesn’t he say it directly and fortrightly? Why is he willing to say it only through his metaphors? Through his metaphors, he risks saying it partially and obscurely, and risks saying nothing at all. But the risk must be taken, for direct statement leads to abstraction and threatens to take us out of poetry altogether” (758). The poet could have adopted the alternative path and say what he needs to say in a direct manner rather than in a manner embellished by metaphors and irony, but that would have literally squeezed the artfulness of the poem. Irony focuses on what is real and what is believed to be real. It is the co-existence of two opposing forces that are metaphorically represented, that exist in such a way that they create harmony like the ying and the yang in the popular harmonizing symbol.
An ironical and even paradoxical level of meaning produces the wholeness and integrity of a literary work. No matter how disparate or fragmented is its language and its surface meaning, there is an unstated layer of meaning concealing itself beneath the former which holds the work of art together and gives it the sense and coherence of a literary masterpiece. As with verbal irony, the stated and the unstated meanings may conflict only initially, but ultimately they combine to produce an integrated and meaningful whole.
Given the complexity of the ideal literary work that Brooks prescribes, it is not surprising that he was such a strong proponent of close readings, critical thinking, and explications. Given the arcane nature of the ideal poem, the double entendre of its metaphors, and the irony of its manifold situations, there may be no other alternative but to employ analytical methods and explication tactics. Yet, despite all of the intricacies of an ideal work, Brooks would claim that if it were not for the balance of its seeming opposites and metaphors which to decipher, there simply would be no greatness to the so-called “great” work of art. The tail of the kite does not bring the kite down, in fact it propels it. So does irony and contradiction to a literary work. Just like the kite paradoxically cannot do without its tail, neither can a literary masterpiece do without its dose of irony.