Mar 29, 2016

Mistakes Made, But...

A.O. Scott, the well-known book and film critic of the New York Times, has written of Yvor Winters in his new and widely reviewed book on literary and other kinds of criticism, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. A section of the book, one which briefly discusses a few ideas Winters had, was published in February in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott refers to Winters's long meandering essay from the Hudson Review, "Problems of the Modern Critic of Literature" (1951), which can be found as the opening essay of his book The Function of Criticism. That essay, not Scott's, opens with an interesting discussion of how literary artists and critics have to make a living in the mid-20th century, a subject which leads Winters into a much longer and unprecedented discussion of the strengths of the various literary genres and his defense of the short poem as the strongest or most complete and compelling form of literature.

Scott mentions Winters's attempt to establish a new canon, but that's not Scott's central interest. Rather, he is concerned to show that Winters was one of the artist-critics at mid-century whose careers were troubled by growing conflicts. These were the modern writers who first, to put it succinctly, turned to college teaching to pay the bills while working on their art on the side.

This section of Scott's book is insightful and thought-provoking. But he does make a number of silly mistakes concerning Winters. For one, he trots out the notion that Winters considered the poetry of Barnabe Googe to be the finest work of the English Renaissance. This is just plain false. Winters did consider Googe to have written a few sound and valuable short poems, but he did not consider him one of the greats of English literature nor the finest Renaissance poet, as Scott implies. For someone who later says that Winters's work deserves wider and deeper study, this is a foolish mistake to make, and odd, too, considering the final word in that subtitle. Winters did rank the poetry of Jones Very far above that of Whitman, as Scott claims. But he seems not to be aware of Winters's higher judgment of Emily Dickinson and Frederick Godard Tuckermen. It's strange to me that so often those few who nowadays write that Winters is deserving of deeper study find it necessary to go out of their way to leave the impression that he was a nut and a crank.

Scott's various misinterpretations of Winters, small and large, in the brief paragraphs he devotes to his critical thought deserve a rejoinder. I'll have to get up the gumption to offer one. Nonetheless, Scott gets a few things right, and it's encouraging to see Winters discussed in any venue of wide literary notice.

Mar 25, 2016

The Plain Style Re-Introduced

New York Review Books has reissued John Williams's anthology, English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson, which was originally published in the 1960s. The book is available in paperback and Kindle editions. The critical ideas of Yvor Winters deeply influenced this anthology, although, as is all too common but nonetheless frustrating, the NYRB blurbs and publicity make no mention of the fact. I have read the new introduction by a former grauate student of Winters's and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky, whom I have had occasion to discuss on this blog from time to time.

The anthology is an excellent introduction to some major and very fine poems that were once almost wholly forgotten, even among English professors and critics. The collection places a heavy emphasis on the tradition of what Winters termed the Plain Style (which C.S. Lewis called the drab style, as opposed to the Renaissance poetry he and so many others favored, that written in what Lewis called the golden style). It was Winters's 1930 essay "The Sixteenth Century Lyric in England," which I argue is probably his most influential writing (though not his best), that rekindled interest in and appreciation for the Plain Style.

Here is Pinsky, from the Introduction:

In the beginning, for many poets and readers, there are anthologies. They often provide our earliest source for poems. . . . For me, the most valuable anthology eventually became, and remains, this one: John Williams’s English Renaissance Poetry.

Pinsky does discuss Winters very briefly in his introduction, I should note. Winters persuaded Williams that, somewhat unethically, he had left any mention of Winters's influence out of Williams's original introduction to the anthology, a matter which Winters discussed in a brief but unmistakably prickly endnote found in his last book, Forms of Discovery. Williams then agreed to acknowledge his debt to Winters on a small sheet of paper inserted into each copy of the anthology.

On a more general note, I wish to say to my few readers that I am out here still working out and, I hope, up from the ideas and work of Yvor Winters, but this blog simply didn't get enough traffic to continue at the pace I was trying to keep. Perhaps I will get the desire to start again.

Apr 30, 2015


I read a funny one the other day, about ambiguity in poetry. I don't remember where I saw this little piece on the beauty of poetry, that it lies in nearly infinite ambiguity, and I couldn't find it again. But I remember the opening spot-on. The writer quoted the first line of a Wallace Stevens's poem "The Snow Man," which Yvor Winters considered one of the greats of the language. The line goes, "One must have a mind of winter..." The writer thought this a beautiful line because to him it is nearly infinitely ambiguous. It can mean just about anything to anybody. But the line isn't ambiguous or open to endless personal interpretation in the least. Certainly, the line is open to endless application in individual lives, in the mind of each person reflecting on Stevens's idea, as all writing is, but it has one clear and obvious meaning. The poem is about human interaction with the world, and in context the line is meant to point out that a human would have to be something wholly other than a human to feel and know the natural world, which gives us so little direct knowledge of itself to us that it seems like ice and snow. Now, what that "message" or "point" or "communication" might mean in your life is for you to decide. But the meaning of the line and nearly every word in the poem is perfectly clear. It was amusing to see a writer defending that rusted ol' saw that the ambiguity of poetry is what makes it beautiful and great by offering a line that's as clear as glass.

Feb 26, 2015

Philip Levine

The American poet Philip Levine died this month. He was a graduate student of Yvor Winters's in the last years of Winters's life in the mid-1960s. Levine was published all over the place during his career. I read his work often in The New Yorker over several decades. I like some of Levine's "poems," if poems they are. He claimed that he wrote a lot of his poetry in syllabic verse, verse that has the same number of accented syllables in each line (and as many unaccented syllables as the poet wishes) in each variable stanza. To my moderately practiced reading eye and ear, I have seen syllabic verse, Levine's included, too often devolve into nothing distinguishable as verse at all. Levine, in my judgment, almost always wrote prose broken up into lines, what I call "prosetry." He wrote mostly descriptive poetry that was vaguely melancholy in the way of the modern artist. A lot of his work was "prosetic musing," a ubiquitous sort of poem that meanders about from topic to topic by association: "look at this, look at that, this happened, then that happened," and so on -- until the poet runs out of gas, which seems to the only acceptable kind of ending to this sort of prosetry, to run out of gas and roll slowly to a stop with two tires on the shoulder. I was naturally drawn to Levine's work because, as he did, I grew up in the Detroit area. His descriptions of various events and places of his early life are occasionally interesting, but nothing significant. He could turn a nice phrase a few times in every musing, but that was about it, which might be plenty for anyone. I never saw any influence of Winters in his work (except that claim about syllabics, which Winters was interested in as an experimental verse form) or read anything that helped me understand what he got from Winters.

Jan 15, 2014

Good First Lines

Good first lines from Yvor Winters's criticism:

"Before attempting to elucidate or to criticize a poetry so difficult and evasive as that of the best moderns, it would appear wise to summarize as clearly as possible those qualities for which one looks in a poem. We may say that a poem in the first place should offer us new perceptions, not only of the exterior universe, but of human experience as well; it should add, in other words, to what we have already seen. This is the elementary function for the reader."

Those are the fine opening sentences of "The Morality of Poetry, from Primitivism and Decadence. which was republished in In Defense of Reason. And to that I say, "Amen."

I've been out of regular circulation here for quite a while, but I've been building up the energy for another run at this blog. We'll see what comes about.

Mar 29, 2012

The Stupidest

I must emerge from my hiatus to say that David Orr's new book on contemporary poetry, "Beautiful and Pointless," just about has to be the stupidest piece of writing on poetry I have ever seen. Orr is a sometime reviewer of poetry for the New York Times. He even took a few wild swings at Yvor Winters's poetry in a short NYT piece about a decade ago. The kindest thing I can think of to say about Orr's new book -- and I am trying to be kind -- is that it is simply wrong on both counts. Poetry nowadays is rarely -- extremely rarely -- beautiful, and it isn't pointless, either. Orr spends a good deal of space trying to explicate poems from recent times, but you have to wonder why. Aren't they pointless?

But, of course, poetry is a form of communication like any other, as we all know and as Yvor Winters and J.V. Cunningham explained with such wisdom and insight, except for these fools who want to carve out some mystical never-never-land for poetry. What they have done, Orr and his ilk, is so degrade poetry as to make it culturally meaningless, as is shown clearly in its ever declining status and importance as an art. Orr goes on and on about how we who read poetry just plain love poetry, and that that's the only reason we read it. He writes, as an analogy, that nobody asks what some rapper is trying to say with his rap. How utterly stupid. Lots of sensible people are trying to figure out what rappers are saying, because it is quite obvious that they are frequently, if not always, trying to say something, trying to make a point -- and on occasion trying to make very serious points.

Of course passionate readers love language and sharp turns of phrase (not that there are many to glean from the ugly poems quoted in Orr's book). But we know that language is a form of communication. Poets should be trying to say something to us with their beautiful language, for the truths of a poem are the culmination of our love for its language. In fact, poetry usually becomes ugly when poets get tangled up with these stupid theories of poetry's pointlessness. How sad! But let them write on, these pointless poets. I won't endeavor stop them. They are welcome to the drek they produce. But I won't say their work is poetry, or good poetry, or worth reading.

But, please, those who care, please keep writing good poetry, works of art that make points, and make them beautifully.

Oct 13, 2010

The Birds Begin to Sing

Have you taken any interest in Roger Scruton's new book, Beauty, which came out with some fanfare last year? One short essay among several that were published to promote the book drew my attention some time back, the piece on the desecration of the beautiful in the City Journal (spring, 2009). I had wanted to write about this short essay when it came out, but was distracted by other matters. The piece was entitled "Beauty and Desecration: We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness."

It's a hard-nosed look at the desire of artists to "throw dirt" on everything normally considered beautiful in life and thought, past and present. Scruton exagerrates quite a bit about how much dirt is being thrown and how often it's being thrown, but he appears to have at least a somewhat valid point. As we all know, a number of avant-garde artists have taken to desecrating anything and everything they can get their paint on (to mention just one artistic medium getting rather dirty nowadays). Scruton's answer to the problem, since the human desire to sense beauty remains strong, is not to return to the masters of the past who cherished the truly beautiful, however that might be determined, but to look anew for beauty in our lives, at least the kinds of beauty Scruton thinks are truly beautiful.

I have my doubts about Scruton's idea, however, since as laid out in the essay, and the book itself, the idea plays right into the hands of the romanticism that led to the break down in traditional conceptions of beauty in the first place — that led to the desire to make everything new, to break apart every trustworthy and trusted convention, to show that everything people thought was beautiful is dying or dead. Such general topics came up frequently, if obliquely, in the criticism of Yvor Winters. But before we get to Winters, though, here's Scruton on the ordinary beauties that have become commonplace in criticism in our age:

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists — one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation — that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Is this not tripe? A band of sunlight "trembles there"? A bird "bursts into song"? Can a man as thoughtful and learned as Roger Scruton be serious? As nice and sweet as all this sounds, I believe that Winters would have thought Scruton's now commonplace distinction between concept and feeling, which arose from romanticism, too wide and sharp. Winters didn't think there is any unbrigeable chasm between sensing something to be beautiful and gaining insight into it, or even putting it to use (putting aside my longstanding puzzlement, which I have oft discussed, at why in our age critics and artists consider the usefulness of art so horrible). Winters seemed to combine thought and feeling nicely in his artworks and criticism, both of which are deeply powerful. Winters believed that the final cause of the literary arts is understanding, in what we now call a holistic sense — that is, embracing both concept and feeling, thought and emotion. (That is a "use," by the way, and I don't think there is anything the least ugly or dirty about being useful in such a manner.) Scruton's defense against dirt, as tremblingly admirable as it might appear on the surface, gives far too much ground to the romanticism that helped breed, in our late decadence, the desire to exalt ugliness, the unending obession with breaking all traditions, which Emerson, Winters's one-time bĂȘte noire, did so much to help make, in the early days of American culture, the shibboleth of modern culture.

Incongruously, the ugly dirt-throwing art often seems stronger as art than the trivial, trembling, mostly decorative "thereness" or "thisness" that recent poetry has sought to express. At least the dirt throwing is trying to say something, to help us understand some subject, rather then to wallow in trivial experiences like birds singing in trees and sun-rays falling. Winters was sharp on this point, once again in the long-ignored essay on John Crowe Ransom from In Defense of Reason. (Let me pause to note that this wonderfully insightful essay has occasioned almost no comment at all from other critics, even those directly engaged with or inspired by Winters, in the past 70 years).

At this point I must interrupt again [concerning Ransom's comment that Winters thought the only kind of poetic experience is ethical experience] to comment. I believe, to be sure, that ethical interest is the only poetic interest, for the reason that all poetry deals with one kind or another of human experience and is valuable in proportion to the justice with which it evaluates that experience; but I do not believe that a descriptive poem is negligible or off the real line of poetry. A descriptive poem deals with a certain kind of experience, an extremely simple kind, but one of real value; namely, the contemplation of some fragment of the sensible universe. This is a moral experience, like any other, and the task of the poet is to evaluate it for what it is worth.

Roger Scruton believes that artists should once again adopt the goal of art as pure descriptive beauty (in his manifestly shallow sense). But this idea has slowly wrought the damage that has led to the greater and greater loss of beauty in the literary arts, down to the dirt-throwing desecrations of the present age, as ever more artists have refused to seek understanding as the final cause of their art — the evaluation of experience, as Yvor Winters put it.

Nonetheless, Scruton's piece is worth reading. What is the role of beauty in a classical, moral theory of art as Yvor Winters roughly sketched it in his criticism? Winters didn't have enough to say on that important topic — in fact, he sometimes irritably dismissed the whole matter, as in the opening paragraphs of the "Preliminary Statement" to Forms of Discovery. I believe that the subject of beauty, however, needs much deeper study among classicists as the field of aesthetics has become prominent once again.