Dec 22, 2006
To get an overview of this subject, let’s start with a poem entitled “December, 1972: Written for the Christmas Concert at Stanford Memorial Church.” In the following passage from this poem, Mrs. Winters speaks of Jesus as the “Holy Babe,” which seems to imply a much stronger adherence to a very high status for this ancient person than her husband ever seemed willing to credit:
Still in such darkness once was born
The very love that moves the stars;
Star of our night, first flower of spring,
The Holy Babe of Christmas morn;
Who is eternally reborn
For us in our remembering.
In this passage Mrs. Winters further suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was the very fulcrum of love itself, as implied in the second line. This seems hardly to be the position of a person who had simply a passing interest in Christianity or a belief in it as some kind of myth of ultimate reality (in the best sense) or metaphysical metaphor. The next poem, of unknown date, which I quote in full, speaks of Jesus as our guide:
“Carol for the Nativity”
At His birth as at His death
A fearful darkness held the earth,
But bright His star and radiant host
Proclaimed the joy and not the cost.
How dark the earth since that far day!
Of broken stone, and rough, the way!
Guide us, fair star, the hard way home.
Sweet heavenly Child, Thy kingdom come!
The language used here suggests strongly that Mrs. Winters recommended to us a belief in Jesus as the divine Lord of the whole world. Finally, I quote from that oratorio, “First Songs for Night of Miracles.” In this passage, Mary speaks to her husband:
Joseph gentle, Joseph kind,
I know that He [Jesus] will heal the blind,
Console the dying, raise the dead,
Give His life for sinful men,
Die Himself, yet live again,
So the angel promis-ed
Such words, even though placed in the mouth of an historic figure, are those that someone who did not believe in the divinity of Jesus and his substitutionary atonement would write. I have no certain knowledge at the time of this writing of Mrs. Winters’s faith, but judging from these passages, it appears evident that she was a conventional Christian believer. Nevertheless, she did write a number of strong poems about the meaning of life and the nature of death that bear no sure or obvious marks of Christian doctrines or ideas. In fact, there are many more of these poems than those that speak directly to her apparent faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Christ. In time, we shall study some of these not obviously Christian poems in greater detail, for several of them are very, very good, some possibly great, and highly deserving of our attention. In general, the work of Mrs. Winters will gradually get more attention on this blog. The time has come to put her into the picture, both because of her many similarities to and affinities with her husband and her differences from him.
In considering Mrs. Winters’s faith, we might wonder what sort of religious discussions husband and wife had during their several decades together in what appears to have been marital harmony in Palo Alto, California. Their situation reminds me of my own marriage in some ways. For my wife remains an Evangelical Christian, fully believing in and committed to her faith in every way, though I have come to disbelieve in the faith we once shared. We discuss our now varying beliefs from time to time, for we still go together to an Evangelical church and listen to orthodox Protestant sermons every Sunday, though we do not and cannot now agree on the metaphysical fundamentals. This is not unlike, too, a number of couples whom I have known whose beliefs have differed slightly or diverged widely. I suspect that Yvor Winters learned a great deal about life and faith from his wife -- and about humility, too. Little of it appears to have made its way into his public prose or poetry, or even into his letters. He seldom refers to matters of faith at all in the recent wide selection of letters published in The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, edited by Robert Barth. Nonetheless, there are a number of suggestive hints that keep popping up in his writings across his career that Christianity stayed on his mind and that he considered a case for its truth-claims seriously and with care. How much of this respectful attitude toward Christianity was due to Mrs. Winters’s influence I cannot say without further study.
As I said in my previous entry on this matter, the religious beliefs of Mr. and Mrs. Winters is a subject worthy of your study, and a good place to begin is with my Year with Yvor Winters. You can do this easily by searching on google with “Year with Yvor Winters” and some key word, such as “religion” or “Christianity.” You will get results showing the relevant passages I quote and comment on.
There will be lots more to come on Janet Lewis Winters in this blog in the months ahead.
The classical studies that preceded Benjamin's text had highlighted the early Baudelaire: his ties to Romanticism, the Swedenborgian mysticism of the correspondances, the flights into reverie, elation, and the ideal. Benjamin's reading emphasizes for the first time the other element of the dualism Baudelaire evokes in the section of Les fleurs du mal titled "Spleen and Ideal": Baudelaire's melancholy, his self-understanding as flotsam and jetsam on the tides of modernity. Benjamin's text achieves this by revealing Baudelaire as the preeminent poet of the urban capitalist metropolis. He is the flaneur, strolling through the mercantile arcades at a pace dictated by a turtle on a leash, a ragpicker, collecting images of that which has been discarded by the denizens of the metropolitan jungle. And Benjamin relates these features to historical processes: the flaneur's pace protests against the accelerating tempo at which urban life must be experienced; the ragpicker's accumulation of unrelated detritus from all walks of Parisian life figures nothing else but the division of labor, a prime cause of the fragmentation of that human experience.
This aspect of Baudelaire's poetry, his exploration of changes, good and bad, to human nature in the new urban life, is one that Winters commented on very little in his criticism, though it has been the primary focus of much of the study of the French poet in our times. Winters, rather than contemplating and evaluating Baudelaire's literary study of the increasing degradation and decay of human life brought about in great part by new economic systems, studied closely -- and very highly praised -- Baudelaire's delineation of the calm spiritual control he had achieved in the face of the metaphysical predicament of humankind (and of each individual person, whether beggar or king). In Winters's judgment, Baudelaire described, rationally understood, and properly adjusted his emotions to his recognition of the metaphysical horrors of life, discovered most surely, starkly, and harrowingly in modern times. These horrors arise from our seeing that life utterly ends with human death, that all existence for each and every individual self is completely and irredeemably annihilated. Baudelaire, according to Winters, faced this predicament better than most every other thinker who had come before him, with the calm resolve of the stoic, the steady gaze of one who had perceived the true nature of human existence and yet had found the ancient and classical way to stand firm. For this reason, he chose poems such as "Le Mort Joyeux" as one Baudelaire's very greatest and one of the very greatest ever written in any language. This poem is a stoically, yet suggestively defiant, welcoming of the utter dissolution of death, a poem that conveys through its steady, controlled language and astute metrical control the profound emotional adjustment of its author to a horrfying vision of that dissolution:
Le Mort joyeux
Dans une terre grasse et pleine d'escargots
Je veux creuser moi-même une fosse profonde,
Où je puisse à loisir étaler mes vieux os
Et dormir dans l'oubli comme un requin dans l'onde.
Je hais les testaments et je hais les tombeaux;
Plutôt que d'implorer une larme du monde,
Vivant, j'aimerais mieux inviter les corbeaux
À saigner tous les bouts de ma carcasse immonde.
Ô vers! noirs compagnons sans oreille et sans yeux,
Voyez venir à vous un mort libre et joyeux;
Philosophes viveurs, fils de la pourriture,
À travers ma ruine allez donc sans remords,
Et dites-moi s'il est encor quelque torture
Pour ce vieux corps sans âme et mort parmi les morts!
Here's a translation of that poem that I memorized long ago and that I type out of memory. I do not remember the translator and am unsure of the punctuation at the time of this writing:
The Gladly Dead
In a soil rich with snails and thick as grease
I’ve longed to dig myself a good deep grave.
There to stretch my old bones at ease
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in wave.
Wills I detest and tombstones set in rows!
Before I’d beg a tear of anyone,
I rather go alive and lets the crows
Bleed the last scrap of this old carrion.
O worms, Black comrades without eye or ear,
Here comes a dead man for you, willing and gay.
Feasting philosophers, sons born of decay,
Come, burrow through my ruins, shed not a tear.
Only tell me if any terror is left to dread
For this old soulless body, dead as the dead.
And here's another translation I found on the web:
The Joyful Corpse
In a rich, heavy soil, infested with snails,
I wish to dig my own grave, wide and deep,
Where I can at leisure stretch out my old bones
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in the wave.
I have a hatred for testaments and for tombs;
Rather than implore a tear of the world,
I'd sooner, while alive, invite the crows
To drain the blood from my filthy carcass.
O worms! black companions with neither eyes nor ears,
See a dead man, joyous and free, approaching you;
Wanton philosophers, children of putrescence,
Go through my ruin then, without remorse,
And tell me if there still remains any torture
For this old soulless body, dead among the dead!
William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
It is in the language, the connotations aroused by the choice of words and the metrical flow, that Winters sees Baudelaiore's stoic adjustment to the metaphysical horro so perfectly displayed. Here is Winters commenting on great poets who likewise accomplished this important work of facing the metaphysical horrors of modern times, the chief exemplar of whom was, for him, Charles Baudelaire:
The facts of life at best are disheartening: the vision of life which man has little by little constructed (or perhaps as one should say stripped bare) is all but crushing. To evade the facts and attempt bluff vigor, as Browing often seems to do, is not convincing to the man who has experienced the imaginative facts. The artist who is actually ignorant of the metaphysical horror of modern thought or who cannot tell it imaginatively -- and there are many such -- is of only a limited, a more or less decorative, value. But the artist who can feel the full horror, organize it into a dynamic attitude or state of mind, asserting by that very act his own life and the strength and value of his own life, and who can leave that state of mind completed behind him for others to enter, has performed the greatest spiritual service that can be performed. For it is only the superior man, the man capable of expercing art, who finds himself in any dilemma; but the emotional tone, whether of vigor or of decadence, felt by the superior man, will eventually, by whatever devious and subtle means, filter down infecting in one degree or another the entire structure of society.
Such Yvor Winters believed of the works of the very greatest poets, of which he judged the poetry of Charles Baudelaire as nearly the greatest, in this very important essay from early in his career. First published in 1929 and entitled "The Extension and Reintegration of the Human Spirit: Through the Poetry Mainly French and American Since Poe and Baudelaire," the essay was finally republished more than 40 years later in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters. Baudelaire, as nowhere else in Winters's oeuvre, is a central focus of this essay.
Yet, since he discussed it so little, I cannot say what Winters might have thought of Baudelaire's study of the decay brought on by urbanization and the economic systems that gave rise to it. Baudelaire's description of the evils of urban life in his time has usually been interpreted by modern critics as an indictment of capitalism itself. Winters had little to say about this, and this lack, in my judgment, is one significant weakness of Winters's criticism, one of the weaknesses that Wintersians should begin to correct if we are to see his ideas develop and prosper. In my judgment, Winters did not focus often enough on those aspects of life and human experience that are only tangentially concerned with the loftiest metaphysical issues, the issues of the nature of human life and death. Winters clearly considered it much more important for the literary artist and his or her readers to contemplate and properly confront the spiritual horrors of existence than to understand the sorrows and sufferings of masses of people at the hands of whatever economic and social ideas, systems, and ideals that control their day-to-day lives.
But is this accurate or true, that reflecting on momentous philsophical issues is of vastly greater importance than comprehending, both intellectually and emotionally, the effects in human lives of economic and social ideas and systems and ideals -- and moving on, in some cases, to doing what we can and should, individually and collectively, to correct those evils and make lives better? I no longer think so, especially if the nature of existence is the horror that Winters believed it to be. For if this brief, horrifying life is all we have, and the brief lives of the indigent and the lost are all they have, then should we not seek to make our life and theirs better? And should not art play the part it can and should in that great mission, as much it seeks to enable us to confront properly the true metaphysical nature of our lives and deaths? I now believe it should, and I also believe that Wintersian artists must begin to dedicate the literary arts to this work, as much as Wintersian critics should work on discovering and studying the work that great literary artists have already done that can best aid us in such great and important tasks.
Jennings goes on to comment on Benjamin's focus on the criticism of capitalism inherent in Bauedlaire's great poetry:
[Benjamin's] book emphasizes, then, the same overriding concerns so evident in The Arcades Project: the rise of commodity fetishism in the big city and a concomitant dehumanization under capitalism. Baudelaire's lyric poetry, writes Benjamin, "breaks in its destructive energy not only... with the nature of poetic inspiration; it breaks — due to its evocation of the city — not only with the rural nature of the idyll, but it breaks — due to the heroic determination with which it makes poetry at home at the heart of reification — with the nature of the things. It stands at the place at which the nature of things is overpowered and transformed by human nature."
As I say, I think now that in contemplating such issues Winters's critical thought is shown to be weaker than it should be. He believed that poetry and literature at its best are concerned with higher issues, with the meaning of existence. But I believe that these other matters are highly important, too, what to do with widows and beggars, the lost and the ill, with the evil born by and in the streets, the ways in which we make and buy our bread and feed our families leaves so many in the ditches to rot and die. Such matters Wintersian literary artists can and should study and contemplate in their poetry and fiction, and these artists should do it more often, I think. Wintersians have yet to witness the coming of the the next critic who can build on Winters's critical work and theories in the area of metaphysics through the study and evaluation of poems and works of fiction that address such social and economic issues, with both rational soundness and emotional propriety.
Yet as Winters judged, Baudelaire is one of our greatest poets, well worth careful study throuhgout a lifetime. I will offer some further reflections on his work and Winters's relations to it in the weeks ahead on this blog.
Dec 20, 2006
I have often wanted to study the matter of Winters’s religious beliefs more deeply, but haven’t yet taken the time. Winters made a number of comments in his essays and poems that appear, on the surface, to be congenial to Christian faith, such as his cautious admission to being a “theist” in a central essay, the “Foreword” to In Defense of Reason, a comment that I quote and briefly discuss in my book A Year with Yvor Winters on my web site (a link to which is provided on the front page of this blog). What the term “theism” meant to Winters, I learned in time, was quite different from what the modern American Evangelical Christian usually means by the term -- though his sketchy conception of theism does not appear to be wholly incompatible with some atypical conceptions of theism that some radically innovative Christian thinkers have adopted during the past 2000 years. Furthermore, Winters made a few mostly unelaborated declarations that he is an absolutist -- sometimes using a capital “A”. Since many Christians hold to a belief in absolute truth and, furthermore, assent to a variety of specific absolute beliefs, though of a different sort from Winters, it would be natural for a Christian to think that a “theistic absolutist,” as Winters claimed to be, has some affinity to himself. Lastly, Winters many times wrote of his evident agreement with the philosophical ideas (in contrast to the theological ideas, a reader in time finds out) of some great Christian thinkers of the past, particularly Thomas Aquinas and Acquinas’s brilliant 20th-century explicator, Etienne Gilson. Such comments would certainly draw the interest of a Christian.
Of course, the most important statement on God and ultimate reality Winters ever made is the great poem “To the Holy Spirit,” which I consider, perhaps, the greatest poem in the English language -- though I do not agree with its every idea about the “Holy Spirit” or ultimate reality. (Don’t worry: though I won’t discuss it here, in time we shall have opportunity to discuss Winters’s magnificent “Holy Spirit” on this blog.) But more than that great poem, the general topic of Christianity brings to mind the dense, elusive poetic fragment, just two iambic couplets, Winters wrote somewhat late in his life. It contains one of only two or three explicit references to Christian faith in Winters’s poetry:
I cannot find my way to Nazareth.
I have had enough of this. Thy will is death,
And this unholy quiet is thy peace.
Thy will be done; and let discussion cease.
Much about Winters metaphysical and religious beliefs concerning Christianity, at least during his middle age, are disclosed in these four dry, simple lines. This is not a great poem, but it is an important one for those who wish to understand more fully Winters’s religious views. I find the poem chilling, with its stark declaration that some supernatural being’s will “is death” and that its offer of peace is constituted by an “unholy quiet,” which we can probably take to mean the simple annihilation of all life of any sort, physical, mental, or spiritual. (Ancillary questions to consider: 1) Does Winters mean that the supernatural being’s “primary” will, or perhaps its “only” will, is death? 2) Does “thy peace” allude to the angel’s proclamation of “peace on earth” at Christ’s nativity?) Yet these lines also contain ideas, indefinite as they are, that can seem congenial to believers in various specific religions, including Christianity, particularly the use of “thy,” which suggests that Winters believed in, however tentatively, a personal divine being of some sort (a very strange sort indeed, as you will find if you go on to study Winters in greater depth).
Notably, the second half of the last line sounds distinctly unlike Winters -- to wish that discussion would cease. As for me, I am most happy to see discussion on the nature of ultimate reality continue on right to my own last end, however frustrated I have been that all the discussion I have read and heard so far has failed, in my judgment, to lead to any firm rational conclusions that engender in me a sense of peaceful near-certainty -- or even semi-confidence. We can only can guess at the full motive behind Winters’s frustration as articulated in this final clause and the first clause of the second line. Yet from my many years of reading Winters, these two clauses appear to convey a sense of vexation that he could not find his way to Christian faith (“to Nazareth”). This suggests, as some of his prose comments also suggest, that he would have liked to have found, and perhaps even tried to find, a way to believe in the Christian faith. Having once been a Christian, I have felt similarly vexed in other ways, as one who though he had found Nazareth but discovered in time that the place is an inscrutable mystery in the Galilean desert.
That first line suggests to me, only very slightly, that Winters almost came to judge Christianity to be true, but that he couldn’t confirm it to his satisfaction. In my case, I once was satisfied of its truth but became unsatisfied and now no longer believe Christianity to be true and have left the faith. If I were to have written this poem, my first line would have read: “I know there is no Nazareth to find” (note that I keep to iambic pentameter). For me, who once believed and still is attracted to Christian belief in some of its aspects, that is just about as frustrating an experience as that which Winters seems to have had.
Dec 13, 2006
To consider a recent example of Haspel’s work, he wrote an entry on that newly discovered Robert Frost poem that made a small splash in the cultural news recently. In the midst of his discussion of the poem, Haspel states his opinion that Frost’s two best poems are probably “The Most of It” and “Spring Pools.” Now it just so happens that these atypical choices as Frost’s best work are exactly the poems Yvor Winters chose as Frost’s best in his controversial, very seldom read, and now almost completely ignored essay on Frost, originally published in the Sewanee Review in 1948 (republished in The Function of Criticism). Judging from this, I think we can safely assume that Haspel has been deeply influenced by Winters, as comes across in many of his discussions of poetry, as well as other matters.
On the subject of what’s best in Robert Frost, I should note that John Fraser selected those two poems for his New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing off and on in this blog (with lots more commentary on Fraser’s important anthology to come -- I also provide a link to it on my front page). As well as I am able to judge Fraser’s purposes (as so hazily set down in his long introduction), he selected poems that are superior or even great in that they best exhibit the stylistic qualities that Winters and some Wintersians find more sound and of more value than the usual fare in modern poetry. These are, presumably, qualities that Fraser and other Wintersians would and should like to see adopted more widely. Here are Fraser’s selections of very good or great poems from the work of Frost (with some brief comments from me):
“Acquainted with the Night” (“I have been one acquainted with the night”)
Comment: Winters believed that this poem is one of Frost’s finest achievements, but the poem has long been popular even among those committed to the Standard Canon. You can find a great deal of commentary on the poem across the web. Early in his career, Winters listed this poem as one of the greatest achievements in modern poetry. This was done in a 1930 letter (as I recall), though Winters described the poem in other letters as great or exceptionally good shortly thereafter. All these remarks were made in the period of transition in Winters’s career and life, when he was changing from imagist techniques to rational procedures in poetry. His opinion of the poem appears to have fallen quickly as he became more sure of his new critical principles in the 30s and 40s. Nonetheless, it’s a strong poem, I think, well worth knowing, but not quite deserving of the Winters Canon as one of the greatest in our literature. It is not nearly at the intellectual level of, say, Bridges’s “Low Barometer” or Jonson’s “To Heaven”. It is a fairly good example of a poetic procedure that Winters would come to call “post-symbolist,” a very useful term that few critics seem aware of and fewer still have put to regular use. It means, briefly, that the sense perceptions described are charged with abstract meaning, roughly as in an allegory.
It’s interesting to explore what readers get out of this poem. Most casual readers interpret the poem as an expression of Frost’s personal feelings of loneliness and depression, both feelings unmoored to any motivating event or concept. Most critics, however, interpret the poem as Winters did, as a metaphysical study, a description of the cosmic isolation of humankind in the universe and the emotional stance we should take toward the recognition of our metaphysical isolation. I think Winters came to see Wallace Stevens’s poems in this vein to be the greater, especially “The Course of a Particular,” which Winters later in his career declared to be one of the dozen or so greatest poems ever written in the English language. If you, my readers, would like to discuss this poem in greater depth, either to evaluate it or explicate it, I would be happy to do so.
“The Most of It” (“He thought he kept the universe alone”)
Comment: I quoted this poem in its entirety in a previous entry “Gratitude and the Winters Canon.” This is a poem Winters focused on much more closely and thought more highly of than almost all Frost critics. It’s another very good poem, similar in theme to “Acquainted with the Night,” and it is perhaps the finest in Frost. But it doesn’t have the emotional power of, say, Steven’s “Course” or the astoundingly great “Sunday Morning.” It is almost whimsical, so dry is its description of human solitude. The poem very subtly suggests the taking of a coolly stoic attitude toward the recognition of the cleavage between ourselves and the world we love. That attitude is probably what drew Winters’s close attention and praise. I would say that this poem is not one of the greats. It just doesn’t go into enough depth or adjust our emotions properly to the rational metaphysical concept offered. Frost settles for a rather simple exploration of difficult and somewhat disturbing subject matter. This is also a poem that I would be happy to discuss with you, my readers, in greater depth.
“Spring Pools” (“These pools that, though in forests, still reflect”)
Comment: This is another poem that drew Winters’s attention for its superior qualities. It is nicely done, but as Winters said, it is a minor work. I do not believe it is great, as fine as it is. Personally speaking, I don’t get much out of it, either. It seems to me to be more or less an appeal to carpe diem.
“Never Again Would Birds’ Song be the Same” (“He would declare and could himself believe”)
Comment: This is yet another piece that Winters drew attention to and mildly praised, though he little more than mentions it in his writings. I think this is as strong as the others already discussed. Winters thought it minor. I don’t see that it is any less minor than “Spring Pools” and many another nicely-turned Frost ditty. This does not belong in the Winters Canon, though it’s not a worthless poem, certainly.
Desert Places (“Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast”)
Comment: Sometimes considered a companion piece to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” this poem is a choice of John Fraser’s as a superior Wintersian poem. Winters never mentions the poem. I think Fraser is on to something. I have been pondering this choice for a while before I decide on my own vote, on a definitive judgment. Other comments are welcome. Off hand, I think the poem trades in a few too many sentimental phrases to be considered great. Frost appears to be indulging himself in some easy emotion rather than looking clearly at his subject in this one. The theme, as you see, is very similar to that of “Acquainted” and “The Most of It.”
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
Directive (“Back out of all this now too much for us”)
Comment: This is another choice of Fraser’s, which I reprint below. It’s a stronger effort among Frost’s work that run-of-the-mill critics have studied regularly down the years. Here’s a deeply spiritual study of the poem, though it makes no attempt at an artistic assessment of it:
On his web site, Fraser offers a long and valuable study of a poem I consider one of the very greatest in English, as Winters did, George Herbert’s “Church Monuments.” In theme, Frost’s poem, which I append to this entry, has various affinities to Herbert’s that are worth looking over carefully. Quite obviously, Herbert’s poem is a directive, too. The comparison reveals the weaknesses of Frost, I believe, his sentimentality in particular. Winters never discussed or mentioned this poem that I am aware of, though he almost certainly knew it. I’m not ready to make a final call, but for now I would say that the poem doesn’t belong in the Winters Canon, though it is a fine poem in many respects. Certainly, it is far from worthless. Another poem worth comparing with “Directive” is Philip Larkin’s “Church-Going,” a poem I intend to discuss in due course on this blog, since Fraser chose it for his New Book of Verse as a superior work of Wintersian art (or however we might interpret the choices made for Fraser’s anthology). I will have more to say on Larkin another time and put in at some point my two cents on whether any of his work belongs in the Winters Canon, which I believe we need to try to reassess and expand.
But getting back to Frost, I think there is more work that is worth close scrutiny in his oeuvre, though I am not sold that any of his work deserves to be part of the Winters Canon.
Directive, Robert Frost
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
Dec 6, 2006
This is the point at which Lionel Trilling's verdict on [“Howl”], that it was "dull," starts to look especially peculiar. Many sins might be laid at the door of Ginsberg and his poem, though it is impossible to separate the influence of the text from that of the period it inspired and came to symbolize, the Beat fifties and hippie sixties. The glorification of violence, the sentimentality about mental illness, the contempt for reason, the political self-righteousness, the waste of reformist energy in theatrical gestures, the confusion of narcissism with moral superiority: all that is worst about the counterculture is foreshadowed in "Howl" and Ginsberg's subsequent poems. But it would take a pretty jaded palate to find "Howl" dull.
Well, I don’t know. I don’t consider myself all that jaded, if I understand what Kirsch means by the term, but I find “Howl” a bore. It’s an unstructured, droning rant to my ear, and it quickly grows tiresome -- it even seemed dull in my earliest days in the serious study of literature, back in the mid 1970s. That I read it in the 70s might be important, since by the mid-70s weariness with the 60s had cured into a block of concrete in the heart. Kirsch’s piece gave me an itch to go reread the poem again, but I found it drudgery rather than an enlightening pleasure. There are a couple of nice turns of phrase, but the poem as a whole is a trainwreck of ideas -- a manic melange, to switch metaphors. You can pick little tidbits from the mass and sometimes find them interesting or even suggestive. But when you step back, there it is: a big, ugly trainwreck after all. I wouldn’t even say it is a poem, except by modern consent, and it isn’t very good prose, either. Kirsch then turns to the fears about writings like “Howl”, which he believes are of a species with Winters’s fears about Hart Crane’s dissolution, which, Winters believed, Romanticism engendered:
What Trilling really meant to communicate, I suspect, is not that "Howl" would fail to excite its readers, but that it would excite them in a way which Trilling himself, and many other imaginative people, had already judged disastrous. For while Ginsberg's belief in radical innocence and radical excess was new to the baby boomers, it was not at all new to Trilling, or to Modernists like Yvor Winters and Allen Tate, each of whom had experienced the suicide of Hart Crane as a parable of the personal cost of imaginative chaos. The antinomianism found in "Howl" was, in fact, one of the fundamental impulses of modern literature, and readers who were in their fifties when Ginsberg was in his twenties had wrestled with it long before. "It seems to me that the characteristic element of modern literature," Trilling wrote in an essay that was not about "Howl" but could have been, “is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.... It asks us if we are saved or damned -- more than with anything else, our literature is concerned with salvation.”
Again on the shoulders of the principles underlying modern literature, as unsystematic as they are, a critic lays the suicide of Hart Crane. There, too, we read a rather severe, almost hysterical, word, “disastrous,” applied to a writing of just a couple thousand words. Using such words goes somewhat too far for me, as I have discussed in a couple of recent entries in this blog (see “Romanticism Leads to Madness, Reason to Evil?” and “Hart Crane and Connotation”). To my mind, it’s not that chaotic writing is so dangerous. It’s that it’s so dull, just as Trilling said. I don’t read serious literature in order to take a little dip into chaos or vicariously revel in someone else’s bad-boy shenanigans, but to discover truth on my own “quest for reality” (which was the title of Winters’s anthology of greatest poems). “Howl” is dull because it simply doesn’t offer much to think about, doesn’t take us into any human experiences and help us to understand them rationally, or aid us adjusting our emotions to a rational understanding of those experiences. The poem is a frenzied, overwrought mishmash, a pile of straining phrases and harebrained ideas that adds up to a loose compendium rather than a sustained meditation. It’s a rundown of the wild times Ginsburg and his friends had. Big deal. Is it “dangerous” to go through it all. It seems more just plain silly. It’s still surprising that anyone smart took this jejune stuff seriously.
Still, I suppose “Howl” is important historically and worth knowing for that reason, since it has had a significant influence on literature. (I think it’s worth knowing things in the Standard Canon just because the Standard Canon, as Harold Bloom said, is made up of those works that have had the greatest influence). It’s important to know it because of the insight it gives us into the times it concerns. And even a few ideas in the mountain it piles up might have slight value, like Goodwill trinkets found in a trash heap. But as a whole the poem is not much and not worth concentrating on too closely, except as an historical artifact.
Do you, my readers, think that it’s dangerous personally or corporately to write as Ginsburg wrote and read what Ginsburg wrote in the way he wrote it? I’m still not sold on that longstanding idea of Winters’s, to which Kirsch gives his implied assent. Is Romanticism, as spread by literature, a cause of some of the dire problems in our time? In reading Winters, and Kirsch hints at the idea too, one would almost think so. But such matters require careful thought.
Nov 30, 2006
After reading the piece I came away even less convinced that poetry matters much to living in a world of strife and troubles. Though Rich seems to have meant well, to be brave in showing the world that poetry can help us deal with such massive tribulations as genocide, she fails to make a sound case for poetry’s importance and offers not a single poem that could conceivably make any difference to genocide or to any currently serious, important, and collective issue in politics, society, or philosophy. Rather, near the end of her fogbound discussion, she wanders around to the suggestion that poetry is crucial to the development of a rich emotional life in men and women:
There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together -- and more.
Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses -- how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn't exist. But this only reveals their existence.
But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, "There is no alternative".
This is little more than blather, special pleading as vague as it is confused. Perhaps Rich, as Yvor Winters would have recommended, could have offered a telling example or two that would have helped us understand her. She should have given us a passage of “poetic language” or a whole poem that “quite literally” keeps “bodies and souls together,” since what those portentous phrases mean is just about nothing without a concrete example or two -- or a dozen -- to give them conceptual solidity. And she should have showed how poetic language can give us even “more,” since it’s impossible to guess what might constitute this “more” she’s talking about. She should have given us, too, a strong example of how poetry “imprints the life of the feelings” in some vitally important way that addresses an issue as daunting and colossal as genocide -- and perhaps an explanation of some kind for what she means by saying that poetry “imprints” feelings.
I’m just guessing (because one can do little more than guess about prose this nebulous) but what Rich seems to be saying is that the very best poetry can do when helping us through genocide and war and massive suffering is make us see the beauty or emotional resonance of the little details of our lives, as is shown in the appallingly vapid and trivial examples she gives of what poetry accomplishes: “how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger.” These are her examples of the best poetry can do in this world?!! Is this a summation of the best that can be said for poetry from one of modernity’s most decorated and applauded poets: that poetry shows us the beauty of little things. (To repeat, I’ll admit that I’m guessing that this is what she means, for she nowhere says what this affected drivel precisely signifies). This is pure Romanticism, friends, icky right to the bottom.
Rich’s examples of poetry’s best offerings to a world of woe reminds me of a widespread cliché found in many, many modern poems (to my mind, not a few of William Carlos Williams’s poems qualify) and of countless movies of all kinds -- especially so-called art films. To take one perhaps better known example that popped into my mind is from the film “American Beauty,” in which to show how magnificently sensitive the main character is, the film shows that character, a young drug dealer, showing his girlfriend the most brilliant piece of video he has taken in his short life: that of a colorful little garbage bag being blown about a sidewalk on a swirling wind. Now there’s a sight to meet the troubles of life -- something to get you through genocide! Have a friend dying miserably of cancer? Go out and watch a trash bag tumble on a breeze. Why wouldn’t watching a sewage spill spread in an alleyway work as well? That scene is the trite, icky equivalent of Rich’s “blur of smoke in the air.” Yet one more example -- there are hundreds of them -- I take from Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry,” an Iranian film: a man contemplating suicide is convinced not to do it by a fellow who reminds him of just that, the taste of cherries. Oh, please!
Rich pops in a little comment about imagination in the third quoted paragraph, but that doesn’t make sense or help in context, since all she appears to be saying is that you need imagination to see the beauty in shoes for sale or discarded garbage bags or the exquisite patterns sewage can make on the ground.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the sound of the rain and the look of many a shop window are nice and sweet. I do enjoy nice and sweet things, as most people do. But is the enjoyment of nice, sweet things what gives us strength or understanding to meet the great issues of life? Is this all poetry can do to aid us in finding the meaning of life and addressing the vast evils that confront us? Is this the most that poetry can say -- the best poetry can say?
Compare Rich’s puerile vision for poetry to what, say, Edgar Bowers accomplished in his great “The Virgin Mary,” from the Winters Canon, to see how truly great poetry can rise far beyond such foolish trivialities.
If Adrienne Rich in this piece says all that can be said for poetry, it’s probably inevitable and right that poetry plays no role in world affairs and has receded so far from public importance. Yet this belief that poetry at its best is the hyper-appreciation of details is spreading ever farther and wider in literary culture. It’s a cliché, my friends. Winters discussed this matter often, especially in his early writings, such as found in Primitivism and Decadence, in which he drew attention to the hyper-sensitivity to detail as a hallmark of the modern associationist writing style, which stems from Romanticism. Judging from Rich’s piece, it appears that those writing techniques are widely believed to be ALL that poetry can do in the face of the Big Issues: charmingly describe little things.
All this can make a Wintersian sigh with annoyance that so many writers think that all literature can give us in the face of the evil and suffering in modern times is a few winks of beauty or a swirl or two of sweet emotions. Of course, I think turning to Winters’s theory of literature is much more profitable, for poetry, for literature, for life. According to Winters, writers and poets make rational statements about human experiences and endeavor to conform the emotions properly to the rational understanding achieved. The proper adjustment of the emotions, unified with intellectual comprehension, is what separates poetry and fiction from prose discourse. We can only hope that more poets will take up the serious work that Winters believed poetry can do, as opposed to the insipid purposes poets like Adrienne Rich have for poetry.
Nov 22, 2006
It has often happened in literature that writings on gratitude have veered toward the sentimental, an emotional response that “indulges the sensibilities for their own sake, are artificially or affectedly tender, or are addressed or pleasing to the emotions only, and usually to the weaker and the unregulated emotions [American Heritage],” which is a bearing of the emotions that Winters deplored. The only extended discussion of Winters’s -- that I am aware of -- on a poet who had a recurrent attitude of joy toward the natural world and human life is the piece on Robert Frost, found in The Function of Criticism. Winters chided Frost for the easy-going, folksy sentimentality found in many of his poems (though Winters called attention to Frost’s tougher work), as appealing as these sentiments often are to readers in our current literary culture. The poem that Winters thought to be Frost’s best was “The Most of It” (though he didn’t consider it good enough to rate as one of the great poems, I hasten to add), which happens to make very few best-of lists among the typical Frost aficionados, critics, and biographers. (I have appended the poem at the bottom of this entry for convenience. It’s worth noting that John Fraser included this poem in his New Book of Verse, implying, as it seems, that the poem is exceptionally good and closely in keeping with Winters’s theories of literary excellence, a matter which I will get to some time soon.) In that poem, said Winters, Frost faced “his predicament,” which I take to mean that Frost faced up to the fact that the nature he had, at times, unjustly expansive feelings toward, sentimental feelings that is, was not Frost’s “friend” or ours. Winters wrote often of the ravishing beauties of nature and its endearing qualities and all that, but he often noted ominously that nature will turn on us in the end and cast us and all we care about, through death, into utter oblivion. In much of his oeuvre, on the contrary, Frost cultivated what Winters considered a sentimental attitude toward nature; and from time to time, he expressed or strongly implied feelings of gratitude that he was alive and able to enjoy and perceive nature. Winters had little regard for any of this without the qualifying, bracing recognition that death looms behind all nature’s offerings and rewards.
This was Winters typical stance toward the natural world, toward the universe that he loved so passionately, as his poems imply. Winters seems to have experienced joy in being alive and conscious. He even wrote poems about his thirst for complete and utter immersion in the natural world, some sort of mystical merging of a drop of water into the ocean, and even wrote about the dangers of such a thirst (which he thought entrapped Hart Crane). Yet his feelings of love and joy seldom aroused feelings of gratitude, at least that he decided to write about or sought to help his readers understand and properly adjust themselves to.
On the more general issue, I think that gratitude is an appropriate subject for rational study in an outstanding poem, and further that it is a profound concept that needs deeper understanding and the kind of proper emotional adjustment that a great poet can guide us to. Are there any Wintersian great poems on gratitude? Perhaps there are, and they need to be brought before us. Perhaps Winters’s stoicism hid these poems from him.
William Carlos Williams’s famous and much-discussed “Spring and All” seems close to such a poem (also appended at the end of this entry), though it more directly concerns hope, which is another theme that Winters seemed to think liable to the sentimental and is very seldom touched on in the poems of the Winters Canon or in his own poetry, except by very subtle implication. (I don’t think all that much of “Spring and All” as a work of art, nor do I get much rational understanding or emotional resonance out of it. I will come back to those two specific issues on this blog, in time, for Williams has been on my mind for a long time, since Winters discussed his work often in the early stages of his career and several of his poems made the Winters Canon.) But gratitude is a highly important theme, and there could and should be someone who has written on it with greatness, someone who can tackle it properly, if it hasn’t been done already.
Winters as a poet tended to a stoical position, sometimes to a severe stoicism, as his usual response to the joys of the world and of being alive. He was not given to feelings of thanksgiving, but of inculcating a courageous, austere, resigned resoluteness in the face of the knowledge that life and all human experience must come to an end, that all our joys and sorrows and pleasures and pursuits must end in the utter dissolution of death. You could say that he loved the world so much, that he so badly didn’t want to leave it, that he took the obdurate stance of the stoic toward all his experience, which is a position in philosophy that reaches back to the ancient Greeks. When reading his poetry, it seems to me at times that the thought of losing what he loved so much was outright horrifying. But is not gratitude also rational and acceptable as an emotional stance toward life, if it is guarded from sentimentality? I believe it can be. Comments on this are most welcome.
As I say, I find very little in Winters’s poetry that has any hint that he felt gratitude toward some one or some thing that he was alive and able to perceive the world and think about existence in general and his own existence in particular. The best hint is found in a poem that has been frequently discussed by critics who have taken an interest in Winters’s work, “Simplex Munditiis” (a phrase from Horace meaning, according to R.L. Barth, “plain in neatness”):
The goat nips yellow blossoms
shaken loose from rain -—
with neck extended
lifts a twitching flower
high into wet air. Hard
humility the lot of man
to crouch beside
this creature in the dusk
and hold the mind clear;
to turn the sod,
to face the sod beside his door,
to wound it as his own flesh.
In the spring the blossoms
drown the air with joy
the heart with sorrow.
One must think of this
in quiet. One must
bow his hand and take
with roughened hands
sweet milk at dusk,
the classic gift of earth.
This is a strong, sure, yet minor poem, published late in his time as a free verse imagist, just before he would turn, notoriously, to traditional forms and rational procedures. The poem contains the only mention I know of anything like its recognition that nature and life are gifts that have been given by some one or some thing. There are slight obscurities in the poem that weaken it, in my long-considered judgment, especially in that indeterminate word “classic”. I do not believe it is a great poem, but it is a fine one, as simple as it is. It employs Winters’s free verse technique, based on his complex theory of that once new-fangled metrical scheme, which you can read about in astonishingly great detail in Primitivism and Decadence in the first third of In Defense of Reason. (It’s suggestive to note that though this poem has received a moderate amount of attention from critics and scholars who have written on Winters, Winters himself did not include this poem in his choice of his worthiest work, the 1952 Collected Poems.)
Here’s a short and much more representative passage from another good poem “Moonrise,” which also very subtly implies, before these two stanzas, that the world is a source of joy and a gift:
So we must part
In ruin utterly --
Invades the crumbling heart.
We scarce shall weep
For what no change retrieves.
The moon and leaves
Shift here and there toward sleep.
This recognition, that life will be submerged in death, only hints at an implication that life is worth a great deal to Winters and should be so to us. Why bravely write of this “reality” as he does unless there is also something of great value in reality? Such is what we commonly get instead of gratitude from Winters’s poetry, the implication that the world is dear, but delivered subtly through seeing the sorrow in its loss.
Well, I must stop rather than close. I intended this entry to be short, but one thought has led to another and the result is getting long. There is so much more to say, so many more ideas that are occurring to me as I write, and I am grateful for the chance to say some of it.
I append the two poems discussed:
“The Most of It” - Robert Frost
He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush —- and that was all.
“Spring and All” – William Carlos Williams
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast -— a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the rood the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines -—
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches -—
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind -—
Now the grass, to-morrow
the stiff curl of wild-carrot leaf
One by one objects are defined --
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
Entrance -- Still, the profound change
has come upon them; rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
Nov 15, 2006
For readers like Tate and Winters, Crane’s suicide was the inevitable, artistically fitting conclusion to a deeply disordered life, and the chief symptom of that disorder was his homosexuality. In Tate’s major essay on Crane’s poetry, what was ostensibly literary criticism now appears as Freud-era homophobic code: Tate speaks of Crane’s “failure to impose his will upon experience,” his “locked-in sensibility [and] insulated egoism.” Winters, still more explicit, regards Crane’s sexuality as comparable to his alcoholism, a “weakness” that he “cultivated on principle.”
This last comment about Winters is accurate, but whether that Winters believed that the “chief symptom” of the disorder in Crane’s life was homosexuality, as Als implies, is questionable (I do not know about Tate, though I’d be interested to hear from my readers on what they might know about him in this matter). In the essay Als quotes from (a passage of “The Significance of the Bridge,” the last essay of In Defense of Reason), Winters does imply that homosexuality is a weakness of like kind to alcoholism. Yet in all my reading in Winters about Crane, including in his letters, I see little evidence that he considered homosexuality in itself to be sinful or evil or some sort of gross aberration. It is possible that his reference to homosexuality as a “weakness” was based on widespread assumptions about what we more recently have called the “homosexual lifestyle” -- that, to put it bluntly (for I see no other way to put it), the homosexual is commonly promiscuous.
I believe that this is most likely what Winters meant in pairing homosexuality and alcoholism in the passage. But whether this small distinction diminishes Winters’s fault or whether Crane’s homosexuality was indeed a significant element in his “dissolution,” which, Winters argues, led to his eventual suicide are matters that I will have to deliberate. Also worth pondering is whether promiscuity of any kind can or should be considered a symptom of dissolution. Addiction to alcohol is commonly considered to be psychologically and spiritually injurious, but Winters’s implied relationship between moral dissipation and Romanticism is certainly little better than tenuous. I note that Als doesn’t make a to-do about Winters’s apparent disapproval of homosexuality, assuming, it appears, that the censure of homosexuality was a matter of course in the 1920s.
On the larger question of the causes of Crane’s general dissoluteness (if his behavior can be characterized as such, which I concede is a wide-open question), it is very clear that Winters thought that Crane’s hyper-Romanticism was the final cause of his dissipation and moral difficulties, manifested in various “symptoms,” and finally bearing bad fruit in his psychic collapse. For Winters, Crane’s story became a singularly decisive test case of Romanticism, as many critics have pointed out recently. Yet is it true as well, as critics lately have been stating regularly and appears true, that mostly as a result of this one stark and massive failure of Romanticism in the life of Hart Crane, Winters damned Romanticism as a whole and extolled Reason? Perhaps putting it that strongly makes the case appear a bit overstated. Winters had many other reasons for opposing Romanticism than its outcomes in the life and death of Hart Crane -- though it is indisputable that Crane’s coming to such a bad end profoundly and decisively burdened Winters’s thinking against Romanticism. He referred to the Crane "test case" over and again, sometimes quite elliptically, in his writings.
But, accepting for the moment that Crane’s suicide can be attributed mostly to Romanticism, is Winters’s case against Romanticism on the grounds of its consequences in the life of this one man, Hart Crane, in itself reasonable? Can we rationally draw any firm, general conclusions about the value or truth of particular Romantic ideas or the general system (which is so diverse as to be almost indefinable) from the purported effects Romantic ideas had in the life of one person? Winters’s argument from Crane against Romanticism in itself constitutes a non sequitor, does it not?
Consider this: if Romanticism as a system of ideas (so wildly varied that calling it a ”system” appears to be nonsense) is damned because of its evil effects in the life of one man (laying aside for the moment the question of whether Crane's blood stains Romanticism’s hands alone), can Reason alike be damned because of its evil consequences in one instance? I ask this because another recent New Yorker book review illustrates an extreme failure of Reason. The review, by Adam Gopnik, concerns two new books about the French Revolution, one a new history specifically of the Reign of Terror and the other a new biography of Maximilian Robespierre, one of the Terror’s architects. This review is still available on line at:
To me, it appears definite, judging from the evidence of the conduct of the Terror by the determinedly reasonable Robespierre, that even Reason can at times go wickedly astray. So what keeps Reason from destruction? That’s a central question for Wintersians. It’s something I will be pondering in the weeks ahead.
Here are the conclusions Gopnik draws about the final works of Robespierre, sobering thoughts for all committed to Reason:
The bloodlust of the time [of the French Revolution] makes the attempt to trace the Terror to any single intellectual source, or peculiar circumstance -— to Enlightenment rationalism gone mad, or to the paranoia of the encircled Republicans -— feel inadequate to the Terror’s essential nature, which was that it didn’t matter what the ideology was. The argument that a taste for the ideal and the tabula rasa leads to terror, after all, would be more convincing if its opposite —- a desire for an organic, authentic, traditional society -— didn’t lead to terror, too. The Red Terror led to a White Terror; Robespierre’s head had hardly fallen before the Gilded Youth were attacking the now helpless Jacobins. It sometimes seems as if history had deliberately placed Hitler and Stalin side by side at the climax of the horror of modern history simply to demonstrate that the road to Hell is paved with any intention you like; a planned, pseudo-rationalist utopianism and an organic, racial, backward-looking Romanticism ended up with the same camps and the same carnage. The historical lesson of the first Terror is not that reason devours its own but that reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.
To sum up Yvor Winters's ideas on a complex issue very simply, Winters enjoined a balance between Reason and emotion in works of literary art and in life, with Reason standing in control of the emotions. Late in his career, especially in his final work Forms of Discovery, he even carefully laid out the good Romanticism has done for literature, particularly in giving us examples and models by which to perceive the world more clearly and fully. Yet the dangers of Reason is a matter we must ponder carefully as we study the critical ideas of Yvor Winters and his case against Romanticism.
Nov 9, 2006
Whether or not we still have a firm grasp on the meaning of the word art was a question raised recently by the sculptor David Hensel. He made a piece, called “One Day Closer to Paradise,” of a human head frozen in laughter and balancing precariously on a slate plinth. He submitted it to the Royal Academy for its 2006 exhibition, but somehow the head and the plinth were separated in transit. Nonetheless, the academy accepted his submission and displayed it. The strange thing was, though, that they thought the plinth was the work of art, not the head, which was nowhere to be seen. As he put it ruefully: "I've seen the funny side but I've also seen the philosophical side."Ain’t that just like so much modern art, poetry and novels inclusive? It doesn’t seem strange to me that the curators of the exhibit were confused, if confusion correctly describes their mental state. Rather, their decision seems almost inevitable in the modern age of haphazard art (which may be characterized as what the poet Joan Houlihan who writes for Boston Comment calls “post-avant, spat-up-by-a-spam-filter poems”). This story reflects a similar complaint that Winters made about modern poetry and fiction from time to time, even about older poetry, such as from what he thought of as the breakdown of English verse technique after, roughly, the time of Milton. He cringed over poems that were so written that the poets could put their elements in just about any order and come up with pretty much the same thing. Of course, Winters excoriated Ezra Pound repeatedly for a similar structural principle, which Winters called that of association, or, earlier in his career, qualitative progression.
One of Winters’s examples of this sort of structural failure or defect, an affair nowadays almost entirely forgotten, concerns a mix up in a famous Henry James novel, which Winters discussed in the essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature”, originally published in the Hudson Review in 1951. The problem was the transposition of two chapters of James’s The Ambassadors, which a student of Winters’s had discovered and wrote about (I heard from this fellow via email recently, by the by). Because of the “diffuseness and obscurity of the prose”, as Winters described James’s writing in that late novel, the transposition was not discovered for many years and the error repeated in a number of editions of the novel, which, so it is said, James considered his finest work. Winters concludes his consideration of the matter with an incisive summary of what the case of this unintended and long unnoticed transposition reveals: “[The] point [is] that the error should not have occurred, that, once it had occurred, it should have been not so hard to detect, and, if it was so hard to detect, that there was a flaw in the author’s method.” We could distill a rough Wintersian principle from this: if the parts of a work can be put in many different orders then something is seriously wrong.
Much of modern writing, of course, is written much like that head-on-slate sculpture was made, a jumble of impressions, which can usually be put in just about any order or configuration. Parts of modern poems and novels and short stories can almost always be left out or switched around, accidentally or not, without anyone even noticing -- which, I might add, works with Ezra Pound’s Cantos quite well. You can read Pound’s lines or groups of lines in any of dozens of orders. In general, Winters believed that the finest poetry and literature should be structurally sound, in the sense of the New Criticism (with various qualifications that apply to Winters’s criticism alone) -- that not a word could be changed, moved, or cut without some loss or damage to the work. Yet further, in Winters’s mind, the finest works of literature were those structured according to principles of Reason, or "rational progression," as we might call it, as defined and discussed throughout his critical career.
Hey, just for fun, I decided to try mixing up one of Pound’s Cantos, followed by a link to the actual Canto (I’ll admit that I changed a few punctuation marks to keep some kind of sense):
Here’s where you can read the actual Canto:
Canto XLIX: For the Seven Lakes
Behind hill the monk's bell
borne on the wind.
Sail passed here in April; may
return in October,
Sun blaze alone on the river;
Boat fades in silver; slowly.
Autumn moon; hills rise about lakes
a blurr above ripples; and through it
sharp long spikes of the cinnamon, against sunset
Evening is like a curtain of cloud.
A cold tune amid reeds,
Where wine flag catches the sunset
Sparse chimneys smoke in the cross light
Comes then snow scur on the river,
Small boat floats like a lanthorn,
And a world is covered with jade
The flowing water closets as with cold. And at San Yin
The reeds are heavy; bent;
they are a people of leisure.
JITSU GETSU K O K W A
K E I M E N R A N K E I
T A N FUKU T A N K A I
K I U M A N M A N K E I
The fourth; the dimension of stillness.
And the power over wild beasts.
Wild geese swoop to the sand-bar,
Clouds gather about the hole of the window and the
bamboos speak as if weeping.
Broad water; geese line out with the autumn
Heavy rain in the twilight, fire from frozen cloud.
Rain; empty river; a voyage,
Rooks clatter over the fishermen's lanthorns,
For the seven lakes, and by no man these verses:
Under the cabin roof was one lantern.
In seventeen hundred came Tsing to these hill lakes.
A light moves on the South sky line,
where the young boys prod stones for shrimp.
A light moves on the north sky line;
Imperial power is? and to us what is it?
State by creating riches should thereby get into debt?
Sun up; worksundown; to rest;
dig well and drink of the water.
This is infamy; this is Geryon.
This canal goes still to TenShi.
Though the old king built it for pleasure,
dig field; eat of the grain.
In a response to a previous blog entry, a fellow with the blogger handle Shawn R offered some sound insights into why narrative literature is often more readable than poetry nowadays (and throughout the last century or so):
I wonder if literature, by nature, is forced to be less obscurantist because most often it is telling a story that must be intelligible for the reader. Readers of prose are a bit hard nosed in their demand to comprehend the tale. On the other hand, it does seem to me that people in general have accepted the vision of the romantic poet who pours out his self-expression in words and allusions only the poet himself clearly understands.It is obvious that we have become gradually more accepting of obscurity in poetry to an inordinate degree. There’s an understatement for you! Actually, it has become a common expectation that the poet be obscure. This is a leading reason, I think, poetry has receded so far as an influential form of literature in our time. People just don’t have time to figure out what purpose modern poems have, and if and when they do figure one out, it seldom adds up to much beyond a vague, disordered expression of the poet’s state of mind. That’s usually how I find much contemporary poetry, too, someone who loves poetry. Many of the poets Winters considered great are certainly difficult, but for other reasons than their obscurantist, associative style.
I keep knocking Pound, but he could write some moving lines, as Winters believed as well. Here’s a selection from the Pisan Cantos that is one of the few famous passages from that woolly work and has stayed in my mind a long time:
This fragment from a generally messy Canto is a sweet, comforting sentiment, an exploration of one consolation for the “hellish” aspects of life, though it’s quite sentimental in its way, as well as a bit flabbily and loosely expressed -- and even trades, as is common with Pound, in a few unneeded obscurities and quizzical turns of phrase. It’s not even quite poetry, as I define it, but rather a lyrical, cadenced prose. But this “prosetry” sticks with me, rings true as an expression of a simple human hope. There’s not a whole lot to it, but there’s something. The Canto as a whole is a turgid, insufferably narcissistic, rambling, and aimless meditation on Pound’s ideas about his art (which the passage I have cited apparently refers to in specific), a subject I, frankly, have almost no interest in even if it might be worth the time and effort it could take to figure out what Pound is saying about it.
From Pisan Canto LXXXI
What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well
shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is
thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
Compare that snippet from Pound with Robert Bridges’s deeply moving and highly intellectual poem, “The Affliction of Richard,” which contemplates one specific kind of consolation, the solace of religious belief, which has a long, vital, and important history in Western culture. Winters drew our attention to this poem many decades ago, and the poem is part of the Winters Canon (though I judge it to be greater than even Winters allowed). Also, I should pause here to note, John Fraser chose it for his New Book of Verse:
“The Affliction of Richard”
Love not too much. But how,
When thou hast made me such,
And dost thy gifts bestow,
How can I love too much?
Though I must fear to lose,
And drown my joy in care,
With all its thorns I choose
The path of love and prayer.
Though thou, I know not why,
Didst kill my childish trust,
That breach with toil did I
Repair, because I must:
And spite of frighting schemes,
With which the fiends of Hell
Blaspheme thee in my dreams,
So far I have hoped well.
But what the heavenly key,
What marvel in me wrought
Shall quite exculpate thee,
I have no shadow of thought.
What am I that complain?
The love, from which began
My question sad and vain,
Justifies thee to man.
Bridge’s depth of insight and the power of his exploration of the theme is highly meaningful and deeply moving. This poem, to be blunt, has so much more to offer than Pound’s flabby, foggy lines. Bridge’s is a poem to ponder with all one’s faculties for a lifetime, whether one stands in belief or unbelief or doubt. Pound’s lines are a vaguely moving, quickly passing nicety.
Nov 3, 2006
By THE EDITORS Published: October 29, 2006
When N. Scott Momaday was named a Unesco artist for peace in 2004, he was praised for his dedication to “the safeguarding of indigenous cultures.” Momaday, who reviews Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder, refers to the deprivation of American Indians’ land as “the theft of the sacred.” In an e-mail message, he elaborated: “The Indian considers the land to be possessed of spirit, and his identity is bound up in it. ‘Manifest Destiny’ implies that the land can and must be appropriated for the sake of expansion, empire building, profit. It is an enterprise without spirit, and not only Indians have suffered from its unchecked pursuit.”
Momaday, who has been called “the dean of American Indian writers,” said that Indian writing “has come into the mainstream of American letters. I have stated that American literature begins, not with the Puritans in New England, but with an anonymous man or woman incising an image on a canyon wall in Utah 2,000 years ago.” He counts among his influences “the style and rhythms of American Indian oral tradition (given to me first by my father); the example of several writers I admire, among them Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Isak Dinesen and Herman Melville; and Yvor Winters” — the critic was Momaday’s dissertation adviser at Stanford — “who introduced me to several important writers I did not know, and who taught me much of what I know about traditional forms of English poetry. My mother taught me to read and write. I cannot begin to estimate the value of that influence.”
Momaday has ever been wonderfully munificent in his praise for the art and thought of Yvor Winters, which, coming from a writer of such distinction, is alone enough in my estimation to demand that Winters's ideas and work be taken more seriously in literary culture. Among Wintersians, both Momaday's poetry and his fiction are held in nearly the highest regard. I highly recommend House Made of Dawn, a superb novel, and The Way to Rainy Mountain, a lyrical prose chronicle of the Kiowa of innovative form and style yet deep, quiet power. Comparisons of Rainy Mountain with Janet Lewis Winters's The Invasion can yield many insights into the meaning of the experience of Native Americans in American history. For more on Mr. Momaday, search on his name on google. He's well worth looking into. By the way, Lewis's superb Invasion from 1932 remains in print, through Michigan State University Press, the institution where I happen to work nine months of the year. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy before it goes out of print again (I own four copies). Yes, my friends, I hope to talk a great deal about Janet Lewis as this blog trundles on.
The review is full of interesting anecdotes about superstar professors from the nearly forgotten past and fascinating ideas about the ways and means of what Clark calls academic charisma. I think the whole subject is especially pertinent to the study of the career of Yvor Winters, a professor who had something "nutty" about him, even in the eyes of those who appreciate his art and thought deeply, and who so enjoyed disputation, so suffered the flabbergasted, repulsed scorn of academia, and so gloried in his bullheaded rebelliousness. It appears fairly clear to me that much in this history of the lure of "star" professors has direct bearing on the professor, poet, and man that Yvor Winters would become. I might offer some comments on passages from this article in the near future.
Oct 31, 2006
Scott points out in his article that there has long been a desire in American literary culture to identify the one greatest novel, the single magnificent work that gathers in or sums up or rises above all other novels, that achieves a status similar to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Did this desire to isolate and coronate the “Great American Novel” play some kind of role in Winters’s thinking as he strove throughout his career to discover and champion the very best works of literature, that is, those very few works he wished to designate as “great”? That is worth pondering. I think it might have.
Here’s a long, interesting passage from the Scott article:
It is perhaps this babble and ruckus -- the polite word is diversity… the urge to isolate, in the midst of it all, a single, comprehensive masterpiece. E pluribus unum, as it were. We -- Americans, writers, American writers -- seem often to be a tribe of mavericks dreaming of consensus. Our mythical book is the one that will somehow include everything, at once reflecting and by some linguistic magic dissolving our intractable divisions and stubborn imperfections. The American literary tradition is relatively young, and it stands in perpetual doubt of its own coherence and adequacy -- even, you might say, of its own existence. Such anxiety fosters large, even utopian ambitions. A big country demands big books.
To ask for the best work of American fiction, therefore, is not simply -- or not really -- to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read. We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here [in the Times poll]. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject. They are -- the top five, in any case, in ascending order -–
American Pastoral, Philip Roth, with 7 votes
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian 8 votes and
Updike's four-in-one Rabbit Angstrom, 8 votes
Don DeLillo's Underworld, 11 votes
Toni Morrison's Beloved, 15 votes
The list of voters obviously was small (the Mid-Cult elite?), and they were all from that guild Macdonald would have called “Mid-Cult” (though some of these writers and critics surely aspire to being considered part of “High-Cult” or believe that they already are in or close to it). I think this list of “great” novels is worth thinking about for Wintersians. Not a one of those top-five novels (considering the 4 Rabbit novels as one) achieves “greatness” in my judgment, in what I understand to be Yvor Winters’s sense of the term: a work of such distinction and near artistic perfection that it can serve as a model by which to judge all other works of narrative literature. It would be interesting to hear what Wintersians think of these novels and what they would propose as their own greats in fiction from the last 25 years, if any -- or greats of all time in American literature, for that matter. Choosing the great novels, in Winters’s sense of “great”, is a worthy project for the near future, a much-needed way to build upon Yvor Winters’s critical work, now that he has been gone for so long (he died in January, 1968).
The Times’ list of recent eminent novels calls to mind Winters’s relatively unknown judgment of the greatest novelists, a subject which he had little to say about in his published criticism. Turner Cassity, poet, professor and one-time Winters student at Stanford, reported briefly on Winters’s judgment of the greats of narrative literature in his reminiscence of Winters published in the excellent 1981 Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review, edited by Donald Stanford. Cassity recalled that Winters told a student, who had asked him who he thought are the “great” novelists, that Cervantes, Melville, and Proust are the three greatest novelists. Does anything listed in the Times top-five come close to the finest work of these three?
Note, however -- in contrast to Winters’s commonly bewilderingly eccentric evaluations of individual poems and poets (which garnered him so much scorn in literary culture) -- that there is nothing the least peculiar in the choice of those three writers. They all now rank high in the Standard Canon, though Melville was not highly regarded until about 70 years after Moby Dick was published and Proust is a modern who started high and has been on the rise for the past 50 years. Cervantes’s Don Quixote recently made the very top spot, Number 1, in a list of the greatest literary works of the millennium (I can’t recall off hand where that was published or who was involved in the selection). Melville inspires practically a churning literary industry of his own in the US, though Britain and Europe are beginning to catch Melville fever, too. And Proust is generally regarded, alongside only Joyce, as the world’s greatest novelist of modern times, with dozens of books being written about his seven-part A la recherche every year.
There’s something a little disappointing in Winters’s judgment of the great novelists for me. Isn’t one of the chief joys of reading Winters the making of discoveries? Who can forget, if one is a Wintersian, those great lost works Winters guided us to, such as to that first reading of Ben Jonson’s long neglected “To Heaven”; or to Herbert’s astonishing and mostly forgotten “Church Monuments”; or to the haunting power of Stevens’s late poem “The Course of a Particular”; or the depth and brilliance of Tuckerman’s “The Cricket,” which was almost wholly lost to oblivion? All those great, truly great poems that the keepers of the Standard Canon entirely missed! That was one of the great joys of first reading Winters, those moments of discovery that came like bolts of illumination from some other realm, some higher plane that Winters alone seemed able to reach and traverse.
But there is little to be discovered in the threesome Winters chose as the greatest in narrative literature (though Winters did make a couple of stunning discoveries in prose literature, a subject which I will come back to in the near future in this blog). Winters, apparently (judging from how Cassity tells the story), was sure that there was something daring or extraordinary in his choice of these three greats, for he added to the student, according to Cassity, “And what do you think of THAT!” Well, nowadays, there is little in his judgment that is surprising at all.
As I say, the work of Winters in redefining the canon according to the principles of Reason should continue in the area of narrative literature. I would be pleased to see this blog begin that work. To what bolt-of-lightning discoveries can the Wintersians lead each other? I wait and hope.
Oct 25, 2006
[A reply to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe] has become a key document of poetic modernism. Crane admitted that he was “more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness... than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations.” What Monroe saw as nonsense Crane insisted was a higher kind of sense. He wrote, “The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority.”Do you not hear a lot of Mallarme in those words from Crane, as well as Winters’s incisive and valuable discussion of Mallarme in Primitivism and Decadence? (I should note in passing that Mallarme’s poetry has enjoyed a resurgence of interest of late as well. Search on google on Mallarme and you will find plenty of new commentary on his work. One article that was particularly insightful, from a couple years ago, was John Simon’s review in The New Criterion of a new edition of Mallarme’s poems. I think that’s still available on line.)
As a Wintersian, how might one reply to Crane? Here is how I would: A poet has the “right” to do anything he damn well pleases. A poet can write gibberish in dog doo for all poetry has to do with any concept of “rights.” A poet, too, can take as many liberties as he likes, throw away all conventions, abandon all principles; he has the “authority” to write in any way he might please. But though the poet can write as he pleases, the reader or the critic, especially the Wintersian, is not bound to approve or sanction, canonize or even publish, anything a poet writes with an intense emphasis on connotation.
As I have already written in this blog, I fail to understand what the hubbub about Hart Crane’s poetry is about. In fact, I fail to find this fascination in literary culture with loosey-goosey connotation to be mostly tiresome. Crane has a way of writing with great verve and breathless excitement and –- what shall I call it? -- mythic exuberance. But what he has to say, in my judgment, amounts to a thimble-full of understanding in a two-inch-deep puddle of emotions. For the furious emotions Crane expresses and evokes in his poetry, through his overemphasis on connotation, for me always immediately lose almost all their force when I lift my eyes from the page. The reason is that they are almost entirely unmoored to any motivating concepts, any experiences outside the fizzing of his own brain cells. He often writes like a madman, feeling emotions that are wildly out of proportion to anything that’s really going on around him -- in a way that seems similar to some forms of mentally illness. Reading Crane is much like trying to find one’s way in a forest by the intermittent light of fireworks going off in the sky above (to reuse a wonderful analogy of Dick Davis’s from a 2003 Wintersian essay in The New Criterion).
The Crane quote brought to mind Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism, a book which seems to have influenced Yvor Winters quite deeply, especially early in his career. In reading Crane’s declaration again, I thought of a small passage from the chapter “Romantic Irony” that has always stuck with me:
The romanticist is constantly yielding to the “spell” of this or the “lure” of that, of the “call” of some other thing. But when the wonder and strangeness that he is chasing are overtaken, they at once cease to be wondrous and strange, while the gleam is already dancing over some other object on the distant horizon. For nothing is in itself romantic, it is only imagining that makes it so. Romanticism is the pursuit of the element of illusion in things for its own sake; it is in short the cherishing of glamour. The word glamour introduced into literary usage from popular Scotch usage by Walter Scott itself illustrates this tendency. Traced etymologically, it turns out to be the same word as grammar. In an illiterate age, to know how to write at all; was a weird and magical accomplishment, but in an educated age, nothing is so directly unromantic, so lacking glamour, as grammar.For Crane, as for so many writers in modern times, the disciplines of Reason lost their gleam, their romantic allure.
But as always, I would be happy to hear from others on Crane’s work in light of Winters’s discussions of it.