Sep 27, 2006

An Article on "Best Poetry" books

Recently, I came across an interesting and pertinent article (copyright 2006) at concerning the evaluation of poetry. “If you Read, You’ll Judge” was written by a fellow named Joshua Weiner, whom I have never heard of. The article can be found at:

Weiner surveys some of the very recent book-length attempts to decide which are the “best” poems in the English language, books that I hope we can survey in greater detail on this blog in time. Everything he has to say has bearing on the critical ideas of Winters, especially concerning the establishment of canons and defining the “best”.

It becomes clear from reading this piece that the refining or remaking of literary canons has been much on many writers’ minds of late. This is in strong contrast to the contempt shown during Yvor Winters’s career for his focus on evaluation, on setting criteria for knowing the best poetry, and on making lists (rather strangely and often irritatingly restrictive lists in Winters’s case) of the greatest works of poetry and literature. In my casual reading, it is clear that the focus on evaluation has become intense in the past decade or so, and we’ll have much more to say about the general issue as this blog ambles on.

Weiner talks about the role of consensus in the making of canons, and consensus is certainly central to any understanding of what a canon is and how we make one. But to direct our minds toward new or forgotten ways of writing and reading, at times we must purposefully reject or break an established consensus. This work was clearly one of Winters’s chief objectives in his career. He believed that the Romantic consensus prevailing in his time was ruining more and more poetry as long as the consensus held its unquestioned sway. And it is also plain to me that throughout his career Winters believed that because of his courageous, stubborn, and tireless work the consensus would eventually be overturned and discarded, in part in response to his efforts, and that his conception of literature would be vindicated and would prevail.

His final expression of this view is found in what to me is a sad passage in the “Conclusion” of Forms of Discovery in 1967, a passage which I wrote about briefly in my own Year with Yvor Winters ( It is sad because there is no sign 40 years later that Winters’s critical ideas and their outcomes and consequences are any closer to breaking the old consensus or inaugurating a new one than they were when he wrote Forms. His theory has, despite the continuing presence of a few Wintersians in the world of academia and letters, fallen even further into obscurity, as I discuss in a number of entries in the Year with Winters.

I still wonder whether Winters truly could have been foolish enough to believe that his ideas would some day (he mentioned in about 500 years) find general acceptance in literary culture. And I still wonder, too, what this says about him in general as a thinker. Does this grandiose delusion, if it can be characterized with this loaded phrase, reflect in some way on all his critical thought and practice?

Following upon Weiner’s mentioning of the issue, we must soon turn to the debate, initiated in Poetry, about Garrison Keillor’s book Good Poems at some time in this blog. Look forward to that.

Sep 18, 2006

John Fraser’s “New Book of Verse”

For the launch of this first blog on the poetry and criticism of Yvor Winters, I believe that the first and most important matter for us to start with is John Fraser’s recent release on line of his New Book of Verse.

Fraser is a critic and writer who reviewed and highly praised Winters’s late critical work in the Southern Review back in the 60s and 70s, at the invitation of the late Donald Stanford, the erudite critic, editor, and professor who worked at Louisiana State University for much of his career. Stanford was a student of Winters in his graduate seminar at Stanford back in the 40s (if I recall correctly) and advanced Winters ideas in vital ways in his criticism and his fine editorial leadership at the Southern Review in the 60s and 70s.

I have long hoped that students of Winters (in the metaphorical sense of “student”) would begin the work of evaluating, revising, and expanding the “Winters Canon”, if any such actions are needed (a matter that could also be discussed). For the chief endeavor of Winters’s critical career was to discover and champion those works of literature, mostly in English poetry, that deserve to be called the greatest works of literary art, that should serve as models for poets and writers to follow, and that set the exalted standard by which we must judge all works of literature. An evaluation of Winters’s success in this important and valuable enterprise has long been needed. It has long been certain as well, in my judgment, that we need to begin looking at new or old work that might deserve to stand among the greats, if Winters has, in general, laid them out correctly.

Though I am given no credit in the book, I believe I did have a small hand in Fraser’s having put with his anthology on line at last, since I told Fraser via email, at the time I first put my Yvor Winters web site on line, that I wanted to see what I continue, somewhat stubbornly, to call the “Winters Canon” advanced, revised, and expanded, if needed. (In the Winters Canon, as explained on my Winters web site, are those works of poetry that Winters judged, with his customarily and justifiably severe restrictiveness, to be great, as most fully explicated in his last book Forms of Discovery and the companion poetry anthology Quest for Reality.

Quickly, I learned, Fraser didn’t enjoy talking with me by email all that much, for other reasons, but he followed up on my idea and came out with his New Book of Verse, which can be found at:

I urge everyone interested in Winters and the Wintersians who have followed him to start reading Fraser’s book so that we can begin discussing in this blog how much Fraser has gotten right with his new book. There is much to discuss. Overall, for example, there is the question of what Fraser has achieved. I remain unsure of what exactly Fraser meant to accomplish with this book, despite his directly asking and trying to answer that very question in his Introduction: “What were we up to in [making this anthology]? I can’t speak for Don [Stanford], since we didn’t talk theory at all, but I know what I myself was doing.” I intend to look closely at the issue of what this anthology means to Fraser and what it should mean to us all.

Hence, over the next few months, I plan on circling back again and again to the New Book of Verse to try to understand what Fraser and Stanford have done through it and what we can take from it. Whatever will be said along the way, I can say in advance that I consider John Fraser’s fine New Book of Verse to be one of the most important developments in the study of Winters and all of literature in two decades. The anthology is a wholly admirable undertaking, highly deserving of careful study and deep respect, regardless of one’s opinion of any of the particulars in the final result (which I hope we will discuss at length in this blog).

Thank you, John Fraser, for pressing on with this project. By the way, Fraser’s Introduction gives much more detail on the book’s genesis, though, as I say, I here claim a small part in bringing it to fruition these many years after Stanford and Fraser first had the idea and started work on it.

Sep 14, 2006

A Beginning

The time has come to try to create some conversation among those interested in the poetry and criticism of Yvor Winters. I have long been contemplating a blog on the art and thought of Winters to discuss ideas and report on writings that could bear on his work. My chief objective is to increase awareness of Winters's art and criticism, but also to see how his thought can be developed and extended to other areas of inquiry.