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.


Shawn R said...

Perhaps Winters was less delusional and more merely optimistic about the truth finally winning out. In other words, perhaps he was less enamored with the prospect of his views becoming current someday just because they were his, but because he thought his views were right and that, eventually, people would wake up.

Ben Kilpela said...

Thanks, shawn r, for the optimistic take on Winters's predictions about the future of his theories. I certainly hope that people will some day wake up, but I still cannot even imagine it happening. I have believed for some years, despite my almost complete agreement with Winters on most critical matters, that he was deluded about this, that some day literary culture will vindicate and accept his ideas, in general, and that some day as well the culture will recognize the poems he believed to be the greatest as the greatest. But I will keep thinking about whether it was "foolish" in some sense for him to have made such predictions (he did so several times in his career, vaguely in most cases, and once explicitly, in the conclusion to Forms of Discovery).