Oct 4, 2006

Fraser’s New Book of Verse and “Personal Selections”

I’ve been studying John Fraser’s New Book of Verse closely for the past few weeks (and, to repeat, will be commenting upon it from time to time in the months to come). Lately, I’ve been looking at one remark that I find to be contrary to my understanding of Yvor Winters’s purposes in publishing Quest for Reality, the anthology of the greatest poems in English that Ken Fields finished off in 1968. In this post, I’m going to focus on one sentence from Fraser’s lengthy introduction to his new online anthology and compare its ideas to Winters’s. Fraser writes:

…no single term (remarkable, interesting, great, distinguished, perfect, important, excellent, estimable, best) could in fact have covered the highly personal result [in which poems were selected for Winters’s anthology] or been helped by the addition of the qualifying phrase “some of the.”

Now, Fraser, often in this long introduction, I’ve noticed, is very careful not to say exactly what he means. He uses vague and roundabout phrasing that partially masks his meaning, and this quotation is another case of his odd and sometimes annoying circumlocutions. The first part of this sentence appears to mean that no generic term of high or highest praise can apply to the selection of poems Winters made for Quest (not even the rather tepid adjective “interesting” can be applied to them, in Fraser’s view, it appears). If that is what Fraser means, I wholly disagree. I believe it is quite clear, agree or disagree with the picks, that Winters selected most of the poems of Quest because he considered them “great” -- in his sense of the term, a sense that he hoped literary culture would adopt as its norm. (Exactly what the term “great” meant to Winters and whether any of us can or should agree to his definition, as well as whether we should agree to his judgments on which poems best match his definition, are matters we can discuss at length in this blog. I cover such issues in several entries of my book A Year with Yvor Winters http://www.msu.edu/user/kilpela/ywywint.htm).

In other earlier essays, Winters wrote something to the effect that many of very greatest poems that were to be chosen for Quest are “nearly perfect” or “as perfect as can be imagined.” A small percentage of the poems (10-15% perhaps) found their way into the anthology because Wnters considered them, though not great, supremely excellent and deserving of much more attention from poets and critics for one reason or another. This means to me that Fraser’s suggested terms of praise, “estimable,” “excellent,” and “important,” could all be applied to these very good poems that are slightly less than “great.”

To consider other possible meanings Fraser might have had for the first part of the quoted comment, we might think that the comment applies to himself, and if it does, then Fraser is welcome to his opinion that none of these words of praise can be applied to the poems of Quest. I disagree with his judgment, but if this is his opinion, I’m glad to know it. Another option is that we might construe that first clause to be speaking of us -- all readers, writers, and critics, as a consensus. But if this is what Fraser means, I must state my disagreement that such a consensus exists and that I belong to it. For I side with Winters against this implied consensus, if such Fraser intended to imply, that the poems of Quest cannot be called “great” or “estimable,” etc.

The second part of this sentence states that the result of Winters’s selection of the great poems is “highly personal.” Once again, I am not sure exactly what Fraser is driving at here, but if he means that Winters believed that the poems he had chosen were just his personal all-time favorites, I must wholly and strenuously disagree. Winters clearly believed that he objectively chose these poems as the greatest, as thoroughly as any critic can be objective. They were
certainly NOT in his view a mere personal selection of "best-loved" poems. He believed that the poems he judged as great and chose for Quest are great for all people at all times, not just for Yvor Winters at one period of his life (again, regardless of whether we agree or not). The idea that Winters made a “highly personal” selection for Quest is clearly antithetical to just about everything he taught and wrote about evaluating poetry. The anthology is far more than a personal choice of favorites. Winters believed, however hopelessly, that the future of literature and culture depended on critics and poets seeing how great these works are.

Finally, to consider other possibilities, Fraser’s second comment about the selection being highly personal” might refer only to Fraser’s own opinion of the picks for Quest, in which case Fraser means that the selection appears to himself as “highly personal.” Again, if this is so, he can believe as thinks best. But I don’t share this view and will remonstrate against it. Or Fraser might have meant that we as a consensus of readers and writers should now regard Winters’s selections as highly personal. I do not agree. They should NOT be so regarded. Winters demonstrated to my satisfaction that his selection of great poems was as objective as possible -- and the selection is compelling. Moreover, I agree on the choices, almost across the board.

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