Nov 22, 2006

Gratitude in the Winters Canon

In looking through the poems Yvor Winters judged to be the greatest (as collected in Quest for Reality [see]), I see that there are very few poems that have any concern with the concept or feeling of gratitude, which American minds turn to at this time of year -- and one that I feel can be important to human spiritual soundness and strength. In the Wintersian great poems, there is some cursory exploration and expressions of joy, a few explorations of love too (though they occur mostly by implication), but very little that we could construe as a quest for the reality or meaning of thanksgiving.

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

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