Dec 13, 2006

Aaran Haspel’s Blog: “God of the Machine”

It’s time for a short entry about coming across, some time ago, another fellow who has been writing about Winters from time to time, Aaron Haspel, in his blog entitled “God of the Machine.” I have provided a link on my front page to Haspel’s blog. Of course, it’s important to see what other people who study Winters -- somewhere Haspel calls him “his main man” -- are thinking and reading, and I think Haspel is worth your time.

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.

1 comment:

Dan Osterman said...

It just so happens that I discovered this poem in the past week and I love it - it bears so many rereadings-- and reminds me of places I've been - like the Quabbin Reservoir in central Mass. where whole towns were made to move out so Boston could have water. My walks there have been inspiring. I'm rereading Untermeyer's collection of Frost I had lyiing around! -Good blog.-Dan Osterman,,