Feb 21, 2007

Love and the Winterses

An interesting article was posted on poets.org for Valentine’s Day about modern poets who have fallen in love. The article is entitled “All My Poems Are Love Poems: When Two Poets Fall In Love,” by Craig Morgan Teicher. The article offers profiles of the relationships of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall (one-time student of Yvor Winters), and interviews with C. D. Wright and Forrest Gander and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop (I know the work of none of the last four). The article can be found at:


The article brought to mind one of the more obscure poet-poet relationships of the last century, that of Janet Lewis Winters and her hubby Yvor Winters, which I have had occasion to mention on this blog a couple times. Rather little has been written about them as a couple, except in the 1994 book Erotic Reckonings: Mastery and Apprenticeship in the Work of Poets and Lovers by Thomas Simmons. Two of the essays in this book cover the effects of the Winterses’ relationship on their writing (mostly the effect of Winters on Lewis's). Though I haven’t yet studied the book closely, it explores the problem of tradition and authority in the lives and work of three pairs of 20th-century American poets: Ezra Pound and H.D., Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke, and the Winterses. Simmons draws heavily on psychoanalytic theory, including the feminist variety. He argues that the mentor-apprentice relationship is inescapably erotic. He finds in Yvor Winters’s poetry a depth of eroticism that has seldom been noticed or discussed by other critics. I remain skeptical of Simmons’s psychological interpretations, but find him knowledgeable and suggestive. As to specifics, Simmons’s argument appears to be that Pound’s and Winters’s relationships manifest profound conflicts between allegiance to a tradition of knowledge and allegiance to their “apprentices,” who in Winters’s case was his wife of several decades.

As in Pound’s relationship to H.D., Simmons thinks that Winters tended to overmaster Lewis, to bind her, as (in Simmons’s judgment) in a form of domination, to a body of knowledge. Simmons reads a great deal into Lewis’s not having written poetry between the early 1940s and the early 1970s. He takes this fact as convincing evidence of Winters’s domination of her on behalf of his zeal for tradition. The relationship of Louise Bogan (several of whose poems are in the Winters Canon) and Roethke (a correspondent with both Mr. and Mrs. Winters) contrasts to the Winterses’ relationship. In Simmons’s view, Bogan and Roethke were wary of the value of a tradition of knowledge. Bogan played for Roethke a role of sustained reciprocity rather than of domination.

I’m not sold on Simmon’s interpretation yet, but I want to give it deeper study. I find very little emphasis on mentor dominance in other discussions of the Winterses’ life together. For example, dominance plays no role in Brigitte Carnochan’s overview of their writing lives in the 1984 book that accompanied an exhibition of some of the Winterses’ papers, entitled The Strength of Art. Nonetheless, there are various small but clear indications of Winters’s influence on his wife, but many fewer of her influence on him. In many ways, it appears that his work fostered the classical development of her style and shaped her choice of subject matters and her treatment of them. And all to the good: she has written several of the greatest poems in the language, and the prose style of her fiction, as I mentioned in a previous post, is masterly (pun noticed, but not intended). Mrs. Lewis’s career is a matter I will come back to from time to time on this blog. First up, shortly, must be her fine poem “For the Father of Sandro Gulotta,” which I have wanted to discuss since our recent discussions of atheism and Christian belief in the life and work of Yvor Winters.

Only a little bit more about the relationship of the Winterses can be learned in the few studies of Winters that have been published, such as Dick Davis’s very fine study of Winters, Wisdom and Wilderness. Or you can glean a few tidbits of information about their married life from the various reminiscences of Winters, such as Thom Gunn’s “On a Drying Hill” or Donald Hall’s piece in his book of such poet reminiscences Their Ancient Glittering Eyes. Also, you can investigate the Winters-Lewis marriage through The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, which was recently published by Swallow under the editorship of R.L. Barth. Finally, there is the book I mentioned, The Strength of Art, which will be hard to find, I believe. The Winterses’ marriage has yet to receive a sustained treatment. Perhaps it never shall, for they burned their letters to each other, according to Brigitte Carnochan.

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