Feb 13, 2007

A Poet Blogger on Yvor Winters, Part I

A poet named Reginald Shepherd has recently posted a brief, readable, and informed overview of Yvor Winters on his blog. It offers three of Winters’s free verse poems, two of them, the first and the third as they appear in the post, among the most often anthologized and discussed poems Winters wrote. The post can be found at:


Shepherd makes no comment that indicates the occasion for this piece. Not does he leave any indication of what he was trying to achieve at this time with a brief, general overview of Winters, since nothing in the cultural news appears to have prompted him to write. Also, I don’t get any impression from perusing his blog that Shepherd is a Wintersian of any sort. After reading a number of his posts, I have yet to see anything in Shepherd’s blog that he is the least drawn to any major critical idea Winters had. Nor have I seen any evidence of Winters’s influence in his writing. Nor, finally, does he hint that he has been influenced by Winters in any way. But I don’t know Shepherd well yet. I will be reading him, though he seems solely interested in Winters’s early free verse poetry, written in the 1920s, the weakest work Winters did. But Shepherd is a prolific blogger and has already moved on to several other long posts on poetry, unrelated to Winters. It appears that he just wanted to urge people to read Winters, especially his free verse poetry, but to watch out and not get hooked by or bother too much with his criticism.

I have no desire to criticize Shepherd’s post. He’s welcome to his views. But I will use it as a springboard for my own reflections on Winters. I will quote at random a number of Shepherd’s comments and reflect on them.

1. “While it would be impossible to agree with most of Winters’s literary judgments (although he esteemed Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens and thought well of William Carlos Williams, he placed Robert Bridges above T.S. Eliot, and T. Sturge Moore above W.B Yeats, and considered Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman to be two of the three greatest poets of the nineteenth century, along with Dickinson), it is also impossible not to admire the clarity, rigor, and consistency of his arguments...”

COMMENT: I assume that Shepherd means 1) that he himself couldn’t possibly agree, or that 2) the literary circle he holds himself to be part of couldn’t possibly agree, or that 3) all literary culture, however defined, couldn’t possibly agree -- or all three. I would not question what he says about himself and his literary circle, of course, but he is almost certainly right about all literary culture: it is so unlikely that American literary culture will EVER agree with Winters on his evaluations that we could say that agreement is in effect impossible. Nonetheless it is possible for another person and other literary circles to agree with Winters on these evaluations, even that Jones Very is one of the greats of English literature. So let me simply state for the record that I do agree on a great majority of the basic judgments Winters makes, including those few mentioned in Shepherd’s comment, and that there are a number of other Wintersian poets and critics who agree as well -- however circumspect they are about admitting it, a matter I will come to in a moment.

I won’t make a case for the reasonableness of my general agreement here, but I think it’s at least important to state that there are some who agree with Winters (on most literary matters). For most of us who agree with him, Winters has, using a phrase Pascale Casanova used in her fascinating book on canon-making and the marketing of literature, The World Republic of Letters, the “power of consecration.” We’re a very small group, no doubt. But it is THE group most worth following in my opinion. Sometimes praise for Winters among those who admire his work can be shockingly high, such as from the very fine formalist poet David Middleton at the opening of a review of a book about Winters in a 1983 issue of the Southern Review:

Yvor Winters is a modern master of the short poem and a major literary critic. Since few professors will defend these propositions, poets themselves, recognizing the seminal mind of the poet-critic, are placing him among his peers: Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold.
To be placed with those three is high praise indeed -- ludicrously high to those who find Winters wrong in just about everything judgment he made.

Yet I also must admit that stating agreement with Winters on his evaluations seems to be a severe problem for many Wintersians. Siding with Winters, at least roughly, on who and what is the best is even something for which Wintersians have occasionally carped at me. I have always found this odd, this extreme diffidence about granting Winters the soundness of his assessments of individual poems and poets. Those who still follow Winters, to one degree or another, nearly 30 years after his death seem almost afraid to follow him, even provisionally or generally, on the central tenet of his critical theory (his concept of evaluation) and the results of the application of that concept (the Winters Canon as delineated in the anthology Quest for Reality).

Concerning Sturge Moore and Yeats, I recommend that you consult the 1983 volume (Vol. 19) of the Southern Review, co-edited for almost two decades by Wintersian Donald Stanford. In issue 1 there is a fine essay and a review on Sturge Moore, and in issue 3 there is a superb essay by Richard Hoffpauir on Yeats compared to Hardy, to Hardy’s great advantage (this essay was reprinted in Hoffauir’s fine study of 20th century British poetry The Art of Restraint). These various writings will give you an overview of why Wintersians generally find Yeats deficient while we consider a few of Sturge Moore’s poems to have been great. Yet Yeats is a complex subject. Many poets and critics who have mild connections to or interests in Winters strongly support Yeats, including U.S. Poet Laureate and one-time Winters student Donald Hall, who in a memoir of his studies with Winters wrote that he never let Winters drive his admiration for Yeats out of him.

Finally, concerning Eliot, as well as Ezra Pound, consult Donald Stanford’s masterly Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry for a brilliant and instructive Wintersian consideration of their many weaknesses.

2. “One also must admire the seriousness with which he took literature and its role in the world, and the high standards he set for literature, idiosyncratic as his application of those standards was. For him, literature was no mere pastime or entertainment.”

COMMENT: I’m not knocking Shepherd at all, but this is a typical take on Winters among those mildly interested in him but not sold on any of his ideas or fearful of being sucked too far into his way of thinking. Such comments often read as rather backhanded compliments: “I can’t agree with this nut about anything, but, boy, he sure gets worked up about poetry.” People have been often impressed by how seriously Winters regards poetry and the study of literature. But in my opinion this ain’t no big deal. His seriousness is hardly distinctive. For every major poet, writer, and critic takes literature very seriously. All the New Critics whom with Winters debated certainly did. So did most of the most influential critics of history, those discussed in Wimsatt’s and Brooks’s Literary Criticism: A Short History. For example, consider P.B. Shelley: every moderately well-read reader knows of Shelley’s claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world (whatever that puzzlingly grandiose epithet might mean exactly).

But Shelley is hardly the only writer to make extravagant claims for literature, just as that lover of art John Ruskin made extravagant claims for the importance of painting. Fact is, I have yet to run across a major critic or poet or writer who doesn’t or didn’t take literature very seriously. Literature was far above entertainment or a pastime, surely, for Blackmur, Burke, Frye, Eliot, Pound, Wimsatt, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Tate, and on and on and on. Thus, Winters wasn’t much different from thousands of novelists, poets, and critics who devote themselves with great passion to literature, as though it’s a direly momentous matter to attend to. Yet I will say that Winters’s very fine prose does have a solemn, grave formality that certainly sobers one up. (Though historian David Levin said he could take and deliver a joke at times, a character trait that’s rather important to Americans for whatever reason.)

3. “I have no doubt that my work would fail to satisfy his strict strictures, but I have learned a great deal from Winters about the importance of clear thought in my own writing and in reading others’ work, and in speaking and writing about poetry.”

COMMENT: This is another common take on Winters’s work from those who are interested in him but cautious. People often are impressed that he was so thorough and logical in laying out his critical theory and applying it, but they don’t want to adopt the theory that resulted from the thought or sanction the results that derive from the theory. I see no reason why Shepherd should care whether his poetry might have passed muster with Yvor Winters.

On another matter, as to whether I need worry whether I or any one satisfies his strictures, believe it or not, I’m very little concerned with that. I am much more concerned to see those strictures refined and re-evaluated and reapplied these long years after Winters’s death from cancer in 1968. Personally speaking, I have little doubt that Winters would condemn much of my own work, perhaps even my understanding of his theory. But his theory is not his now. With the advice, counsel, and help of as many others as care, I am seeking to study, refine, and improve his ideas and judgments. I or we might come up with something yet stronger as theory than Winters conceived, perhaps not. I think it's work worth pursuing -- though perhaps it’s obvious that I think that. For I believe that Winters was mostly right, or on the right track. But there are areas he didn’t cover or cover adequately, especially areas that critics have concentrated on in the decades since he died. And there are areas in which I think he was wrong to one degree or another and other areas in which others who follow him closely think he was wrong. There were judgments he made that were mistaken or off-kilter and need to be corrected. Yet so much of what he did was so good and right that we must work toward improving on what he did, though in the end he might not approve of what I or anyone else or we all together do in revising or improving his theories.

Well, there’s enough to ponder for one post. I will use a few more random quotations from Shepherd’s post to write my own reflections on Winters in my next post -- unless some pressing topic or news distracts me from that plan in the days ahead.

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