Feb 7, 2007

Sheep and Goats

The New Criterion has announced the winner of its annual Poetry Prize. Critic and editor David Yezzi, who discusses or at least mentions Yvor Winters in his writings and whom we discussed last week on this blog, and other NC editors chose J. Allyn Rosser for the seventh annual award for her manuscript of poems that reportedly pay close attention to form. Besides Yezzi the judges were David Barber, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and Rachel Hadas. A small selection of poems by Rosser can be found at:


She’s not an outstanding poet, but certainly not worthless. She has yet to write any highly distinguished verse among those pieces I have read. Her forms are commonly loose, often almost indiscernible, though she at times employs common forms, such as the sonnet. Her writing follows the conventions of what I have begun calling “musing” -- short writings made up of 1) casual prose, 2) meandering personal reflections, loosely connected to some vague theme or symbol (that is, showing a distinct lack of concinnity), and 3) broken into lines to look like something we think poetry should look like on the page. But Rosser does elevate her language at times. Here’s a sonnet from her site:

"Lover Release Agreement"

Against his lip, whose service has been tendered
lavishly to me, I hold no lien.
Here’s his heart, which finally has blundered
from my custody. Here’s his spleen.
Hereafter let your hair and eyes and breasts
be venue for his daydreams and his nights.
Here are smart things I’ve said, and all the rest
you’ll hear about. Here are all our fights.
Now, whereas I waive rights to his kiss,
the bed you’ve shared with him has rendered null
his privilege in mine. Know that, and this:
undying love was paid to me in full.
No matter how your pleasures with him shine,
you’ll always be comparing them to mine.

This shows some facility with language and a skillfulness with the sonnet form -- and with meter, though the metrical scheme is much too loose to gather any emotional steam. The poem has occasionally strong phrasing and makes a couple of striking observations, but also willfully trades in a few weak colloquialisms. As to theme, this sonnet is little more than a cute musing, as nicely written as it is at points. I’ve read a few of Rosser’s recent poems published in the New Criterion, but they have much the same feel as the stuff you can find at the site I link to. She occasionally has something vital to say in her loose poems, but not all that often. She certainly is not a Wintersian poet in any sense, nor is her work up to the standards of the Winters Canon. It wouldn’t even make a first cut with me. It is hardly formalist in any but the loose sense employed by the champions of the so-called New Formalism.

It is said that the New Criterion publishes some of the best poetry in America these days, a lot of it supposedly adhering to poetic forms and eschewing free verse or the most abject prose musings. But the journal hasn’t yet published a poem that I judge outstanding, very good, or, need I say?, great. Among the poets they publish, only Dick Davis’s work do I find even within spitting range of greatness. Davis writes a tight, spare verse and tackles serious subjects with admirable moral insight and formal control. He’s worth paying attention to. He might even have written a few poems already that are worthy of the Winters Canon, which John Fraser judges he has (this is a topic I must save for later). Notably, Janet Lewis Winters and her friends were studying Davis’s poetry late in her long life (she died in 1999 at age 99). But that doesn’t mean that a lot of the poetry that the NC puts out isn’t worth reading. I have profited from a few of the poets the NC has published along the way, including Bill Coyle, the 2005 NC Prize winner, whose work I intend to discuss briefly in a future post.

But I now come around to my main concern in this post. This is a good time to discuss a common criticism of Winters that critics use to summarily dismiss all his critical thought. Many critics, writers, and readers believe, out of ignorance or through the simple parroting of an oft-repeated mistake, that Winters separated all poets and poems into sheep and goats. Winters is partly to blame. Though he said or implied often that there are many degrees of literary achievement, he did praise the great poems of the Winters Canon so highly that he left the unfortunate impression that he held that any poem that failed to make this Canon is not even worth reading. The resulting belief commonly appears to be that Winters believed that there are some few poems that are incredibly beautiful or powerful while everything else is garbage -- or, perhaps more aptly, that there are a few poems deserving of literary Heaven while everything else should be tossed forever into literary Hell, never to be read again. Further, many critics opine, the sheep who enter through Winters’s narrow gate are extremely few, a couple hundred or so, while the goats to be damned number in the tens of thousands. Again, to sum up this view in yet another way, ignorant critics believe that Winters thought that anything that he didn’t believe to be “great” (in his exalted sense of the word) is not worth reading at all and should be burnt. If you pursue the study of Winters in books and journals and around the web, you will frequently come across this opinion, expressed in various ways and believed to varying degrees. Winters, in fact, is commonly mentioned, as infrequently as he is mentioned at all, just to be ridiculed and dismissed for supposedly separating all poetry into sheep and goats in this way.

Because I have been looking at J. Allyn Rosser’s poems in a Wintersian light, I realized that there are probably many readers who have this ignorant opinion of Winters in the back of their minds. I decided to state my opinion here so that there will be no mistake about the matter whenever I consider contemporary poets in this blog and Winters’s system in general: the belief that Winters had a system of sheep and goats, one of absolute and inviolable salvation and damnation, is wrong. I won’t make an extended case for this opinion in this post, but I will state for the record that Winters clearly believed that hundreds if not thousands of poems outside the Winters Canon were worthwhile and in many cases vital and important. The examples could be multiplied indefinitely. John Fraser’s work in editing the Wintersian New Book of Verse (in the Table of Contents Fraser marks various overlooked recommendations from Winters with a double-cross), I believe, was to bring before us some of the lesser but still valuable poems that Winters commended.

My full discussion of the Winters Canon must wait until I have the time for a thorough treatment of the issue. For now, let me say that the Canon is not a matter of sheep and goats. The poems of the Winters Canon are the most supreme examples of poetic achievement in English literature. As such, they set the standard of excellence by which we judge all poetry and, by illustration, delineate the concepts and ideas of the whole Wintersian theory of literature. In drawing up his Canon, Winters was endeavoring to show how literature best works by giving examples of greatness that have been achieved. But as he said or implied, there are degrees of achievement.

In saying all these things I have now burdened myself with finding time to make a full case, but I want to do all I can in the meantime to counter this erroneous view of Winters’s critical theory. The parroted dismissal of him on the basis of "sheep-and-goats" thinking prevents far too many people from reading him.

No comments: