Feb 2, 2007

The Wall Street Journal Reviews a New Biography of E.A. Robinson

The January 27-28 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal offered a short review by David Yezzi concerning a new biography of the neglected American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. The review is entitled “Modern, not Modernist.” Four of Robinson’s finest poems stand in the Yvor Winters Canon of the greatest poems in English. Yezzi is an editor and critic who has shown some notable appreciation for Yvor Winters’s poetry and critical theories. He wrote one of only two pieces on Winters’s work for a general magazine in the past decade, the 1996 New Criterion piece entitled “The Seriousness of Yvor Winters” (I plan to discuss that Yezzi piece in detail on this blog, for though published long ago it remains important and pertinent to all I am striving to accomplish here). Biographer Scott Donaldson, who is also known as a literary critic, wrote the new Robinson biography, which Yezzi praises as “sterling.” The review article is available online only to WSJ subscribers, but I read it in the paper. It’s worth chasing down, short though it is.

Yezzi summarizes his view of Robinson after a crisp survey of his troubled life:

Robinson’s stock has fallen sharply since then [meaning 1935, the year of Robinson’s death, after a career that earned him three Pulitzer Prizes]. This may have to do with his particular brand of modernity: He was modern without being modernist, radical without being technically experimental. T.S. Eliot declared him “negligible.” As Mr. Donaldson explains, Robinson’s traditional prosody quickly began to look old-fashioned; he quipped that free verse came “armed with the devil’s instructions to abolish civilization.” But in his tumultuous portraits of ordinary people, Robinson swept away the cobwebs of the Victorian-era “genteel tradition.” His red-blooded character sketches -— such as “The Clerks,” “Minever Cheevy” and “Ruben Bright” -— make Eliot’s portrait of J. Alfred Prufrock (indelible as it is) seem a bit effete.
Yezzi is a good writer, and as usual he turns a few eloquent phrases in this paragraph, an apt and accurate summary judgment. Yezzi goes on to mention Yvor Winters in his next paragraph, one of only perhaps a handful of references to Winters in a national publication of general readership in the past decade. Even if we didn’t know what he says about Winters, you’ve got to admire Yezzi for mentioning a critic hardly known at all nowadays in literary culture. The reference concerns Winters’s judgment of the poem “Richard Corey,” Robinson’s snappy, jingly character sketch that springs on us its famous surprise ending, that the wealthy Mr. Corey committed suicide with a gun. Yezzi implies that Winters didn’t quite appreciate the poem as much as he should have, but I would quibble with that opinion. I think Winters is right about this poem, that it isn’t all that good. Further, I would say that by discussing this poem in this context, which gives the vague impression that it is one of Robinson’s best, Yezzi distracts readers from Robinson’s truly great work and makes it seem as though Robinson’s flaws and defects are acceptable, perhaps even preferable. He even implies, inadvertently no doubt, that Winters couldn’t read poetry very well. (I am cautious about speculating on psychology, but I would venture a guess that Yezzi is both trying to encourage people to read Winters and protect himself from being labeled a Wintersian – a word almost connoting in literary culture what “Nazi” connotes in political discussion -- which could wreck his career as a popular reviewer. I can’t blame him for seeking protection from that fate.) But neither implication is correct, in my judgment. But I must save a discussion of the famous poem about Rich Richard the Suicide for another post, if my readers show interest. (The poem was made famous mostly, I should pause to note, by Paul Simon’s rewrite of the poem as a song for the hit Simon and Garfunkel L.P. Sounds of Silence.)

But perhaps I am too hard on Yezzi. He does go on to discuss one of Robinson’s poems that Winters chose for his Canon:

Mr. Donaldson does well by Robinson’s “Luke Havergal,” a haunting poem that the poet Allen Tate called “one of the great lyrics of modern times.” The poem’s spectral speaker, Mr. Donaldson argues, comes “out of the grave” to encourage Havergal to join his departed lover in death:

The leaves will whisper there for her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as you fall;
But go, and if you listen she will call.

Robinson consistently worked to understand human motivations in matters both mundane and extreme.
It was Robinson’s intelligent, diligent work to understand human experience by rational means that drew the attention and admiration of Yvor Winters. Winters wrote his only book-long study of a single poet on Robinson, published in 1946 by New Directions. That book is not much read or studied any longer, that I can tell (not that it ever was). I refer to it much less frequently myself than Winters’s many other essays. But I do quote from the book a dozen times or so in my Year with Yvor Winters, to which a link can be found on the front page of this blog. Yezzi also briefly discusses the poem “Eros Turannos,” another great that is part of the Winters Canon and which has received some extensive and noteworthy study in modern criticism. In particular, I think of John Crowe Ransom’s methodical, insightful examination of the poem is one his collections of critical essays (I can’t remember which offhand). It is beneficial to compare Ransom to Winters on this poem. Maybe we can study that matter at some point on this blog.

Yezzi winds up his review with a salutary encouragement to start reading Robinson more:

Through the compression of his lyrics, Robinson achieves a novelistic density, cramming entire life stories and an impressive range of human feeling into a tight space. As one contemporary critic put it, he is modern poetry’s “biographer of souls.”
I suppose that’s one reason to get back to Robinson. But it’s far from the only or the best reason. But I must such a discussion for later, too. This post has wandered too far afield, and I have other ground I wish to cover. Before giving leave, I want to give you Yvor Winters’s choices as great among Robinson’s poems and John Fraser’s more recent choices for the Wintersian New Book of Verse -- and then briefly compare the two lists. First Winters:

Eros Turannos (“She fears him, and will always ask”)
Veteran Sirens (“The ghost of Ninon would be sorry now”)
Luke Havergal (“Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal”)
The Wandering Jew (“I saw by looking in his eyes”) - DROPPED BY FRASER

Now John Fraser’s choices:

Eros Turannos
Veteran Sirens
Luke Havergal
Hillcrest (“No sound of any storm that shakes”) ADDED TO WINTERS
Mr. Flood’s Party (“Old Eben Flood, climbing...”) ADDED TO WINTERS
Rembrandt to Rembrandt (“And there you are again”) ADDED TO WINTERS

You see by my notes that Fraser drops “The Wandering Jew,” a poem Winters highly praised, mentioned frequently in his essays for illustration, and discussed quite extensively in itself. Fraser has made a mistake here. I agree with Winters that “The Wandering Jew” is great, perhaps Robinson’s single greatest poem. Yezzi mentions that he thinks that “Eros Turannos” is his best, but makes no case, since he’s writing only a short review of a biography. Like Yezzi, I must save the case for “The Wandering Jew” for another occasion, but I recommend its careful and thorough study.

Fraser adds “Hillcrest,” a poem that the late Donald Stanford, one-time Winters student and superb critic and editor, considered one of Robinson’s finest, but which Winters judged to be slightly marred. I would agree with Stanford and Fraser here, and say that this poem is one of the greats. My case also must wait for later.

Finally, Fraser adds “Mr. Flood’s Party” and “Rembrandt to Rembrandt.” The first choice appears to have been influenced by Stanford, who praised the poem very highly in his seminal, great, and unjustly neglected book of criticism Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry. I am still weighing that judgment. (I must get to Stanford’s work on this blog, for he deserves our close scrutiny as, perhaps, the leading Wintersian since Winters’s death in 1968. But I must resist the urge to plunge into his criticism in this post, which has already roamed far and wide.) I must note that “Mr. Flood’s Party” is the 66th best English language poem of all time as decided by The Top 500 Poems, that anthology that came out about a decade ago using one simple, suggestive criteria: the frequency with which anthologies have reprinted poems. Fraser’s second choice, “Rembrandt,” which on his web site Fraser marks as a Winters recommendation, is one among several Winters advocated among Robinson’s medium-length poems. I see no reason why Fraser chooses this one over the others Winters deeply admired. Indeed, Winters opined that “The Three Taverns” was the best among these poems that he considered very good but not quite great. Winters chose none of Robinson’s medium-length poems for the Winters Canon. I tend to think that a couple of these medium-length poems are great, but I haven’t made up my mind which. “The Three Taverns,” which concerns Saint Paul’s entry into Rome, appears to be the best and the most deserving of the Winters Canon. All these poems are available on several web sites.

I must pause again to note that The Top 500 Poems also chose “Luke Havergal,” “Eros Turannos,” “Miniver Cheevey,” and “Richard Corey” as great poems, using its remarkable and illuminating criteria. “Richard Corey,” in fact, was ranked as the 148th greatest poem on its list -- quite high, I think, much too high. I plan to discuss The Top 500 Poems some day on this blog, for it has a great deal of relevance to the study of Winters.

But oh, there is so much more that could be said and debated concerning just these two short lists of E.A. Robinson’s best poetry and Yezzi’s scattered comments in one little review. To sum up, I am more likely to agree with Fraser on “Rembrandt” but vigorously disagree on his exclusion of “The Wandering Jew” and a couple other medium-length poems Winters recommended.

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