Mar 29, 2007

Discussion of Thomas Hardy Continues, This Time at Length

A variety of essays and articles have been appearing on Thomas Hardy on the occasion of the publication of, now, two new biographies of the great poet and novelist, ten of whose poems Yvor Winters chose for the special Winters Canon of the greatest poems in English. I have already discussed two of these articles in recent posts, so I have been reluctant to post about any more of these recent reviews and essays on Hardy. But an essay in the New York Review of Books and a review in the New York Times Book Review are other matters.

The NYT Book Review piece is entitled “Wessex Man” By Brenda Wineapple. This concerns the second new Hardy biography to come out recently, Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life by Ralph Pite. Wineapple characterizes the Pite bio as almost wholly a study of repressed sexuality. The short review was published March 18, 2007, and can be found at:

Earlier, the March 1, 2007, edition of the NYRB offered a long essay on Hardy “Return of the Master” by Tim Parks, which concerns that other new biography, Thomas Hardy, by Claire Tomalin. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy,” wrote a reviewer of the Victorian writer's novel Jude the Obscure (1895), “that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?” The reviewer was referring to the long and painful series of misfortunes that befall Jude, culminating in the moment when his eldest child is found to have hanged his younger brother and sister and himself. So harrowing is the scene that the reviewer's cry for some explanation is understandable. But in her new biography of Hardy, Claire Tomalin declines to offer one. “Neither Hardy nor anyone else,” she tells us, “has explained where his black view of life came from.” Most of his time, after all, was spent working at his desk.
Nice opening, eh? As you see as well, the issue raised therein is sharply pertinent to my discussions of Hardy’s alleged pessimism and atheism in a couple of recent posts. More than that, however, Hardy’s blackness raises a puzzling issue. I have discovered in my years of observing and reading that the comforts of atheism -- as well as the correlated beliefs that evil shows that god does not exist and that death is the utter end of individual human existence, the complete obliteration of the self -- often appeal most to those who have suffered least. Not without fail, of course, but most often. With frequency in the West, it is often among those living at very highest standards, in great relative prosperity and with steady, long, and well-remunerated leisure to pursue the study of abstruse metaphysical questions, that hostility toward belief because of the problem of evil, implacable atheism, and a callous, insolent, Spartan metaphysical materialism have flourished -- in lives lived in places where there always is plenty to eat, where stand convivially comfy homes in winter and lusciously cool homes in summer, where there are often two large, polished cars in large garages, plenty of nights at superb restaurants, and plenty of fine wine too, and from where people can travel, often on institutional budgets, as often as they have a hankering to take in some new sight.

This circumstance has often seemed strange to me, for does it not seem more likely that those who have very little, who seldom find enough food for themselves or their children, who cannot get variety in the diet, who live in near shacks without enough heat -- or air-conditioning at all -- who cannot afford to travel outside the narrow regions where they live and must walk wherever they must go; would it not be these people, faced as they are so much often than the prosperous with the specters of suffering and disease and loss and fear, would it not be these people who shake their fists at god, reject him, declare that he doesn’t exist because of the presence of evil, and cultivate despair with gusto, boil themselves in the acrimony and bracing cynicism that find atheism congenial? Among the least of us, the most ill-treated among us, among people who have truly suffered want and pain, among people who have lived through the problem of evil, among these we find robust religious belief, among these we find the hope of religious consolations, among these we find metaphysical ideas that offer more than the degradations of simple personal annihilation following hard upon real sufferings in life.

From the little I know of Thomas Hardy, he did not suffer a day in his life. He did have a modest upbringing, but did not suffer want. His mother, Jemima, is described by Claire Tomalin in her new biography as having been “powerful, rather than tender.” According to Tomalin, she had a “dark streak of gloom and anger.” Jemima was a literate, book-hungry servant in London before she had to marry Hardy’s father, who was a rural builder as conscientious as his wife with the raising of their smallish, clever boy, whom they educated in rather peculiar ways and then sent off in apprenticeship to an architect.

Yet Hardy spent many of his days calling out against God or the gods, often damning them if he admitted that they, he, or it exist. I admit that I do not feel far from him. For I too have suffered not one day in my blessed and bounteous American life -- I have felt want even less, I would guess, than Hardy a hundred years before in England. Yet religious belief is always tenuous in me as well. The problem of evil troubles me as well. In my case, though, contra Hardy, perhaps, I long for some god or gods to be there, above us all, waiting to welcome us, waiting to give to us all that we need when our time is done, to make up for what we have endured and lacked. Not actually for me. I long for this for those who have truly suffered. I could die and cease to exist myself and never have reason to hurl insults against the gods. I could even suffer before my death (though who desires to suffer?) and still have little reason to remonstrate with the rulers of this universe, if any exist. For I have lived richly every minute I have spent so far on this earth as an affluent middle-class American. But oh, there are so many millions upon millions who haven’t had any hope of enjoying what I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy. Though the object of my faith is as dim as a faint star, unseen by any hopeful eye, I yet hope in a god or gods who will redeem what those who have suffered on earth have never seen and believe with their shallow hope.

As we study Hardy’s poetry and its many hints at and several outright declarations of atheism, it might be beneficial to keep such matters in mind. It might be helpful as well to reflect on whether our views of human existence, of the meaning of life, of the answers to the Big Questions, do not arise more from temperament (and, as I suggest adding, personal circumstance) than from rational argument, as William James discussed at the opening of Lecture I of his famed book Pragmatism:
The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world's character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and 'not in it,' in the philosophic business, even though they may far excel him in dialectical ability.
I have only skimmed the piece in the NYRB, but it appears to be a strong overview of Hardy and Tomalin’s new biography. It is not available on line, but you can find it in your bookstore or library. The title of the essay itself suggests the agreement of the author with Yvor Winters’s lofty assessment of Hardy as one of the very greatest English-language poets ever to have lived. But there are great pleasures and moral profit in Hardy’s novels, as well. Just to whet the appetite, here’s a favorite passage of mine from Jude the Obscure. It comes early in the novel, when Jude Fawley feels a strange sort of compulsion to see again a handsome young woman named Arabella:
The next day Jude Fawley was pausing in his bedroom with the sloping ceiling, looking at the books on the table, and then at the black mark on the plaster above them, made by the smoke of his lamp in past months.

It was Sunday afternoon, four-and-twenty hours after his meeting with Arabella Donn. During the whole bygone week he had been resolving to set this afternoon apart for a special purpose,--the re-reading of his Greek Testament--his new one, with better type than his old copy, following Griesbach's text as amended by numerous correctors, and with variorum readings in the margin. He was proud of the book, having obtained it by boldly writing to its London publisher, a thing he had never done before.

He had anticipated much pleasure in this afternoon's reading, under the quiet roof of his great-aunt's house as formerly, where he now slept only two nights a week. But a new thing, a great hitch, had happened yesterday in the gliding and noiseless current of his life, and he felt as a snake must feel who has sloughed off its winter skin, and cannot understand the brightness and sensitiveness of its new one.

He would not go out to meet her, after all. He sat down, opened the book [for the study of Greek], and with his elbows firmly planted on the table, and his hands to his temples, began at the beginning:


Had he promised to call for her? Surely he had! She would wait indoors, poor girl, and waste all her afternoon on account of him. There was a something in her, too, which was very winning, apart from promises. He ought not to break faith with her. Even though he had only Sundays and week-day evenings for reading he could afford one afternoon, seeing that other young men afforded so many. After to-day he would never probably see her again. Indeed, it would be impossible, considering what his plans were.

In short, as if materially, a compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power seized hold of him--something which had nothing in common with the spirits and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed to care little for his reason and his will, nothing for his so-called elevated intentions, and moved him along, as a violent schoolmaster a schoolboy he has seized by the collar, in a direction which tended towards the embrace of a woman for whom he had no respect, and whose life had nothing in common with his own except locality.

HE KAINE DIATHEKE was no more heeded, and the predestinate Jude sprang up and across the room. Foreseeing such an event he had already arrayed himself in his best clothes. In three minutes he was out of the house and descending by the path across the wide vacant hollow of corn-ground which lay between the village and the isolated house of Arabella in the dip beyond the upland.

As he walked he looked at his watch. He could be back in two hours, easily, and a good long time would still remain to him for reading after tea.

There is so much in that short passage, about will and mind and desire and courtship and sexuality. It’s packed with sharp insights -- as so much of Hardy is. It might be time for you to get back to his great work, poetry and fiction alike. I was lucky: it so happened that I was reading in Hardy’s poetry and starting out on Jude just before this wave of critical interest broke upon the release of the new biographies.

Mar 27, 2007

A Brief Evaluation of Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison

So Winters thought it was great, even “very great,” as a work both of literature and of history, as you read here last week. But how might I evaluate Winters’s evaluation? And what have other Wintersians thought of this work? This post contains my brief, provisional assessment. Still, I offer these comments with some trepidation. For you will see in a moment that I do not regard Adams’s History quite as highly as Winters did.

First, before going through my views, I want to mention that few Wintersians have ever mentioned, let alone discussed, the issue of how good Adams’s History might be as a work of literary art. David Levin, an American historian (and a fine writer, by the way) who was a colleague of Winters’s at Stanford for a time in the 1960s, has written essays on history as literature on occasion during his career. Yet his one extended study of the subject, a book entitled History as Romantic Art, only mentions Adams’s History in passing, though he does refer with approval to its reputation as one of the great histories of American scholarship. Otherwise, no critic or scholar who has studied Winters with any degree of sympathy has tried to study history as literature, assess Winters’s discussion of the subject in his 1943 essay concerning Henry Adams, or directly studied Adams’s History as a work of literary art. It would appear that every writer, critic, or scholar who has read Winters’s writings on history as literature and specifically on Adams’s History has decided that these issues are not worth considering -- except for me, Ben Kilpela, though I, of course, cannot be classified as writer, critic, or scholar. That makes me wonder, as it should, whether the issues I am considering in this post are important to any degree. But I will press on in the belief that they are. Perhaps I’m ahead of my time. (If I am, I am a long, long, LONNNNG way ahead.)

So now, as to my judgment of Adams’s History, I should start by emphasizing that rather than focusing on narrating what appear to be the major events of the time, the History concentrates heavily on studying American congressional politics during the Jefferson and Madison administrations as influenced by those larger events. Adams guides us through a serpentine study of various political and diplomatic maneuverings at the beginning of period of America's growth into one of the world’s powers (which I think, as you will see, was rather predictable) and as an innovatory federal republic espousing democracy. Critical opinion appears to be rising ever so slightly and slowly that the History is the first great history written about the U.S.A. Some have even said that it might be the first great work of history written by an American, though I would quibble with that. The achievements of William Hickling Prescott in the history of New Spain and Francis Parkman in the history of New France perhaps exceed Adams’s achievement, as literature, and they both wrote before Adams.

Some few critics have gone so far as to claim that Adams’s work rivals Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in eloquence and sweep. But such a claim can mislead you. Gibbon’s grand story of imperial deterioration is quite different. Gibbon concerned himself with the long, slow slide to downfall of a vast, widely dominant, and highly and broadly influential empire over more than 1000 years, while Adams studied the way the government of a peculiar new country, governed in daringly new ways, quickly became more centralized at a time when some of its leaders opposed the consolidation and increase of federal power and as that country, unexpectedly at the time, began to loom on the horizon of the world scene. These occurrences took place, I should pause to note, when Napoleon was devising his outrageously grandiose plans for conquest, which he believed would lead to a prosperous and enlightened European empire under his rule. The provincial and fledging United States, in 1800 -- large in landmass, stupendously rich in natural resources, small in population, undeveloped in culture, unsure and unsteady in government, largely untried in the political and social freedoms it espoused -- overcame many obstacles to rise by 1817 from its national adolescence into a state of rapidly increasing international power and prestige. These changes appear rather puzzling because they came about under the leadership of two U.S. presidents who were candidly skeptical about the benefits of a strong central government and the trappings of deep involvement in the game of international power politics. Gary Will’s study of the History, Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005), draws attention to how Adams gave us some startling insights into the discordant principles and practices of the 1800-1816 period that shape America to this day.

My judgment, briefly -- and humbly standing in disagreement with Yvor Winters -- is that the History, though a superb work of historical scholarship and at times superbly written, is not one of our greatest histories as a work of literary art. I will have to save a comprehensive case for some later date, but let me say this much: I think that, in general, Adams burrowed far too deeply into the details of congressional maneuvering. Many of his long accounts of the twistings and turnings of political debate are simply too long. Further, in my judgment, the rise of the U.S.A. into one of the world’s powers during the years before and during the War of 1812 should not have been so surprising. The magnificently abundant resources and progressive social system that the U.S. enjoyed in its early years almost made it certain that the new country would rise quickly in power and influence. After much study of the matter, I think Adams’s History exaggerates the backwardness of the U.S. at the same time that Adams ignores the many obvious conditions and circumstances that almost inevitably propelled the country to a much higher status than people imagined it would achieve in the early days of the Republic.

Further, Adams, too often, paid far too much attention to details of secondary or even lesser importance, at the same time he paid far too little attention to many crucial aspects of the development of the U.S. in the period he put under study. For example, limiting my examples to Jefferson’s first term:

1) Adams pays too much attention to diplomatic wrangling in his consideration of the Haitian Revolution. Though certainly these matters played a part in affairs, they are less important than what led Napoleon to offer Louisiana and what the resulting purchase meant for the development of the country. Adams, I believe, did not need to go into such great detail on diplomacy but should have spent a great deal more time trying to fathom the causes and meaning of France’s abandonment of its last major possession in the New World.

2) Adams gets far too tangled in the tidbits of the congressional negotiations over the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Samuel Chase. Though the Chase trial is probably interesting to those with interests in the development of congressional politics and the status of the judiciary in our country, the bearing of the Chase affair on the central themes of the History is never adequately established. I believe the significance of the Chase Affair is far less than implied by Adams’s highly detailed account of political wrangling associated with Chase’s impeachment.

3) Adams gets far too tangled up as well in the details of the political intrigues of the so-called Conspiracy of 1804, the shaky political scheme in which a number of political leaders in the northern states considered seceding from the Union. He also concentrates too tightly on the less important details of political deal-making. Further, Adams fails to arrive at just and satisfying general conclusions about the overall long-term meaning of the conspiracy. Thus, Adams finds the conspiracy important for the wrong reasons.

These examples stand as three of the main reasons I consider the History not to be one of the greatest histories as literary art. Yet it is far from worthless. It is a superb work of literature and history -- just not one of the greats. I can say that I learned some important facts and concepts from the History and recommend it, though it is best read in small doses. It’s so long as well and covers such a short and relatively minor period of American history. Should one put one’s treasured time to Adams or to other works of historical art? The flaws I have pointed out in the History point me to the one larger reasons that I think other greats of historical literature deserve your attention first. This period, 1800-1816, is just not as important as Adams seems to have believed it is -- and now as Gary Wills clearly believes it to be. The whole subject matter of Adams’s History is of tertiary importance in the study of this country, let alone of the study of world history. Therefore, if the History’s value as a work of literature is not as great as Winters claimed and its importance as history is less than Wills takes it to be, I believe that you can wait to read it somewhere down the road, if you find the time.

It’s important to note, nonetheless, that the obscure period Adams put under study has received too little attention. This time, 1800 to 1816, when the young American nation was developing political habits that are much, much less familiar to us than the immediately preceding periods, the periods of the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and then Washington’s and James Adams’s presidencies. Yet it was in the years of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidencies that the men who formed the American democratic system that Americans live within gradually chose and negotiated the ways in which our democracy would be conducted. Their choices and compromises -- accidental, willed, or forced -- played a significant role in making us what we are today. It’s an occasionally absorbing story (putting aside Adams’s excessive detail on political wrangling), especially Adams’s focus on the difficulties of Congressional politics, which seems a bit foreign to us nowadays, since the American Presidency became so ascendant over the course of the 20th Century. Also, despite the weaknesses in Adams’s coverage of the Conspiracy of 1804, I learned many interesting details about the attitudes of our early legislators and leaders toward the concept of union and what they might have meant to the development of America’s style of democracy.

Before closing, I want to return briefly to Gary Wills’s book on Adams’s History. In Wills’s opinion, Adams's innovations as a historian were far more than technical -- as Yvor Winters also pointed out. Though I do not have the training to judge the matter, Wills claims that Adams made many important advancements in the writing of history, especially in the use of contemporary documents in his account. Wills believes that Adams’s central, very broad, and overarching theme was an ironic view of the legacy of Jefferson and Madison. Wills claims that Adams argued for a theory that though these two presidents tried to protect the young country from "foreign entanglements," a standing army, a central bank, and excessive federal bureaucracy -- dreaming of an agrarian society untroubled by "big government," which could lead to the dangers of renewed tyranny that the country had escaped in the Revolution -- by the end of their presidencies they found that they had played a large part in permanently establishing all these conditions in American society. Wills sees what happened, through Adams’s History, as a fundamental expression of the "American paradox." He believes this paradox defines us today in our struggles for an idealized desire for isolation and political simplicity against the growth and intermingling of political, economic, and military forces. This is why Wills find Adams’s History such an important study. But the idea appears to owe more to Wills than to Adams. I think that Wills overplays this theme, though it is certainly there in Adams. It is just not so strongly emphasized as Wills claims, in my judgment. Nor is it exactly a paradox. It’s just the difficulties that would inevitably beset a very large, astonishingly prosperous country dedicated to liberty. Also, as I have noted, I think that Adams misrepresents a number of events in the era, and one of the biggest is his inability to see that the geographic conditions of the new country inevitably pushed it forward as one of the great nation-states.

In summary, my provisional conclusion about Adams’s History, offered with considerable humility, is that it is a fine work of literature but has some weaknesses and flaws that keep me from judging it to be one of the great works of literature. I also believe that it is not concerned with subject matter of the highest importance. Nonetheless, the New York Review of Books publishing imprint has given us a smaller book of selections from the History that can help you decide whether to read it and judge for yourself (see my previous post on this subject).

Mar 22, 2007

Auden, Auden, and More Auden

The Wystan Hugh Auden centenary passed by recently and a number of articles and essay were written to mark the event. You can find many of them by searching on google. One of best recent overviews of Auden’s career was written by Roger Kimball in the New Criterion in 1999, entitled “The Permanent Auden.” I recommend the piece, not because it has any marks of the influence of Yvor Winters’s ideas, but because it is fair summary of Auden’s achievement, even if the impression is left that Auden was a great poet, which I do not believe he was. The essay can still be found on the web at:

I have already mentioned in a recent post that Yvor Winters had very little to say about Auden, though he said that he read his work. I take this as a probable indication that Winters did not find his work to be superior. His one published comment on Auden leaves the very faint impression that Winters considered him to be at least worth reading, but perhaps worth no more than that. The comment comes in Winters’s last book, Forms of Discovery, which many critics, including many sympathetic to Winters’s ideas and literary theory, find to have been much too disapproving, and harshly so, of too many good poems and poets. In the “Conclusion” to Forms, Winters named about ten very well-known modern poets, such as Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robert Lowell, whom he chose not to discuss in the book, his final testament on the history of English poetry, but wished to mention. Winters wrote, “I name them lest the reader think I do not know them. The learned scholar who wishes to devote a history to these poets has my blessing.” That first sentence seems to be intended to counter a charge sometimes made against Winters, that he didn’t cover enough of what other critics believe to be major poets in his criticism. The implication is unmistakable that Winters didn’t think it worth his time to do so concerning many modern poets held commonly in high esteem. The point seems even clearer earlier, when he wrote, “I have had neither the time not the inclination” to discuss poets of great reputation. These two stiff comments suggest to me, quite strongly, that Winters considered Auden’s work not to be close to the standards of the Winters Canon.

For his part, Donald Stanford, critic and editor of the Southern Review, which published a few essays on Auden over the years, also did not write about Auden in his major work of Wintersian criticism, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry, even though that book was concerned with the use and disuse of traditional forms in modern poetry. All Stanford had to say about Auden can be found in a comment made while discussing Winters’s very fine poem “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills”: Stanford said that Auden’s work is characterized by “facile imitations of various conventional verse forms.” That’s the best Donald Stanford could say of Auden? I think we can safely assume that Stanford didn’t judge Auden to stand among the greats.

Yet John Fraser chose four Auden poems for his New Book of Verse, the quasi-Wintersian anthology which I have been discussing from time to time. (See the second post on this blog for a brief look at A New Book of Verse, which still awaits a more extended treatment from me.) I will give the poems Fraser chose some deeper thought before commenting on them.

I will say this much now: Overall, I find Auden to be far too chatty. His poems lack coherence and display the usual modern bent on rational disunity. His handling of meter and poetic form are far too loose as well, in my judgment. His poems are meandering affairs (following the associative method Winters disparaged over and again in his career) that search around for sparkling insights, but usually Auden expresses his floating ideas far too vaguely and loosely to make any strong, definite impression. Even Roger Kimball for all his praise of Auden could give no line or idea that really catches him or me, that makes me want to read Auden again -- makes me think that Auden has something important to tell us. I believe that his work is not close to the standards of the Winters Canon, but is worth reading for its minor virtues. He wrote a lot of loose and mediocre verse, but he strolled around till he happened upon some interesting ideas at times. There is hardly anything terribly significant in any of what he had to say, but I am open to the possibility that some critic or follower of Auden could lead me to something truly first-rate that I have overlooked.

Kimball comments briefly on Auden’s facility with verse forms. For Auden’s commitment to metrical composition we should be mildly grateful, I believe. Yet, I must admit that I have always found Auden’s skill in verse to be only second-or third-rate, at least compared to the masters of modern metrical composition: such as J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, N. Scott Momaday, Yvor Winters himself, and others. Also, perhaps more importantly, Auden’s images function too often as loose and weak ornament. His metrical schemes are too deliberately roughened (a word some critics like to use to describe weak adherence to a metrical norm). His diction is playful, often facile, and his poems can be verbose as well. Further, I find his metaphors and similes too often unmoored to theme and purpose.

I could go into detail concerning on the Kimball essay and lay out many of his comments out for reflection and response. But that will have to wait for later. I have many other matters coming along, and I do not think Auden’s poetry is worth the time it would take to review it closely right now, as more important than many other matters deserving of greater attention. Still, since John Fraser has included him in his anthology I think I must soon consider the poems Fraser selected.

Mar 20, 2007

Hart Crane Draws Out William Logan

The essays continue to sprinkle down upon us concerning the boozy, brassy, bombastic American poet Hart Crane, one-time friend of Yvor Winters before he committed suicide, and that new edition of Crane’s poems and letters that the Library of America published late last year. The New York Times has worked its way around to offering a review of the LofA edition, a review written by the redoubtable William Logan, a poet who has been a poetry columnist for the New Criterion, which I rate as perhaps the single best general journal that defends and publishes formalist poetry -- or, as I should say, publishes some “poetry” rather than nothing other than free-verse prosetic musings that, amazingly (at least to me), continue to pass for poetry among the educated denizens our long-confused literary culture. (I should clarify, though, by stating that the New Criterion does put out its share of rambling free verse prosetry besides its editors’ publication of some relatively strong work in traditional forms.)

William Logan writes entertaining occasional pieces for the New Criterion, called verse chronicles, in which he reviews five or six books of poetry at once, a practice in poetry reviews that gives readers a feel for how poetry is generally written nowadays. He’s a tough bird. He has strong opinions; trades liberally in witty, elegant, and sometimes nasty put-downs; and doesn’t think much of much in the world of American poetry. He doesn’t suffer fools, pretensions, or what he considers bad writing well -- and he appears to think that bad writing is the norm. His piece on the new edition of Hart Crane, revealingly entitled “Hart Crane’s Bridge to Nowhere” was published more than a month ago and can be found at:

Logan takes a half dozen sidelong whacks with his critic’s two-by-four at Crane’s standing as one of America’s finest modern poets, and even as a good writer, but it’s probably hopeless that Crane will fall. Crane has been embalmed and put on display for decades to come in his tomb on America’s literary Red Square. It will take more than a few cleverly snide, undefended adjectives for Crane’s body to be laid to rest in the dark dirt. In contrast to Logan’s whacks, you can easily find profuse praises sung to Hart Crane all across the web.

Let me just say that Crane does almost nothing for me, despite Yvor Winters’s unstintingly high esteem for his poetic style -- alleged by Winters to be no less than Shakespearean. John Fraser chose three of Crane’s poems for his New Book of Verse, all three of which were rather loftily praised by Winters (though he never said without qualification that they are great). I consider Crane’s inclusion in the Winters Canon to be unjustified, though not insupportable, but for now I can only promise that I will get to my case that his work is less than great some day soon. For his part, Logan offers no justification for his mostly disapproving take on Crane -- though that’s not surprising. For Logan is accomplished at delivering sidelong whacks that he doesn’t bother taking the time to justify. He’s a reviewer, after all. Yet I haven’t found Logan’s case for a lesser status for Crane in his other writings, either. He writes criticism like Winters in this way, too often willing to throw out a strong, definitive, seemingly irrevocable opinion for which no rationale whatsoever will ever be offered. As Winters also often seems to have thought, Logan appears to think that if you don’t see the obvious validity of his hard-biting, rapid-fire opinions, then there’s no use making a case for them. Winters practiced that method, to my repeated frustration, much too often, I would say.

Logan’s judgment of “The Bridge,” which I find sensible, differs not a lot from Yvor Winters’s:

Much of “The Bridge” seems inert now -- overlong, overbearing, overwrought, a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney. Crane imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as a mystical symbol for art, for history, for America, for any old thing; in this spiritual version of Manifest Destiny, he threw his poem backward to Columbus and worked forward to the invention of the airplane. The canvas was broad, but its success would have required a language less Alexandrian than Crane possessed.

Though a little more loosely written, and quite a bit cockier -- with a touch of a sneer in there too -- the substance of Logan’s assessment is strikingly similar to Winters’s, as delivered first in that oft-mentioned though seldom quoted (or studied) review, “The Progress of Hart Crane,” which was first published in 1930 in Poetry (it has been reprinted in The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Yvor Winters, which is available in most university libraries and used book web sites):

And the “destiny” of a nation is hard to get at in the abstract, since it is a vague generality, like “the French temperament” or “the average American.” It reduces itself, when one comes to describe it... to the most elementary and the least interesting aspects of the general landscape, aspects which cannot possibly be imbued with any definite significance, no matter how excited one may get, for the simple reason that no definite significance is available. It is on this rock that “Atlantis” [one of the poems of “The Bridge”] shatters; and on a similar rock... occurs the wreck of “The Dance,” the other climax of the volume.
Despite Winters’s renown for being villainously harsh, you could say that this passage comes off as quite a bit less mordant than William Logan’s undefended summary of his take on “The Bridge,” however much either man be right or wrong about the series. Winters clearly, at the least, took Crane’s purposes very seriously, which Logan sounds as though he does not. For my part, I agree with Logan. I think Crane’s whole project, somewhat like James Joyce’s nutty endeavor to subsume the entire mythic history of the West into the story of one day in the life of a dreary Dublin man named Leopold Bloom, to be not a little silly. Even if it made perfectly good sense, even if it were blazingly well written, I would still find Crane’s “Bridge” to be mostly pointless posturing. I see little more than pretension in such woolly, grandiose cultural visions -- Joyce’s included, if I dare to take that long step off the cliff into literary heresy.

Some time, I must go through Winters’s review to study it from the perspective of a Wintersian, since it’s most often mentioned to disparage Winters by those who disagree with just about every central idea he propounded. Strange to say, the review has received little sustained attention from those who have sympathies with or have study Winters closely. Once again, I find Winters to be right in just about everything he says about Crane and “The Bridge,” except for the extravagant praise for Crane’s style. But the cocktail of praise and censure Winters served up in that 1930 review was a drink Crane couldn’t stomach, quite understandably. Here is one short passage that I think best sums up the tone of the whole piece:

It is obvious from such a stanza that we are analyzing the flaws in a genius of a high order -- none of the famous purple patches in Shelley, for example, surpasses this stanza [from “The Dance”] and probably none equals it; so be it. But the flaws in Mr. Crane’s genius are, I believe, so great as to partake, if they persist, almost of the nature of a public catastrophe.
You can hardly blame Crane for blanching with anger at censure as extravagant as the praise. Can Crane’s poetry be this direly dangerous? That’s another matter I’ve to get back to, as I’ve mentioned in other posts already. (So much to discuss: when will I get to it all?)

William Logan, I should add in closing, most often writes what I consider prosetry, work which is sometimes published in the New Criterion. His musings are dense, verbally sparkling, syntactically difficult, but thematically loose and rambling. His work is constructed on the associative method: one thought causes another to pop into the conscious and thence onto the page. His poems offer little rational insight into important human experiences, in my opinion. I seldom remember one of his poems five minutes after reading it a couple times. (Well, there you find me doing it: tossing out opinions for which I have no intention just now of making a case. I guess critics are all guilty of the practice.)

I don’t claim to be able to write good poetry, either. I’m just telling you what I have found, as a Wintersian. Logan is worth reading as an entertaining and occasionally insightful poetry critic (though there is no hint that he’s Wintersian), but not much as a poet, at least so far. Though I’m not offering a full, open endorsement of his criticism, so few have been the poetry critics worth reading in recent years that I will recommend Logan and his New York Times review of Hart Crane’s poetry and life. He appears to know good rhetorical style, if not truly superior poetry. Perhaps I shall I find time and consider it important enough some day soon to go through some of his hundreds of opinions and judgments and offer my assessment of his critical bent. You can find some of his verse chronicles on line by searching on his name at the New Criterion web site. But I think I will have to consider Hart Crane’s work and Winters’s evaluation of it more closely before I ever get to William Logan.

Mar 14, 2007

A Winters Discovery Finds New Admirers -- At Last!

Yvor Winters didn’t actually “discover” Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, but he was the only major literary critic I know of to pay any attention to the work or to judge it as a great work of prose in the decades after Adams’s History lapsed nearly into oblivion. No literary critic I know of has even thought to address such questions as whether histories are works of literary art or which histories should be appraised as the very finest works of “artistic“ history that we have. Moreover, few were the historians, as far as I have studied the matter, who paid much attention to Adams’s History during the period of Winters’s career (not to mention afterward) or evaluated it as one of the great works of history. Rather, Adams’s History had been almost wholly forgotten -- “undiscovered” as it were -- until Winters first wrote of it in 1943. Winters’s evaluation, nonetheless, was that it was one of the greatest works of prose literature ever written in English, a claim which he made in his long essay that is mostly censorious toward Adams, “Henry Adams, or the Creation of Confusion,” from the book The Anatomy of Nonsense (1943), which was reprinted in In Defense of Reason (1947). I have read Adams’s History, in case you’re wondering as you read the rest of this post.

In his essay on Adams, Winters, following his oft-used taxonomic method, went through in about ten pages his summary of the great works of history written in English, considered as expository prose literature, and offered a number of trenchant and mildly provocative judgments and observations. His brief overview is inspiring and revolutionary, perhaps mostly by implication -- and sadly it’s much too short. Winters never returned to the subject of history as art to expand significantly upon this one discussion. He should have written a book on the matter.

He did discuss history as a literary art form, with great insight into the nature of history as literature, on one more occasion: his essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” (reprinted in The Function of Criticism), in which he compared history to fiction as part of his radical examination of the artistic value of different literary genres. In that essay he made a relatively unusual claim about any work of literature, even for him: Winters called Adams’s History “very great.” It appears that by the 1950s Winters had grown to judge the History even more highly than he had a decade before and had begun to think of it as better than every other work of English-language history besides Macauley’s History of England. But he never offered any case for making this more exalted claim about the History, nor, as I mentioned, did he ever expand or refine his discussion of the great histories as literary art after the Adams essay. This is an area in which a Wintersian critic could do some good and very important work: devising, expanding, and making cases for the selections for a Winters Canon of the great works of historical literary art.

The specific new admirer of Henry Adams’s History is Gary Wills, one of America’s finest popular scholars and best nonfiction writers. The History concerns itself with the political development of the American Republic during a short period of its national adolescence, from 1800 to 1816. A dozen years ago, the History was issued in a beautiful Library of America edition. I went out right away and picked up the two volumes and read them through. In 2005, Wills released an erudite study of the History, which I will come back to in a moment. The latest news, from late in 2006, came from the New York Review of Books publishing imprint, which released a book of important passages from the History, which was originally published in nine volumes in the late 19th century and was out of print for a couple decades (though available in most university libraries, where I first obtained it). The NYRB book-long collation is entitled The Jeffersonian Transformation: Passages from the "History". The NYRB’s promotion contains some information on its new book.

The “Introduction” to this collation was written by Garry Wills. I have posted an illuminating and nicely turned excerpt from the “Introduction” as the first comment to this post.

I have looked over the NYRB book, and it appears to be a useful selection. For those new to the rigors and pleasures of Adams’s History, which is very little known, this collation should serve as a good companion to Adams's History itself.

Though this new book might foster some discussion, absent for the last 60 years, on Adams’s work on the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, I have little hope that it will inspire deeper discussion of history as a literary art -- not even among critics who have interests in or sympathies with Winters. For not even among that tiny group has there been any discussion of, or any attempt at an assessment of, Winters’s theories concerning history as an art form. I am pondering why this has happened. In the meantime, I will post my provisional assessment of Adams’s History on this blog next week. In time, I hope we will find occasion to return both to Adams’s History in greater depth and even to the broad subject of history as literary art on this blog.

Finally, I wish to note that Will’s book on Adams was the subject of a fine review essay, “The Unread Masterpiece,” in the New York Review of Books by one of America’s finest historians, Edmund S. Morgan (see the 11/17/05 issue of the NYRB; the essay is not available on line except by subscription). Morgan considered Wills’s assessment of the main themes of the History a little off the mark and exaggerated. Wills soon after wrote a brief letter, published in the 12/15/05 issue of the NYRB, in defense of his interpretation of Adams. This letter and a bit more are available at the NYRB site.

Once again, an excerpt from Gary Wills’s “Introduction” to the NYRB collation of passages from Adams’s History is attached as the first comment to this post.

Mar 13, 2007

Winters in the Times

Another mention of Yvor Winters has occurred in a major publication. This time it came in the New York Times, which published an essay on the controversy that has been roiling lately in literary magazines and on web sites around the country. It’s a sharp little essay on the criticism the Poetry Foundation received from the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine, Dana Goodyear, who last month ran a long, scathing piece about the foundation’s use of that $200 million bequest that make such a huge splash in the news a couple years ago -- the only time in recent memory that poetry has made a huge splash for any reason in the general news, a splash which, of course, befits America, since the splash was actually created by the chunk of moola involved, not the poetry. This mild controversy, along with the New Yorker essay, are matters I have wanted to comment on, but other subjects have pushed them back in my queue. The NYT essay, by the engaging David Orr, the NYT Book Review’s poetry columnist, can be found at:

The mention of Winters, brief as it is, concerns Winters’s mostly disapproving and allegedly callous review of Hart Crane’s renowned “epic” series of poems “The Bridge,” a review which badly damaged their literary friendship. I have discussed Crane and Winters several times already in the opening months of this blog, on the occasion of the release of a new biography of Crane. I find it interesting that Orr appears to believe that readers of essays about poetry in the Times will understand at least this one aspect of Winters’s career. I wonder whether many do. But perhaps just enough people know him for one incident, that review of Hart Crane, that Orr can trust the reference is not yet obscure. I find that a good sign. At least Winters’s name is still known, however marginally. There is yet hope that he might be read by those who know the name and know of the relationship with Crane.

By the way, Orr published a review of one of the latest editions of Winters’s Selected Poems, the one edited by the late poet Thom Gunn that came out just a few years ago. I’ve been meaning to discuss that review, since it came from a leading figure in the world of American poetry. I will get to it in time, though it’s already a few years old.

Mar 8, 2007

‘Tis Becoming the Year of Hardy

Yet another biography of Thomas Hardy has been released, this one by Englishman Ralph Pite, a professor at the University of Cardiff in Wales, entitled Thomas Hardy: A Guarded Life. Hardy, to remind you, was one of the greatest poets of the English language in the judgment of Yvor Winters, who evaluated ten of his poems as great and deserving of the Winters Canon (a basic definition of this phrase coming soon). The New York Sun has published a rather brief, but still incisive review of Pite’s new book along with Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy, which was released some months ago and which I have already discussed several times on this blog. The review is entitled “The Very Rich Hours of Thomas Hardy,” is written by Brooke Allen, and can be found at:

Similarly to other reviewers, Allen’s piece focuses on Hardy’s alleged pessimism, a matter which I have offered some comments on as well. I have opined that Hardy was not exactly a pessimist in the strongest or simplest sense of that term. In fact, I would argue that Hardy rather enjoyed many aspects of life and felt a certain measure of intense joy in his time. But his joy was ever alloyed with his sharp and somber comprehension of the great sorrows of life. Allen thinks both biographies focus quite heavily on addressing the question of the origins of Hardy’s pessimism, Tomalin paying closer attention to the poems, Pite to the novels -- if, as I say, his fundamental attitude can be characterized as simply or purely pessimistic.

I would say, further, that understanding the origins of Hardy’s understanding of the nature of human existence is quite a bit less important than understanding his insights into that nature. Winters considers Hardy’s stoic stance toward human suffering and death to be essential to leading a good and strong life. I’ll be coming ‘round to Winters’s and my views on Hardy again and will save deeper comment for later. Allen’s brief review is well worth your time. Hardy’s poems and novels are essential reading for those drawn to the study of Yvor Winters. For Winters believed that studying Hardy's art can lead to deep spiritual growth. Here’s how he put it in the 1930s, in the essay “The Morality of Poetry,” which was reprinted in In Defense of Reason:

Thus we see that the poet, in striving toward an ideal of poetic form at which he has arrived through the study of other poets, is actually striving to perfect a moral attitude toward that range of experience of which he is aware. Such moral attitudes are contagious from poet to poet, and, within the life of a single poet, from poem to poem. The presence of Hardy and Arnold, let us say, in so far as their successful works offer us models and their failures warnings or unfulfilled suggestions, should make it easier to write good poetry; they should not only aid us, by providing standards of sound feeling, to test the soundness of our own poems, but, since their range of experience is very wide, they should aid us, as we are able to enter and share their experience, to grow into regions that we had not previously mastered or perhaps even discovered. The discipline of imitation is thus valuable if it leads to understanding and assimilation.

Arnold sank a bit in Winters’s estimation in his later years (which is a subject much worth discussing), but Hardy stayed at the top of his list of great poets throughout his career, those supremely fine exemplars of the poetic art of all time.

Mar 7, 2007

Winters Changed a Life... But How?

I stumbled across one of the very few references to Yvor Winters in a popular literary book of any sort the other night. I’ve been casually breezing through a little book of interviews with a dozen or so poets and novelists entitled The Book That Changed My Life (published in 2002). I enjoy books about the books others have found monumentally important in their lives. Just as I made many discoveries of great writing through reading Yvor Winters some 30 years ago, so I have kept on searching books about life-changing books in the hope of making similar discoveries from unexpected sources. Believe me, I have made many discoveries over the years in this way. Need an example? I’ll give you just one among many from my life: the novels of Brian Moore and specifically his very fine novel of the Jesuit Huron mission in 17th-century Nouveau Francais Black Robe, which was adapted into a pretty strong film as well. The making of discoveries is something I hope my readers and those at least marginally interested in Yvor Winters will want to discuss on this blog over time.

But the much larger issue of literary discoveries is beside my purpose at the moment. What I want to write about is Yvor Winters getting mentioned in one of these books. The rare event happened because one of the people chosen for an interview about the books that changed his or her life was Philip Levine, a prominent poet who once studied in Yvor Winters’s graduate program at Stanford in the late 1950s. Now before you start making assumptions, let me be clear that I did not pick up the book because Levine or any former Winters student had been interviewed for it. It was by pure chance that I discovered the reference to Winters.

But yes, it was Levine who put Winters’s In Defense of Reason in his list of about 20 books that changed his life (the longest list in the book). In his short interview, Levine didn’t discuss Winters or even mention him. But I know a few things about Levine, whom I would not classify as a Wintersian in any sense of the term. I have read his account of his studies with Winters in his memoir The Bread of Time. He has gone on to one of the most successful (in terms of getting hired, paid, and published) and highly praised careers in American poetry. I have read dozens of his poems and have followed his poetry for years in the New Yorker, in which he is published regularly. I can discern no influence of Winters in anything the man has ever written, not a single poem, line, idea, or word. It’s hardly a surprise that Levine can write competent prose, since that’s all he really ever writes. His “poetry” is actually, in my view of the matter, pedestrian prose broken up into lines. I have never been moved by one of his broken-up “prosems”. I have never much enjoyed or profited in some significant way from one of his musings.

His memoir, which includes a chapter on Winters, gives off a bracing self-assurance that reminds me of Winters in some ways. Reading him gives you the immediate impression that Levine knows a lot about what he chooses to talk about and believes he is nearly fully right about anything he takes the time to offer an opinion or judgment about. But I don’t agree with Philip Levine on much of anything concerning poetry or literature. Yvor Winters changed my life, too, and In Defense of Reason played a large role in that change. But I can’t guess how that book changed Philip Levine’s life. It had no discernible affect on his “poetry”. Levine, in my appraisal, as I say, doesn’t really write poetry. He is rather one of the most dogged prosetic musers of our time, putting out book after book of flat, plain, jumbled prose on the mundane events of his life. I have read that he claims to be seeking a very subtle rhythm through this prosetry, by breaking up his mediocre, meandering sentences into lines, often lines of six to ten syllables. But I see this sort of writing as bland, loose, unstructured prose crumbled into lines for no discernible purpose but to look like actual poetry, which is metrical composition. (To clarify: the procedure certainly could have a purpose in Levine’s mind, but I don’t think that purpose is discernible by anyone outside that mind.) The study of a poet like Levine can often cause a bit of literary vertigo, since he stands before you in his writings with an aura of enormous confidence in his work, but it’s a self-assurance he has little warrant for, since his “poetry” lies almost dead on the page -- there’s almost nothing to it that a discerning reader of rational, metrical composition would appreciate or value. Levine’s musings have had little worth to me, even though I can see as well as anyone that he can turn a pleasant phrase of prose description from time to time -- and even though he carries himself in a stern, square-jawed manner through which he tells us that thinks he knows fully well what he’s doing, that he’s writing very, very good poetry.

Changing the subject, Levine had some interesting comments about one of our current and highest national saints of poetry Walt Whitman (sarcasm intended) in his interview that would have dismayed Yvor Winters and stopped him cold in fear for literature:

“Song of Myself” pushes in a variety of directions, but the vision that moved me most was, “I am you. We are one creation.” I believed it even before I read it. And also, “There is that lot of me and all so luscious.” The bravery of such a line, the claim: I am unique but I am unique in the way that you are also unique, because each of us is a little cosmos and one is as good as another. I was just thunderstruck by that notion, because one is constantly being told, You’re ordinary. And Whitman is saying, Yes, you are ordinary, because the ordinary is the storehouse of the extraordinary; the only place you’re ever going to encounter the extraordinary is going to be in the ordinary, in the daily. And the frank embrace of the sensual and the self; what a rewarding way to see ourselves.

Little of Winters seems to have seeped through on the subject of Whitman. For Winters objected quite strongly to Whitman as a poet, as America’s secular Romantic saint, and as a popular “philosopher”. It’s fascinating that the book that attacks Whitman most often and most fiercely is the very book that Levine says changed his life (Levine listed Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as well, I should add). But despite the common view that Winters railed on Whitman often, Winters actually didn’t discuss Whitman extensively in this book or in any of his writings. He mentions Whitman just a dozen times or so in In Defense of Reason. The only extended discussion of Whitman’s ideas in his whole oeuvre -- and that only a couple pages long -- appears in the final essay of In Defense of Reason, “The Significance of The Bridge,” which is about Hart Crane and partially the relation of Crane’s ideas to Whitman’s.

For now, I must be content with saying that Winters ascertained that Whitman’s ideas ought perhaps to strike “terror” into us -- that’s the word Winters used. I don’t have time to go through the subject in depth or offer my assessment of Winters’s adverse opinions of Whitman. But maybe I’ll say this much: the reliance upon and praise of the wisdom of mediocrity and the native goodness of all people -- the tacit genius of every Tom, Dick, and Harry -- are matters Winters sternly denounced, while these are clearly extolled in Levine’s comments. Each little cosmos is as good as another?! That’s scarily close to what we could fairly describe as twaddle. To Winters such ideas opened the door to endless foolishness and even personal spiritual danger, as he discussed at length in the Crane essay. Here is his conclusion from that essay. Professor X is the representative of those academics who know the Romantic doctrines but do not take them seriously. What Winters says here concerns Emerson, whom he considered to be Whitman’s master:

Professor X will defend democracy in Emersonian terms, never stopping to consider that a defense of democracy which derives ultimately from the doctrine of natural goodness, of the wisdom of the untrained and mediocre mind, and of the sanctity of impulse is the worst kind of betrayal. He tells us that Emerson was an "idealist," but he does not tell us what kind. He tells us that Emerson taught self-reliance, but not that Emerson meant reliance of irresponsible impulse. He will cite us a dozen fragments of what might be mistaken for wisdom, and cite Emerson as the source; but he will neither admit what these fragments mean in the Emersonian system nor go to the trouble of setting them in a new system which would give them an acceptable meaning -- and which would no longer be Emersonianism.

I’ll come around to Whitman in time, since I have burdened myself with the obligation of discussing that passage of Levine more fully to justify my sidelong comment about how Winters would have taken it. (By the way, I comment upon this passage, rather differently, in the 7/24 entry my book A Year with Yvor Winters.) But taking on any such endeavor might be one of the most damning literary heresies of the present age possible: an objection to the bubbling boiling bombastic blather of Walt Whitman. Does Whitman go too far with his twaddle? Is Winters right in his rejection of Whitman and right for the right reasons? What’s the value in the heavily silted floods of his writing? Are his woolly ideas dangerous? Is he worth reading much? Does his work deserve its very high position in American literary culture? (Leaves of Grass is mentioned several times in the book I started with as having changed someone’s life.) Does it deserve any significant position? I’ll get to these matters -- I’ll get to them. In the meantime, go to In Defense of Reason.

Mar 2, 2007

Basic Definitions: “Wintersian”

I have decided that since Yvor Winters is so little known in the world of letters, it would surely be best that I define some of the terms I have been using regularly in my posts. These definitions, which I will make as needed from time to time, are my own, though I’m trying to cleave as closely as possible to the senses of these terms, as I understand them, as employed in the writings of other capable critics and commentators.

The first term that I think needs defining is the noun “Wintersian”, which I have already had many occasions to use and will use again and probably often. What is a Wintersian? Simply and obviously, as other writers most commonly seem to mean, he or she is a “follower” of Yvor Winters, in some vague sense. But such vagueness doesn’t satisfy the rigors of discourse. I will define the word as signifying poets or critics who have “made Yvor Winters’s poetic practices or critical ideas their own to some significant degree.” Wintersian poets and critics don’t necessarily agree with Winters on all particulars of practice and theory, or even agree on all of Winters’s fundamental critical tenets, but they must agree on enough of them; agree on one or two of such tenets to a high degree; or look frequently to Winters’s critical conceptions to fashion their critical ideas. I think this is a definition I can live with, though, as you see, there remains a great deal of vagueness in the word even as so defined. For what one person will think “enough” or to a “high” or “significant” degree another person will think not so, naturally. Let the haggling begin. I will stick with this definition, which can be made no clearer than this, I believe.

The adjective “Wintersian” is a simple matter. In this blog, the adjective will indicate some idea or writing that has significant bearing on or has been significantly influenced by Winters’s critical system or one of his major critical concepts. As with the noun, just what is and what isn’t significant is a matter for discussion, perhaps endless.

Returning to the noun “Wintersian”, the term has often been used by those who have little agreement with Winters, or even little interest in knowing about or discussing his ideas, to connote disparagement of those who have made his ideas their own (once again, to some vital extent or degree). To me the word suggests no such defilement or denigration. But I am aware, as I wrote earlier in this blog, that it usually seems for many critics that to call someone a Wintersian is to tag her with the equivalent of the political term “Nazi”. I think this is highly regrettable, but it’s a common overtone, and Wintersians of any sort will probably always be forced to resist it.

There are NO poets or critics I have ever known of who could be called “disciples” of Winters, people who strongly agree with him in almost all areas of critical thought and poetic practice. Some of his students sought to emulate his poetic style or follow his principles during their years of study with him, but most went on to develop their own ways of writing poetry, some influenced strongly by Winters’s practices, some very little -- and even some not at all. There are few critics currently writing who betray more than faint traces of Winters’s influence in their criticism. I am the only admitted disciple of Winters in a relatively strong sense of the term, and even I have some fundamental disagreements with Winters. Am I some sort of shill for Winters? See for yourself in this blog and on my Winters web site. (By the by, I’ve got to discuss some time the acute fear among writers of being labeled a “disciple” of anyone, which is often mentioned as though it were the equivalent of confessing to a major crime. Why is this fear of discipleship so intense? Why does it exist at all?) All the prominent poets who studied with him and adopted his practices or critical ideas to some significant degree -- those whom I know of -- varied from him on many fundamental points and eventually wrote criticism and poetry that is different from his.

To refine the definition of “Wintersian”, and to have some fun, let’s go over a few examples of better-known contemporary writers who have been branded as Wintersians, fairly or unfairly, at one time or another.

DONALD HALL, poet and professor, our current Poet Laureate of the United States. Hall was a student of Winters late in Winters’s life, in the 1960s, and has written a reminiscence of him for his book Their Ancient Glittering Eyes. He is NOT a Wintersian. Despite having studied with Winters, Hall betrays no interest in his poetic practice at all that I can discern. He does not write poetry, but prosetic musings (which I define briefly in other posts: search on “musing” in the search box at the top of the blog). I have read some of his criticism, if such rambling reflections can be called criticism, but I can discern almost no trace of concurrence with Winters’s ideas in Hall’s essays.

THOM GUNN, poet and professor. He died recently, far too young. He IS a Wintersian. He was also a student of Winters’s, in the 50s. He went on to a career as a fine formalist poet who endeavored to follow some of Winters’s poetic practices from time to time, though he certainly was no facile or slavish imitator of Winters. He drifted from the strict control of the poetic line, as Winters recommended and lauded, in the second half of his career, and this weakened much of his later work, in my judgment (and Winters’s judgment, too), though a great deal of his later poetry is well worth studying and knowing well. His criticism and occasional reviewing shows a distinct and vibrant use of Winters’s critical ideas, though he certainly does not agree with Winters point for point on his critical system. But I think that Gunn shows enough concord with Winters across his writings and in his poetry to be labeled as a Wintersian. Gunn had diverse interests and ideas, though, so one shouldn’t read him hoping -- OR dreading -- to find a writer who carries on some sort of Winters tradition. In fact, there are many admirers of Gunn’s who will disagree that he is a Wintersian.

DONALD STANFORD, editor, critic, poet, and LSU professor. He died recently as well, after a long retirement. He is a Wintersian, too. He was a student of Winters in the 30s. He edited the outstanding second series of the Southern Review (out of LSU) from 1965 to 1982, in which were published dozens of essays and poems and reviews that have bearing on the thought of Yvor Winters in one way or another. He has written several critical works that bear many clear marks of a thinker deeply influenced by Winters, but also one who refined or improved or extended Winters’s ideas in crucial ways. I have mentioned him a few times in this blog in its early months, and you can find those comments by searching through the search box at the top of the blog.

ROBERT PINSKY, poet and professor, former U.S. Poet Laureate: He too was a student of Winters’s late in Winters’s life. He has gone on to success as a widely published poet, an advocate for poetry, a reviewer, and a critic. He has worked tirelessly on the Favorite Poems project (check out its web site: and has published a variety of usable anthologies for the educated public rather than academics. He writes formalist verse sporadically, a very loose formalist verse -- as I should qualify that phrase; but the style and structure of his free verse prosetic musing betray very few signs of the influence of whatever he might have learned at Stanford under Winters’s teaching. His criticism and reviewing show a few dim marks that Winters’s ideas have gotten a slight grip in his mind, but their hold appears to me to be very tenuous indeed. His leading book of more formal literary criticism The Situation of Poetry, which is now more than 20 years old, bears almost no indication that he agrees with any of Winters’s major ideas, though he does discuss some of the poets Winters judged great or good and some of the poems Winters heaped praise upon. For such reasons I believe he is NOT a Wintersian, by my definition, though he is sometimes classified as such.

Well, there’s a handful of examples to consider. All of them, of course, could be debated endlessly, but I hope my discussion by example helps to refine MY definition, according to which I will employ the term “Wintersian” in this blog.