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.

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