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.

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