Apr 5, 2007

Basic Definitions: “Winters Canon”

I’ve used this term repeatedly in this blog without trying to define it fully. Let me try to state my definition in a couple hundred words or less:

Yvor Winters believed that evaluation -- ascertaining exactly which works of literature are better and best, and making clear, sound cases for those judgments -- stands at the center of criticism, as he often argued or clearly implied. In keeping with this central tenet of his critical theory, he often made short lists of poems he judged as “great,” those poems which stand apart for paramount excellence. Though he never defined the word “great,” the evidence shows, I believe, that he reserved the term only for works of literary art that stand at the summit of achievement, works, very few in number, which should serve as models for writers and as the supreme standard of critical evaluation. After claiming that dozens of poems were great during his career, in his final years he wrote a book on the history of English poetry (Forms of Discovery, published in 1967) according to its best poems. These poems were gathered in a companion anthology, Quest for Reality, which contains, mostly, those poems Winters considered great. As shorthand, and a little playfully, I call those poems the “Winters Canon.”

That was less than 200 words. That was difficult -- for me. Yet that’s my short, straightforward definition of the term, without trying to justify the various claims I make about Winters’s critical tenets in that paragraph. Yet though I keep using the term “Winters Canon” as though my understanding of it were something fixed and agreed on to some significant degree, I must admit that it is far from either. It is my own term and concept, for no published critic, not even any Wintersian, has chosen to say clearly just what exactly Yvor Winters was doing when he often made those lists of “great” poems; discussed often which poems are good, better, and best; and later published that anthology containing most of those poems that he had often mentioned, across three decades of criticism, as exceptionally, matchlessly good -- as “great.” Not even his one-time graduate student, the co-editor of Quest for Reality, Ken Fields, who is still alive and teaching at Stanford, has been able to bring himself to say that that anthology is some sort of “canon” of the best or greatest poetry in the English language, which is my understanding of that book.

It is also strange to me that Dick Davis, in one of the finest studies of Winters’s whole career, as both poet and critic, Wisdom and Wilderness (1982), did not even directly address the issue of what I consider the central tenet of Winters’s theory, evaluation. (Just as strangely, Davis did not even address Winters’s critical theory systematically as a whole.) Davis gave a nice overview of the varied judgments of the poets and writers whom Winters wrote about in detail, but Davis did not discuss Winters’s major theoretical essays or the major theoretical statements made within other essays about specific writers and critics. Nor, further, did Davis discuss Winters’s many judgments in terms of Winters’s concept of evaluation, the determination of the best or the greatest. Rather, Davis, as other Wintersians have also done, used euphemisms of all sorts. Winters was “attracted” to this or that poem, Davis opined, or was “sympathetic” to this or that style, or “admired” this work or that. I think these euphemisms significantly understate what Winters meant by the term “great” and distort what he intended as a critic -- however much anyone might disagree with his specific evaluations of what is great. Davis appears to me to have wanted to translate Winters into his own language in an attempt to soften him for those who might not know him well. So lowly is Winters generally regarded, this might have been a wise strategy to get people to keep reading him. I will have to come back to that some time.

My case for my interpretation of Winters’s concept of evaluation must wait for later. I offer this post for purposes of definition only. But I must admit that there are other valid ways to understand Winters on this issue, of course. Some conceptions of his ideas about “greatness” are compatible with my conception of the Winters Canon, some not. One can believe that the poems of Quest for Reality display the kind of poetic structure and style that Winters believed best or most artistic, without saying that he thought that, say, Agnes Lee’s obscure, simple poem “The Sweeper” (to consider just one among several dozen notorious examples) is a great poem, while, say, Yeats’s famous “The Second Coming” is not; or that the obscure British poet Elizabeth Daryush is a great poet, while, say, T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound are not. In both these specific cases, I believe that this is what Winters thought. Yet there are some who disagree with me. (By the way, John Fraser includes “The Second Coming” in his quasi-Wintersian anthology A New Book of Verse, which I have been discussing regularly on this blog. I will come to that specific topic in time, I’m certain.)

I will begin to review the Winters Canon poem by poem and to defend my concept of the Canon in the months ahead. Stay tuned.

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