Apr 9, 2007

The New Criterion’s 2007 Poetry Issue: A Feast for Wintersians

In bookstores is the latest poetry issue of the New Criterion, which has been putting together an annual issue focused on poetry for the past several years. It is quite an unusual series. No other general-audience national journal of this kind or status has been putting out an annual issue focused on poetry in the past 50 years or more. And what’s even better is that the NC’s editors are clearly committed to a brand of neo-classicism (a bit soft at times, it is true) and the movement in poetry that has been called by many the “New Formalism,” which is hardly new any longer, being some 60 years old. As a Wintersian I applaud the efforts of the NC highly. I have purchased the issue, which appears to be excellent as a whole, but haven’t read it all yet. A few of its essays are accessible online for free.

(I must pause a moment to add, just to be keep anyone from jumping to conclusions without warrant, that I am NOT a political conservative, in general. The NC’s coverage of the arts and humanities in general often gets short shrift because of its general political conservatism, which I find often worthwhile, but I disagree strongly that literary conservatism [if we can classify neo-classicism as such] implies or requires political conservatism. Notably, this a significant issue in the study of Yvor Winters that I should address on this blog some time, since critics and readers have often assumed that Winters, because of his literary views, was some sort of fascist -- which he MOST surely was not.)

What’s in the issue? Dan Brown, a poet I do not know, offers an essay on those two Robert Frost favorites "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." I’ll be interested in his take on these redoubtable, beloved poems, neither of which scored all that highly on Yvor Winters’s evaluative scorecard (they have never scored highly on mine, either). But I’m looking forward to what an NC writer might have to say about them. It appears at a glance that Brown assumes them to be two of our finest poems. We shall see whether he is able to nudge me closer to agreeing. I should note that the editor George Panichas of the conservative journal Modern Age, many years ago, took on Winters’s superb but somewhat disapproving essay on Frost, written in the late 1940s, which is another subject I want to come back at some point. Meantime, you can find a bit more on Winters’s views on Frost on my Yvor Winters Web Site. Search on google by typing in “Year with Yvor Winters” in quotation marks with some key words, such as “Robert Frost.” You will get results showing the relevant passages I quoted and commented on for my book.

Second, Eric Ormsby has an essay on Robert Bridges, “Robert Bridges's New Cadence,” which I’m certainly looking forward to. It’s the first piece on Bridges in a major publication in long, long time. The essay is available online at the NC web site. Winters considered some of Bridges’s work to be great, however much he has been scorned by most modern critics and poets -- and I agree with Winters with all my critical heart. Bridges’s work deserves careful study and should have been serving as one of the foundation stones of our poetic future. Sadly, though, it has long lain buried in some rubble heap. Winters never stopped championing this great poet’s work, and nor will I, whenever I get the chance, which I hope will come often on this blog. Set Yeats aside; set Eliot aside, too. Give me Bridges.

Further on, the readable and sharp poet X.J. Kennedy, sometime New Formalist, offers yet another essay on a poet whom Winters considered great, “The Enduring Specter of E. A. Robinson,” on the underappreciated American poet about whom a new biography recently came out. I have discussed Robinson briefly on this blog in these opening months, and I look forward to carefully examining Kennedy’s overview of Robinson’s superior work. Kennedy, it seems, offers one of Robinson’s more obscure poems as one of his best. I’ll be particularly interested in that matter.

On tap as well is yet another essay by the NC poetry editor David Yezzi, another piece that I look forward to reading: “The Amis Country,” which concerns the fiction and poetry of Kingsley Amis. Amis was a sometime formalist who deserves some attention, though his work cannot stand among the greats. But I am willing to give his poetry and fiction another good look. Yezzi is a fine writer whom I pay attention to. Even though he is no Wintersian, he has certainly profited from his study of Winters in a number of significant ways.

Included in this issue is another essay by John Simon, who has made a few appearances in the NC of late on poetry. After decades of reviewing plays and films for New York magazine and the National Review, Simon, in retirement, has been focusing on new subjects. I have always deeply appreciated Simon’s film criticism, as well as his work in defending good usage and standard formal grammar. He is my most trusted film critic, though I wouldn’t say there is any Wintersian bent to his work in film or literature. His piece is on German poetry: “The Three Ms of German Poetry,” which is about an anthology of 20th-century German poetry edited by Michael Hofmann.

Finally, the issue has a nice sampling of some strong poetry, including “Untitled” by Adam Kirsch, “Domestic Cappadocia” by Ben Downing, “Deus ex machina” by A.E. Stallings, and “Summer in the high purpose of clouds” by William Logan. I found all these pieces worth reading. All are available online.

Whether you are conservative or liberal in politics should not matter. I hope you will take my recommendation and follow the New Criterion on poetry. There is nothing else like its work in this field in American culture today.

Certainly, I will come around on this blog soon to the NC’s new essays on Frost’s famous poems, on Robinson, and most importantly on Robert Bridges. I might have something to say about the other pertinent essays as well.

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