May 30, 2007

What We’re Up Against

I was looking through the narrow, shadowed, dusty stacks at the Michigan State University Library last week (I work at MSU as a fund-raising writer) looking for a particular book. I was in the general literature section, PS 1-100 or so (pictured is the main entrance to the MSU Library some years ago). Always when I’m searching for specific books at the library, I glance at publication dates on location stickers as I pass along the stacks to see what’s new in literary culture or some other area of concern. I sometimes pop the newest books I haven’t seen before off the shelves and search the indexes to see whether they have much to say about subjects or issues I’m interested in, such as (often I’ll admit) Yvor Winters and the Wintersians -- though I do follow a number of other topics and issues, in case some of you are wondering. Well, last week in the stacks, as a result of this practice, I noticed a book published in 2004 entitled A History of American Literature by Richard Gray, whom I do not know and have never read anything by. It was published by the reputable house of Blackwell Publishing. It was a big book, some 900 large, densely printed pages, covering our literature from its beginnings up to the 2000s.

I found, happily, that it included a few sentences on Yvor Winters, though they added up to less than quarter of a page. It’s nice to see Winters given attention even this paltry, though, sadly, the author made a mistake in his first sentence on Winters. Gray implied that Winters was mainly inspired in his criticism by the so-called Fugitives, that group of Southern writers, known as “agrarians” in their early days, who formed the beginnings of what came to be called the New Criticism. But this is hardly the case, though it is true that Winters had relationships with some of the Fugitives, Allen Tate in particular, and wrote briefly in his formal essays about some of them and their movement from time to time.

In any case, all that this book from Blackwell had to say about a man whom some consider one of the most important writers in American letters, even in the history of the English language, was a few sentences amid 900 pages stuffed with names and words. Obviously, I and anyone else who holds the ideas of Yvor Winters in high esteem have a long way to go to see him properly regarded in literary culture. It will almost certainly never happen, of course. I’m no fool (in case that thought has crossed your mind as well). But I soldier on in the hope that those who might need or want to know of Winters’s work will find help in learning about it on this blog and on my Winters web site.

Other writers related to Winters in some way fared even worse in Gray’s book. 1) There was NO(!) mention of Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife. She is a superb novelist and poet whom some consider one of our best novelists, a superior prose stylist, and a great poet (as Winters did himself). 2) The learned and scintillating poet and literary scholar J.V. Cunningham, once a student of Winters’s in the 1930s who went on to a career distinct from his teacher’s in significant ways, did receive about half a page. That’s a sizeable amount and Gray’s discussion of J.V.C. is a fair one, even though he deserves a good deal more. 3) There was NO mention of Donald Stanford, the LSU professor, poet, critic, and co-editor of the Southern Review, Second Series through 1982. Stanford, who died a few years ago, was a brilliant advocate of modern classicism, a superb poet, and a fine editor. 4) Poet Edgar Bowers received no mention, though he was a great American poet (his status as one-time student of Winters has burdened him with an especially nasty curse). 5) Nor did Gray mention Timothy Steele, who has done so much to bring the study of metrics back into our culture, though it could be argued that he is too young to assess his part in the history of our literature. Nonetheless, I consider his work to be very important.

Lastly, on the plus side, Gray did devote four pages to N. Scott Momaday, the only writer with a close connection to Winters to receive extended discussion. Gray treated him as an important Native American writer, of course, not as a Wintersian, which he probably is not in any but a very loose sense. The principal work Gray discussed was Momaday’s fine novel House Made of Dawn, a work that was praised by Winters (in a very brief comment) and various Wintersians back in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Donald Stanford in the Southern Review. Gray does not mention Momaday’s great modern classical poetry.

What does all this mean? That one of the greatest poets and critics of all time in the English language continues to languish in near oblivion. Too, too sad.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Mr. Kilpela,

Today I was at your Year with Yvor
Winters site where I encountered
"To Heaven" by Ben Jonson. Winters
is absolutely right regarding it.
I am 66, and there is too much I
want to say. Were I writing Emily
Dickinson's "A certain slant of
light" I would choose "weight" over
"heft" if only for the slant rhyme
the other stanzas in that poem tend
toward in their first and third
lines. My knowledge of Winters is
minimal but you are encouraging me
to learn more.

Brian Salchert
writer in sequestered evidence