Jul 27, 2007

The New Criterion on Frost "Classics"

I have been studying the essay on Robert Frost's two most famous poems, so-called "classics," which was published in the most recent annual poetry issue of the New Criterion in April 2007 (this is a continuing series I highly applaud, by the way). The essay is reverential toward Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." (The photo is one of one of my own recent stops on a snowy evening, in a township park in Okemos, Michigan, where I live in winter.) FAR too reverential, in my opinion. These poems have a nice structure and offer a number of nice turns of phrase. But there's hardly anything significant about them. They give us no truly deep insight into any vitally important human experience nor offer any new or vital understanding of some aspect of human life. They're casually, folksily expressive, sweetly descriptive, and at times pithy. They have obvious stylistic virtues, as Winters acknowledged several times in his major essay on Frost in 1949, and are strongly metrical. But I would recommend many another modern poem as truly classic and truly important, starting with many of the splendid, searing, profoundly moving, densely intellectual works of J.V. Cunningham, Elizabeth Daryush, Edgar Bowers, Helen Pinkerton -- or Yvor Winters himself. These two poems are hardly even the best in Frost -- by far.

The essay is the effort of some critic named Dan Brown, whose previous work I do not know. Brown appears to have intended the piece simply to draw our attention back to these two poems for some unknown reason -- as if either poem needed any more attention than it already gets. Are these two poems somehow in danger of being forgotten? If anything, they more deserve to be lowered in status than raised yet higher again. In addition to speaking very highly of them, Brown briefly describes some aspects of their rhetorical structure. He is fascinated that neither poem contains a metaphor. But just what Brown makes of their lack of metaphor is unclear. He describes the fact, but then simply leaves the subject there. Does the lack of metaphor say something about the poems, about Frost's body of work in general, about American poetry in general, about the current state of affairs in our literary world, about anything at all? Brown has nothing to say about any of these matters. He's just simply fascinated -- and by implication appears to want us to be fascinated too. Well... I am not.

Brown finishes up in his final paragrah with a brief, rather abstract, high-falutin' comment about how these two poems illustrate what he believes to be an important aspect of modern poetry, the departure from norms. But how this aspect is related to the two poems' lack of metaphor is wholly obscure. Concerning "departure," I surmise that Brown is impressed that Frost wrote in metrical verse with a casual, "natural" style. Writing folksy verse is not as hard to do as so many critics seem to think. Like any craft, it's hard to do well, I suppose, but not something hard to do in itself. Yes, I agree, as did Winters, that Frost had a gift for writing casually in verse. But the much more important point is that Frost didn't accomplish much with his skill in these two supposedly classic poems. As with the making of any artistic literary statement, it is best made when made to acomplish something important with the statement. But Frost accomplishes next to nothing with these two poems. "The Road Not Taken" rehashes, simply, the ol' American thirst for independence, akin to Huck Finn's desire to light out for the country. "Stopping By" has very little to say other than to tell us to stop and smell the daisies (or enjoy a pretty patch of snow, as the case may be).

In conclusion, I don't think Brown's essay adds up to anything more than New Criterion's attempt to stamp these two poems as "classic," and to so stamp Frost's entire body of work as well. That's fine, I suppose (though I disagree that Frost's work deserves such a lofty status), but hardly a matter that deserves a leading essay on poetry in the only general-readership journal that has anything to do with formalist poetry these days. There is so much else that is so much more worth the while of serious poetry readers. The essays on Robert Bridges and Kingsley Amis in the same issue are two examples. I see little reason to expand discussion of these two modestly well-turned, yet conceptually thin and trifling, poems.

Jul 18, 2007

Top Tens, More Top Tens, and Yet More Top...

I noticed the publication this year of yet another book that ranks the "greatest" books, the rankings accomplished by one means or another. This particular book offers a ranking done by vote, in this case by the voting of a small set of purportedly authoritative professionals, so-called "writers." The book is entitled "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books" and is edited by J. Peder Zane, who also edited a recent collection about writers' recommendations of excellent, often overlooked books entitled "Remarkable Reads."

"The Top Ten" claims to be "the ultimate guide" to the world's greatest books. The authorities it employs to the task of selecting these books are such writers as Norman Mailer, Annie Proulx, Stephen King (come again!), Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Margaret Drabble, Michael Chabon, and Peter Carey. Some of these writers have, in my judgment, a measure of literary skill, knowledge, and wisdom, others less so -- some quite a bit less so. Each writer names the ten books that have "meant the most" to him, as the promotional literature puts it (even though this criterion is quite different from a selection of the greatest books). The purpose is to help readers understand the greateness of books they have always loved and to discover great works that might be new to some.

"The Top Ten" includes brief summaries of 544 books, each of which is judged to be among the ten greatest books ever written by at least one "leading writer." As well as each writer's Top Ten List and the summary list based on a simple descending point system, the same sort of system used in college sports polls, the book offers a few other top ten lists tabulated from 544 picks, such as:

• The Top Ten Books by Living Writers
• The Top Ten Books of the Twentieth Century
• The Top Ten Mysteries
• The Top Ten Comedies

It's interesting to me that this practice of ranking works of art and making lists of the greatest works (and greatest among many other sorts of things) has become so common in our time, in the last 20 years or so. Yvor Winters was often vilified, when he was paid any attention at all, for ranking works of literature during his lifetime, but ranking has become commonplace, even among the most highly regarded writers and critics of our time. It feels like everyone and everything gets ranked nowadays, and "experts" choose the greatest and the "bests-of" for many classes of things by one means or another. Though the promotional literature says that "The Top Ten" has sparked debate, nothing in the lists is all that controversial. Here's the top ten works of liteature of all-time, as voted by its gaggle of writers:

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
9. The stories of Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch, by George Eliot

There is hardly anything suprising about that list, except, perhaps, for "Lolita." Winters wrote little about any of these writers except for Shakespeare. He did say Proust was one of the three greatest novelists, but he never explained himself or made a case for the judgment (the comment was recorded by a fellow named Ashley Brown, who published it in an essay in the "Southern Review"). Janet Lewis, Winters's wife, praised Nabokov's style and skill in an interview some years back, though she didn't specifically mention "Lolita" that I recall offhand. Though Winters studied American literature in depth in one of the seminal, though sadly overlooked or disregarded, critical studies of the subject in our history, "Maule's Curse," which was reprinted in "In Defense of Reason, " he hardly mentioned Twain in his essays. I suspect that he considered "Huck Finn" to be negligible, or at least susstandard, not up to snuff with the finest work of Melville, James, Hawthorne, and even James Fenimore Cooper -- the judgment of Cooper would have stunned and amused Twain, eh?

My main point is that the work of ranking goes on, and people interested in such things, as I am, should pay more serious attention to Winters's once derided and controversial rankings of the greatest -- as well as, more importantly perhaps, to the criteria he used to judge the greatest works of literary art. Some fairly highly regarded literary figures are taking part nowadays in the practice of ranking. In most of these rankings, what I call the "Standard Canon" gets approved and re-approved and re-approved yet again. What would Winters have said about these lists? Would he have approved of voting by descending points, as in a sports poll? It's hard to believe that he would have, though it seems possibly of good sense. But then how else should "greatness" or the "greatest" be defined and adjudicated? Would Winters have approved of writers voting and having their votes tablulated? Would he consider such writers authoritative? Would he have considered these particular writers, Mailer, et. al. authoritative? I can guess the answers to those last two questions more easily. He probably would have found writers of the sort taking part in Zane's vote to be of no significant merit in deciding true literary exellence and probably would have considered these particular writers, almost across the board, to be unqualified to vote for a list of the greatest literature.

On a side note, a fascinating development is that Stephen King has come in recent years to be seen as "literary," a serious writer. King was long regarded, justly, as no more than a pop writer, little more than a hack. But then the "New Yorker" began publishing him and some critics began writing about him and his standing began to rise for some reason that I have been unable to makes sense of, for his writing style and stories remain rather undistinguished. Now, in various venues and for various purposes, he gets consulted as one of our "fine" writers, as a serious literary author. I doubt Winters would have agreed.

Jul 6, 2007

Wnters's Supposed Anti-Mimesis

It's summer, of course, and the time for writing blogs seems to evaporate. I've been spending a lot less time working on this project in the past month or so because my life has taken its yearly turn when I go to northern Michigan to help run a family business on Lake Superior with my brothers. Yet I've been reading plenty -- and plenty by and about Yvor Winters, in addition to other fare. One piece I went back to this summer was an essay about Winters's study of the function and usefulness of the drama, which can be found in his essay "Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature," an essay which was republished in his collection The Function of Criticism. The 1971 essay about Winters's work in this area that I have been working through again is by James Barish. It came out in the Johns Hopkins journal New Literary History and was entitled "Yvor Winters and the Anti-Mimetic Prejudice." It is the only detailed consideration, at least that I have found, of Winters's admittedly rather surprising essay ever published, though there have been a number of critics who have made sidelong comments, usually dismissive, or downrigfht derisive, about the "Problems" essay down the decades since it was first published.

Barish's oppositional essay is certainly worth finding and reading. For students and professors, it is available for free on J-STOR, the web site that offers many journal atrticles. If you don't have access to J-STOR, I'd be happy to send you a text version of Barish's essay, though, of course, it remains under copywright and cannot be reprinted without permissions.

I think that Winters's "Problems" essay, despite that it is had no effects on the study of drama, is one of the most important to the future of the study of Winters, as I have hinted a number of times before on my Winters Web Site and this blog. Winters concentrated on poetry quite heavily, as is well known. But his general literary theory, as Winters himself mentioned from time to time, has strong applications to all genres of literature and to many of the other fine arts, as we call those artistic activities that we consider the most "serious" in one sense or another. The "Problems" essay offers a few rough ideas, some no more than implied, that can lead the next generation of Wintersian critics, if it ever arises, forward in more widely applying and extending Winters's ideas about conceptual analysis, literary form, and evaluation to other genres of literature and arts related to literature, such as theater and film.

One has to wonder why Barish, back in '71, several years after Winters's death, bothered with his essay. I will give it a full consideration some time fairly soon on this blog, but for the present, I will say that the title gives us just about everything Barish had in mind to say. He finds Winters to be "anti-mimetic" and Winters's judgments concerning drama to be "prejudicial." Yet, let me state flatly -- though without making a case for my statement at this time -- that Barish is wrong on both points. First, Winters was certainly not "anti-mimetic" in the sense that Barish defines this term or in any sense I know of. Briefly, Winters saw mimesis as only a part, but a logically subordinate part, of works of literary art and of writing and reading those works. He wasn't "against" mimesis at all. He did not believe that mimesis has no purpose, importance, function, or value.

Second, Winters had no "prejudice" against drama as a genre. Yes, he saw theaterical mimesis as less important and as having a different function than thousands of critics saw and see it still, Barish presumably numbered among them. And yes, he believed that poetry was the greater art for various reasons. But Winters argued for a subordinate status for mimesis rationally, clearly, and in detail in his "Problems" essay. That Winters makes arguments in the logical manner that he does shows that he was not prejudiced. He certainly stood in disagreement with many critics about the status of drama as a genre, but was not prejudiced against them and their positions. Simply put, Winters argues for a different understanding of mimesis and the drama. Barish can disagree with Winters's arguments and offer his own counter-arguments, but to call Winters's position one of "prejudice" is to load the dice against Winters from the get-go -- and should be called prejudicial in itself.

My own interests have moved toward the study of film in recent years. I have been looking at film for some time now using the general critical principles of Winters's literary theory. I'm not ready yet to go public with a comprehensive Wintersian look at the cinematic art, but I will be discussing this general subject more when I return to Barish's essay in the next year on this blog. Again, I've been working through Barish's essay and will be considering his ideas and arguments in detail, just because he is the only critic to consider Winters's ideas about drama in detail. His thoughts will provide us with an excellent springboard to study the extension of Winters's theory of literature beyond poetry and even beyond literature in the years ahead on this blog.