Aug 23, 2007

Summer Reading for Wintersian Classicists

Did you notice the recent June article in Time magazine about books that writers read during the summer, books that they consider, and most of us also will consider, "guilty pleasures." These are books that are not of high literary artistry or seriousness but are worthwhile for one reason or another. The article offers the guilty summertime reading pleasures of 16 published authors, some of whom enjoy a measure of esteem in the Mid- to High-Cult literary worlds, such as Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates. (A number of these authors, on the other hand, I do not recognize at all -- and many of their works seem to me to constitute "guilty pleasures" in themselves.) I think it's highly valuable for Wintersians and other modern classicists to talk about their own guilty pleasures, books, which people often read during the summer, that are not of the highest literary quality but are worth one's time and effort for some good reason. Some of these pleasures are simply for superior literary entertainment of one sort or another. I'd like to see readers of this blog tell us about their guilty pleasures.

You might be mildly interested in my own. Well, I would first say that there is little on my reading list that I feel the least guilty about -- nothing that I would consider the equivalent of fine chocolates, if that's the best way to think of literary guilty pleasures. With that said, let me go through a few books I've read this summer. I took in the sixth Harry Potter book at the beginning of this summer, and I don't feel guilty about it at all. Every one of the Potter books has told a good story, though I'll admit that I've kept up on the series mostly because my two boys, 14 and 11, love the books madly, as so many youngsters do. I haven't read the madly hyped final installment, though my older son has already read it four times since the day of the big release this summer. Harold Bloom and other critics have taken a few swipes at the Potter books in recent years, but I see no reason for Bloom or anyone else to get worked up in opposition to these engaging tales. They aren't great literature, hardly even literature, but every one of them has been a good read. I can't say that about every fantasy novel I've tried down the years. For example, some readers madly praised Stephen Donaldson's fantasy series from about 15 years ago, but I never got half way through the first novel among six. That I have found Harry Potter at least worth reading is enough for me. Brit Philip Pullman has been a favorite among the higher-brow critics lately, but I have found Pullman a bit strained.

I also read an autobiography of Earvin Magic Johnson early in the summer. I'm from southern Michigan, and Earvin was a big, big deal in these parts in his high school and college days. He played at a Lansing area high school, the region where I have lived for 25 years, and at Michigan State in college, where I have worked for the past 20 years. I also am a fan of college basketball in general. The ghost-written autobiography was rather simply written in a decidedly pedestrian style. But I learned a few things about Magic and enjoyed reading about his perspective on his life. The book was suprisingly a bit flat for such an ethusiastic man. Magic was much less fired-up about something the Michigan public found so amazing, his magical skills with a basketball, in those days when he was a "phenom" in high school. Further, I find it almost incomprehensible that he had doubts about himself. His ever widening public seemed to know his destiny long before he could recognize or believ in it. I might misremember the time of his high school magicalness, but I don't think so. He was the biggest athlete in Michigan then and ever since, by far. No one has ever even come close to the attention he received around here.

In addition, I have been absorbed by the "Roma Sub Rosa" historical fiction series by Steven Sailor. These "detective" novels are set in the time of Juluis Ceasar (I'm a buff of the history of the Roman Empire), and the main character is an upper-class fellow who has many high-level politcal connections and lives in Rome. This man, Gordianus the Finder, has a knack for solving murders, in a time when there were no detectives as such, and these murders usually have some importance to the knotted politics of the tumultuous times. I've been reading one of these books every summer for the past few years. I've found them all worth my time as guilty pleasures. They've taught me about some of the finer points of the history of the Roman Civil Wars, too.

Also, this summer I've been reading a fascinating book on rum-running on the Great Lakes, "Outlaws of the Lakes," which has certainly been eye-opening. It's not particularly well written, sticking mostly to the bare facts and relating them in an overheated tabloid style, but it tells many fascinating tales and gets the facts straight for the most part. I'm interested in the subject, first, because I'm a Great Lakes captain during the summers for the Kilpela family ferry business on Lake Superior; second, because I met a local in northern Michigan whose uncle was a rum-runner on Lake Superior back in the days of Prohibition; and, third, because I am fascinated with questions of crime, its causes and its cures -- and with literature's bearing on the causes and cures of evil. My interest in crime and evil, it might be wotth noting, is surely one of the reasons, among many, that I was first and remain attracted to the literary theory of Yvor Winters -- and that might be the most important point.

One guilty pleasure turned out not be all that pleasurable, Hemingway's "Nick Adams Stories," which I tried to pick up again after some 30 years (it's the second time I've tried to read them after first reading them in my college days). I found the writing, themes, and discernible purpose of these stories, which are famous in this area, since many are set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to be nearly worthless. I quit after three stories and don't think I will return to them ever again.

There are other guilty literary pleasures in my life. To mention a few, I think of Elmore Leonard, the crime novelist, history books about the region I live in during the summer (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), the history of Christian theology, and the development of Christian beliefs and ideas. But I'd like to hear about the so-called guilty pleasures of readers of Winters, anyone who might be even mildly sympathetic to what he stood for as poet and critic.

Aug 6, 2007

A Recent Study of Recent British Poets

I have been wanting to give notice on this blog at some point that well-known poet Dana Gioia recently (in 2003, to be exact) published a book of essays that has clear connections to the literary work of Yvor Winters. Gioia, as most who follow American poetry know, is the poet who wrote that quite famous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" back in the early 1990s (an essay that I would like to study from a Wintersian perspective some time). He has worked tirelessly in promoting and nurturing American poetry, as he understands the art, of course, and has shown a strong interest in the development of the so-called New Formalism, a poetic movement which I as a Wintersian certainly applaud but which hasn't achieved all that it might yet. (Winters, by the way, might not have had very high regard, at least in my judgment, of the work of the New Formalists -- though this is a subject I also must return to some time on this blog.)

Further, Gioia had notable interersts in Winters's work. He was a presenter at the weekend symposia on Winters's career held at Stanford University in 2000 (the occasion was the centennial of Winters's birth). This indicates, at the least, that some prominent formalist poets and critics who have some sort of connection to Winters consider Gioia to be knowledgeable about and sympathetic, in some ways and to some degree, to Winters's poetry and criticism, even though I wouldn't call Gioia a Wintersian in any sense (which, I suppose, is yet another matter worth investigating on this blog).

The book of Gioia's that I want to take notice of is the one on recent British poetry. The book contains discussions of several poets who have connections in one way or another to Winters, including one poet whom Winters considered to have written one of the greatest poems in the English language, the late Thom Gunn. The book is entitled "Barrier of a Common Language." It is part of the Poets on Poetry Series published by University of Michigan Press. The book is about the lack of knowledge about and interest in American poetry in Britain and British poetry in America, which is, according to Gioia, another aspect of America's growing postwar independence in its literary and intellectual pursuits. On the book's promotional site, Gioia is quoted as writing, "... most American readers are not only unfamiliar with current British poetry, but modestly proud of the fact. They do not dissemble, but urbanely flourish their ignorance as an indisputable sign of discrimination." Gioia also is quoted as writing that for British poetry to regain some measure of importance in American literary culture, a level of regard that it had, say, 50 years ago, "will depend on the quality of service it receives from critics, poets, editors, and anthologists who alone can make it accurately heard and understood."

The book includes essays on new British poetry in the late 20th century; James Fenton; a fellow Gioia considers the most unfashionable poet alive, one Charles Causley; Philip Larkin; Wendy Cope; short views on Ted Hughes, Kingsley Amis, Tony Connor, Dick Davis, Thom Gunn, Charles Tomlinson; as well as essays on Anthony Burgess as poet and on Donald Davie.

Gioia's discussions of Dick Davis and Thom Gunn are most pertinent to my concerns on this blog. Davis is a poet teaching at Ohio State who wrote a cogent, learned, sympathetic, and even inspiring study of Winters's career some 25 years ago and continues to write superb formalist verse, some of it published from time to time in the New Criterion. Davis has drawn the attention of Wintersians over the past couple decades as one of the truly finest living poets in the English language. Some of his work, I believe, might even be considered great, that is to say worthy of inclusion in the Winters Canon. In his verse and in his essays, Davis has striven, in part -- and with admirable success -- to keep the classical literary principles of Yvor Winters alive.

Gunn is better known. He studied with Winters at Stanford for a year in the 1950s and went on to a very highly regarded career in poetry while living on the west coast of the U.S. His commitment to formalism -- and even classicism -- is unmistakable and laudable. Gunn wrote one poem that was included in the Winters Canon and so is considered by Winters, as I understand him, as one of the great poets of the English language. Gunn's work is certainly worth your study. His poetry is mostly first-rate, especially his earlier work, the poetry more heavily influenced by Winters. He wandered off a truly classical course later in his career, but his work from this period, the 1980s and 90s, remains very worthwhile. His essays are also excellent; some concentrate on issues of central importance to Winters's critical theories, such as his studies of Fulke Greville and Ben Jonson. He also wrote a superb reminiscence of Winters in the Southern Review in 1981, which was republished in his very fine essay collection "The Occasions of Poetry," which also contains those fine and illuminating studies of Greville and Jonson.

Gioia's consideration of Philip Larkin, whose work Winters knew, and Kinsley Amis both appear worthwhile, judging at a glance. And Wintersians also should not miss the essay on Donald Davie. Davie is a poet who has shown strong interests in the New Formalism, in its British strain, and was deeply interested in Winters's thought and poetry. So sympathetic to Winters was he once considered that he was chosen to edit and write an introduction to Winters "Collected Poems" in the 1980s. He came to know Winters's wife, the poet and novelist Janet Lewis, in the time after Winters's death in 1968. Nonetheless, Davie has not always found Winters's ideas all that congenial or sensible, not even some of his central critical tenets and practices. Still, Davie is a fine formalist poet who had connections to Winters and to Janet Lewis. I believe he deserves attention and study from those interested in the classicism Winters espoused.