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.

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