Oct 23, 2007

The Hurts That Poetry Addresses

Poet Adam Kirsch has written a thoughtful, stimulating book review in the New York Sun that I believe is worth your time. Even the book might be worth your time. It is a collection of essays, memoir and criticism, by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry. The review can be found at:


Kirsch mentions Yvor Winters on the value of form, which I take to mean the importance of writing in some sort of discernible poetic structure that has some sort of significant metrical character (1). Yet the mention of Winters is not what interested me in the piece in particular. The central essay of the book, a memoir apparently, as Kirsch describes it, includes a discussion of the purpose of art -- and naturally the art of poetry in particular. In a couple of Wiman’s ideas that Kirsch discusses you can see a glimmer of what Yvor Winters was talking about when he wrote that the final end of a work of literary art is the evaluation of experience. The experience that many poets want to make sense of and adjust to is what Wiman calls “hurt,” and what I take this vague word to mean is something akin to the sources of Yvor Winters’s own poetic fervor. Kirsch recounts that Wiman discusses the idea that artists make their works in large part to handle the “hurts” of life. Kirsch quotes Wiman thus:
Art -- or, to be more precise, form -- is not only what enables artists to experience this sense of wrongness at all... it is their only hope of wholeness and release.

As an abstract generalization, this is suggestively close to some aspects of Yvor Winters’s understanding of poetry and of his own motivation for becoming a poet. Winters wrote poetry in his teens, but his early years of becoming a poet in the fullest sense were troubled by an acute illness, tuberculosis. For his convalescence, Winters was sent from Chicago to sanitoria in New Mexico. His early imagist poetry appears to be acutely concerned with the experience of a serious illness and the menace of death, even though he wrote no poems directly on the subject of tuberculosis. For this reason, I think Winters’s passion for poetry is almost directly connected to the “hurt” he suffered in his early 20s as a young man who came close to dying and had to face death over quite a long period, months upon months. Here is a brief discussion of this matter by Dick Davis, from his 1983 overview of Winters’s career, Wisdom and Wilderness:

It is common for adolescents, perhaps for adolescent poets in particular, to be preoccupied with death, but Winters’s acquaintance with the subject was real, not immature posturing. A great deal of the earnestness which Winters later showed in his criticism when discussing poets’ moral or metaphysical attitudes comes, I believe, from this early familiarity with death’s imminence, when the reality of what he was later to call the “metaphysical horror” of life and death unsupported by theology came home to him.

Poetry for Winters seems to have been an crucial, elemental way to face the threatening hurt of death. Still, there is little that we can be sure about in this area of his life. For example, it was strange to me to read Winters’s letters from the years of his convalescence, for the first time, and find almost no discussion of what he was experiencing as he was recovering from tuberculosis.

Despite Wiman’s suggestive comments on “hurt,” Kirsch also quotes Wiman on just how this adjusting to “hurt” is often accomplished in modern poetry -- and by Yvor Winters in his early poetry, with its forceful, ethereal, wavering evocations of minute events in the natural world of the western desert. Winters, however, came to reject what Wiman still adheres to, a tired cliché of modern poetry:

More and more what I want is some complete saturation of the actual, to feel some part of the real world wanting me to make it into words.

Yes, so much of poetry nowadays is written with that trifling intention, to see the wonders of things, to fully experience the actual, just as Winters sought seemingly complete immersion in “pure” experience in life and through poetry in his 20s, at the time he had and then was recovering from tuberculosis. Such a desire is dangerous in Winters’s view -- and trivial in my view. I don’t particularly look to literature or art to capture reality or saturate me with reality, however such terms might be construed. These are vague abstractions, and hazy generalities, and as such can be understood in myriad ways, for one person’s saturation is another person’s drowning and yet another’s just plain-old getting wet (I’m in the third category, if you can’t guess). The mature Winters would have rejected such sentiments about the purpose of poetry. He commented upon the matter many times in his writings, but in his discussion of the final cause of poetry, in the essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature,” he sharply distinguished reality from poetry:

The poem is a commentary upon something that has happened or that has been imagined as having happened; it is an act of meditation. The poem is more valuable than the event by virtue of its being an act of meditation: it is the event plus the understanding of the event. Why then should the poet be required to produce the illusion of the immediate experience without the intervention of the understanding? Perhaps the understanding is supposed to occur surreptitiously, while the poet is pretending that something else is occurring. But what is the value of such deception? Is it assumed that understanding itself is not a "real" form of experience?

I take “dramatic immediacy” to mean just about what Wiman appears to mean by “saturation of the actual.” The next sentence of the essay delineates the chief problem with this purpose:

The practical effect of the doctrine of dramatic immediacy is to encourage a more or less melodramatic emotionalism...

Nonetheless, much of the poetry Winters thought great and much of his own poetry concerns the issue of “hurt.” Again, this word is a highly equivocal abstraction; it can be construed in almost infinite ways. But the greatest “hurt” of all is a perennial concern in the poems of the Winters Canon (and I suppose all poetry, really): the hurt of death (2). Take a look at Kirsch’s review and see whether it might be worth studying Wiman’s book more closely, as I believe it might.


1. I wonder how much of the poetry found in Poetry during Wiman’s tenure as editor has had any discernible form at all. From my reading in Poetry, a mostly tiresome labor I put myself through to keep track of what’s current in poetry, most of the “poetry” is prosetic musing and has little to do with using poetic techniques to put form to experience. But these are matters for other posts.

2. On the other hand, it might be more accurate to say that Winters was not concerned so much with the hurt of death but with the hurt of necessity of death, the awareness of one’s impending death, whether imminent or remote. This facet of his poetry and criticism deserves greater attention.

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