Nov 1, 2007

Recent Writings on Yvor Winters: David Yezzi, New Criterion, 1997: Part One

This post, part one of two, is the beginning of a series concerning fairly recent writings (meaning within the last five to ten years) that directly deal with the criticism or poetry of Yvor Winters.

I launch the series with a look at an essay already 10 years old, by David Yezzi, one of the so-called New Formalists and poetry editor of the New Criterion. The essay, “The Seriousness of Yvor Winters,” came out in 1997 in the New Criterion. That’s a while back, I realize, but though the essay came out 10 years ago, it is still the most prominent essay written on Winters’s literary achievement in the past several decades. This year, it also has been reprinted in a book of essays from the New Criterion, Counterpoints: 25 Years of The New Criterion on Culture and the Arts, edited by Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer (Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2007), which, by the way, also contains several other essays loosely relevant to Yvor Winters’s thought. Furthermore, Yezzi’s essay is one of the most frequently accessed web pages about Winters on the Internet: it was the fifth highest page in a recent google search using the phrase “Yvor Winters,” and it has appeared first many times in the past in searches on his name. I believe, therefore, that it is worth discussing in some detail. The essay is still available online at:

It might help to know a bit about David Yezzi. He is a poet and editor who serves as executive editor of The New Criterion. From 2001 to 2005, he directed the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. I would classify him as one of the most prominent New Formalists. His poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry, the Yale Review, the New Republic, and the Paris Review and his work as editor of poetry at the New Criterion has helped keep formalist poetry alive and well. His most recent collection of poetry is The Hidden Model (Northwestern University Press, 2003). He lives in New York City.

Now, let’s turn to the essay, “The Seriousness of Yvor Winters.” Overall, I opine that the piece comes to a rather tepid conclusion, that Yvor Winters took poetry tremendously seriously. Such is true, but the notion is a common one, even among poets and critics who revile Winters. Furthermore, seriousness (as depicted in the photo) is hardly unusual or surprising among poets, critics, or literature professors of the past 100 years and more, as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog. There is so much that is so much more important about Winters that taking his seriousness as his most important attribute or accomplishment appears, to me, trivial.

But Yezzi does imply that he thinks better of Winters’s poetry and literary theories than his explicit conclusion. Though he doesn’t quite come out and say so, Yezzi suggests quite strongly that he would like to see you read Winters, especially the poetry, and to consider Winters’s critical approach to poetry with care -- if also with a great deal of caution. As a Wintersian, for these implications I should be and am grateful.

Nonetheless, Yezzi also implies that though the bent of Winters’s criticism is noteworthy and valuable, generally speaking, he does not think the details of the criticism to be worth your time, especially Winters’s judgments of individual writers and individual poems and novels. For this I must object to the piece. Yezzi, in fact, offers only rather nebulous reasons why we should read Winters’s criticism other than that Winters was very serious about poetry, wrote stylish prose, and wanted to put logic and reason back on center stage in poetic composition and criticism. Such general praise, perhaps, might inspire a few readers to give Winters’s criticism a look. After pondering the matter for some time, such views are probably the best that I or other Wintersians could hope for at this point, so low is Winters’s reputation and so anemic his influence. Naturally, I think Yvor Winters’s work more valuable and eminent than Yezzi does, but any effort to get Winters more attention and higher regard has to start with something like Yezzi’s vague, guarded endorsement.

The essay follows the standard New Criterion format for its general overviews, which are a regular feature of the journal, one I much appreciate. These commendatory pieces provide an overview of the life and work, suggest that the subject of the essay is worth deeper study, but usually make no clear and final judgment of the whole career, except by implication. The NC uses this format for writers and thinkers that it wishes, generally, to approve and commend to its readers. The journal’s negative overviews are, on the contrary, always explicit in their rejection of the main ideas of the thinker or writer being surveyed.

Overall, in keeping with this commendation format, Yezzi starts out with a brisk overview of Winters’s reputation, which ranges from bad to lackluster to non-existent. Yezzi suggests, but does not state, that Winters’s reputation is probably mostly deserved. He implies that too many or most of Winters’s declarations that various obscure writers and poems are great are simply not credible. Next, Yezzi covers a few of Winters’s main critical tenets, including the issue of the morality of poetry. He handles these matters reasonably well, though he does make a few mistakes along the way (I will discuss one or two of them in part two of this post). He next summarizes a central aspect of Winters’s thought, his objections to the ideas of R.W. Emerson and the poetry of Hart Crane. In this section of the essay he restates some of the more common perceptions of Winter’s work. Here again, he is reasonably accurate, but not particularly enlightening. Nearing his conclusion, Yezzi turns to Winters’s poetry. By implication, he commends it quite strongly -- in fact, he praises it, again by implication, much more highly than the criticism. He discusses one fine poem in depth, “The Grave,” a somewhat unusual choice.

Now, what is my assessment of Yezzi’s overview? Surely, it is nice to see Winters commended to readers, but unsettling to see him admired for reasons that I consider, mostly, feeble and disparaged for old, unfounded charges. The chief problem is that Yezzi brings up but fails to counter several false charges commonly made against Winters. He repeats, for example, the common notion that he was “brutal” toward opponents in his writings and bizarre in the application of his critical theories, those judgments of individual works of literary art that raised such clouds of dust back in the day. The fact is that critical debates have been not often less argumentative than Winters throughout the development of modern literary criticism. By making no attempt to counter the almost universal party line on this and other matters, Yezzi implies that he sides, and that we should side, with that party line. Much worse, Yezzi parrots the tiresome claim against Winters that he was intellectually nepotistic in the way he supported and acclaimed the work of his students. But Yezzi makes no case for this stubborn, unjust denunciation of Winters, and I think he is entirely wrong on the matter (as I will discuss briefly in the section of miscellaneous notes in Part Two of this post).

When he gets to Hart Crane and what Crane meant to Winters’s theorizing, Yezzi is slightly off on certain points about the theory, but is passably accurate on Winters’s understanding of the moral nature of poetic statement. Yet in his discussion of Winters’s discoveries of good poets, Yezzi makes a couple more serious blunders, such as the notion that Winters thought that Wallace Stevens was the only poet whose work “equaled” that of Renaissance poets. This is such a bad mistake that it makes me wonder whether Yezzi bothered to read much of Winters in preparation for writing this piece. (Again, see Part Two for further comment on this matter.)

Yet clearly, Yezzi believes that the neglect Winters’s most general ideas and critical inclinations have endured is unfortunate, which implies that he thinks Winters is worth reading for the general tenor of his criticism, if not for the specifics. He has his disagreements with Winters, as we all do of everyone, but he thinks, as he says, in quite strong words, that what Winters committed himself to is of great usefulness and importance:

... as both a description of [poetry’s] enduring ills and a prescription for regaining much that has been lost to the lyric tradition in English, Winters’s bitter pill is our long-overlooked and strongest medicine.

Yezzi also implies that the general, abstract principles of Winters’s criticism are admirable and exemplary, as suggested in this earlier passage:

The critic’s detractors who feel that Winters, through his adherence to logic, has squelched emotion have lost the gist. The connotations inherent in language are expressive of emotion; to this extent emotion is a great part of the point. The “morality” of poetry as Winters understood it lay in how emotion was not
obliterated but managed. Emotion in excess of the motivating argument was contrary to the purpose of poetry, as it obscured the experience under consideration [quoting Winters]: “In so far as the rational statement is understandable and acceptable, and in so far as the feeling is properly motivated by the rational statement, the poem will be good.”

This reads as though Yezzi approves of the way Winters approaches literature, at least in a very general sense, if not of the application of his critical principles. I must say now that that’s good enough for me, coming as it does from a well-known formalist critic in a major publication, even though, as you might guess, I agree with Winters much more broadly, deeply, and specifically, and hope as well that his ideas will gain wider influence (I have no hope for their ascendancy in literary culture). We can presume, then, I believe, that what follows in Yezzi’s description of Winters’s criticism are the concepts that Yezzi considers good, if strong, medicine. And what follows is a discussion, mostly accurate, of Winters’s views on Romanticism, which were mostly negative, and on the morality of poetry, which were entirely positive. Was Yezzi giving a general stamp of approval for such views? It seems so, and I find the act heartening.

Further, Yezzi offers even stronger admiration for Winters’s poetry. I think he overplays a bit how much the poetry has been forgotten (see Part Two); it is actually, in my assessment, the criticism that has fallen into almost complete neglect. There are still some readers of the poetry, and I guess we can hope, however meagerly, that there will be a time when it will again become influential, for in Yezzi’s mind it is the poetry that stands at the summit of Winters’s achievement:

If Winters’s poems are forgotten, they have themselves to blame. They are extreme measures for poetry’s present ills. Likewise, while its often unorthodox judgments can be hard to swallow whole, Winter’s criticism reclaims for poetry a passionate control, and a spareness suited to our perennial concerns.

These words imply that Yezzi hopes, in the abstract, that more American poets will some day more often emulate, in the very widest sense, Winters’s brand of modern classicism. I share such hazy hopes. But the problem I see in these comments is that Yezzi’s phrases are imprecise generalizations. Yezzi doesn’t explain these comments in enough depth to know what they mean to him exactly, how he might apply them, what they might mean to how or why poems should be read or written. What kind of writing best exhibits “passionate control”? What sort of “spareness” should we foster in our poetry? Yezzi says earlier in the essay, “... it is just Winters’s brand of seriousness and his emphasis on logic and reason in poetry that contemporary verse sorely wants.” This implies Winters’s poetry is worth your time and study, and that it should have greater influence. I agree, in the abstract. But, of course, Yezzi does not specify in any way how he thinks logic and reason should be employed in poetry.

Yezzi then reaches his conclusion by commending Winters’s seriousness, which he thinks is the most admirable and compelling aspect of his literary career. I don’t know why people find seriousness so compelling. Is it a BIG DEAL that Yvor Winters was serious about literature? I have found that nearly every critic or author who writes about literature is serious about it. Plenty of modern critics and poets and novelists and writers, just about all in fact, take writing with great seriousness, as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog. Winters might be worth reading for this reason, but I hardly think it’s the single most important reason to read him. The final paragraph appears to be a summation of Yezzi’s views, and I quote it in full:

Winters’s poems never hesitate to swing for the outfield wall. They do everything poems these days ought not to do: they tackle subjects other than the self, grapple with universals, follow strict prosodic norms, command a bold rhetorical tone, eschew imagery for abstraction, favor edification over pleasure. They are, in Winters’s phrase, “Laurel, archaic, rude.” If Winters’s poems are forgotten, they have themselves to blame. They are extreme measures for poetry’s present ills. Likewise, while its often unorthodox judgments can be hard to swallow whole, Winter’s criticism reclaims for poetry a passionate control, and a spareness suited to our perennial concerns. After Winters, every line and every word may be held responsible to standards of emotional clarity. As with Rilke’s archaic torso, or Winters’s own “A Grave,” when each of today’s more fashionable, self-expressive, and wildly emotive poets looks on Winters’s work, there is but one heartfelt message: you must change your life.

Nothing previous in the essay has prepared us for that final clause: that the sort of poetry Winters wrote and advocated calls on us to change -- even demands that we change -- our lives through great literature. I agree, very generally speaking, but I don’t see how Yezzi reached this sudden and stirring finale. However fervent this comment appears, in context it feels tossed in, little better than inspiring nebulousness. And what exactly is Yezzi saying in that final paragraph as a whole? There is little that we can be sure of. The paragraph leaves no more than the impression that Winters’s brand of poetry has much to offer, provides a better model, and is serious business. I can’t quibble at all with such very general notions. But what each item in Yezzi’s litany of phrases, such as “favor edification” or “grapple with universals,” specifically mean to Yezzi remains tenuous indeed. We would have to look to his other writings to understand what he means by such misty phrases as “standards of emotional clarity,” “self-expressive,” or “wildly emotive.”

I must admit that when I first read Yezzi’s piece I was disappointed and a bit irritated. But now, after some years have passed and I have come to know Yezzi’s work a little better, I see that he was probably giving as much support to Winters’s ideas as he possibly could without damaging his own career. For the measure of general support he gives I am grateful. Certainly, Yezzi gives Winters a chance to win new adherents by trying to suggest that readers should take the time to read him.

In Part Two of this post, which I will post next week, I will go through a number of miscellaneous passages from Yezzi’s essay and comment upon them.

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