Nov 6, 2007

Yezzi on Winters, 1997, Part Two

I have a few isolated issues to discuss concerning David Yezzi’s 1997 overview of Yvor Winters in the New Criterion.



Early in the essay, Yezzi quotes Randall Jarrell on Winters and leaves the clear impression that he agrees with Jarrell, since he offers no objection to anything in the Jarrell quotations he chooses. In my judgment, however, Jarrell’s characterizations of Winters as a neoprimitive variety of neoclassicist, and even as simpleminded (?!!), are blatantly ridiculous. Winters was as far from simpleminded as can be imagined. (I won’t make any case to counter this inane charge here, and I have no plans to bother with one either. But perhaps it’s needed? Someone tell me whether I need to make the case, because I’ll do it if there is a need.) And he was no primitive, either. He had no interest in a return to some “Garden of Eden” of literary taste. Rather, he sought, admirably, by any viable means a continual strengthening of the civilization that formed classical literature and the greatest works of literary art. Winters, as is so infrequently remembered by his detractors, even praised Romanticism, which he opposed as a system for decades, for what it had contributed to development of classical civilization. It is rather obvious that Jarrell did not understand Winters, and his warped, worthless opinions should have been given no voice in this essay except to be soundly rejected.


Yezzi also takes Winters to task, as so many other critics have, on the issue of nepotism -- that is, his support for his students’ work: “Winters was loyal to his favorite students, however, often crediting them with knitting together the strands of a logical, plain-spoken poetic, which had been frayed so violently by the associative tendencies of the Romantic tradition. Winters makes room at the top of his critical ladder for students and colleagues such as Thom Gunn, J. V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, N. Scott Momaday, Donald Stanford, and his wife, Janet Lewis -- a few of them excellent poets, but a dubious, nepotistic list.”

First, there is NOTHING the LEAST dubious about the superb criticism and poetry of these poets. Winters’s praise for their work should not be considered nepotistic, as has been so often unjustly and foolishly charged. I consider Yezzi’s comment a serious blunder. Cunningham, Bowers, Momaday, and Lewis wrote several of the greatest poems of our language, as I will argue when we get to their work as I slowly work my way through a reconsideration of the Winters Canon. But I am not alone in that high opinion of their accomplishments. Further, Cunningham and Stanford wrote some of the finest classical criticism of our age (and even Momaday has written some fine casual criticism), and again I am not alone in judging their work so highly. Also, it’s important to note that if Winters had been blatantly nepotistic, he would have supported many more of his dozens of poet-students than he did -- which he did not. In fact, he wrote that many of them had produced no better than mediocre work, and he did not notably advocate the work of many students who might be deserving of advocacy, such as Howard Baker, Donald Drummond, and Wesley Trimpi. Rather, he recognized, almost alone, the supreme excellence in the work of several of his students and tried to see their indubitable literary achievements recognized as indubitable. Yezzi is plainly wrong, as common as this scurrilous charge of nepotism has long been.


Yezzi states twice that he thinks Winters’s approach to poetry is what we need, as in this passage I mentioned in Part One: “Nevertheless, as both a description of its 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.”

Fair enough. But Yezzi fails to make it clear exactly what Winters’s bitter pill is, other than more rationally lucid and less emotional writing, composed in “traditional” meters. And why is the pill bitter? I don’t find it the least bitter. This pill has given me and others great relief. Part of the problem with getting people to read Winters is this attitude, that siding with him, acquiring a taste for modern classicism, will somehow be painful, trying, or grim, like Baptist converts having to give up booze or dancing. Happily, I joined Winters long ago on a journey to new, deeper areas of classical art and thought and life.


Yezzi has many good things to say about Winters’s discussion of emotion, as in this passage: “It is important to note that what Winters called for was not the complete eradication of emotion (an impossibility) but the elucidation of it. As his chief weapon against corrosive emotionalism, reason became a tenet of faith for Winters. What skulked outside the purview of the rational, the obscuring darkness at the margins of experience, held the supreme threat. His was not, however, a denial of such murky realms; in fact, far from being an innocent with regard to the deleterious darkness outlying reason, Winters keeps the watch on just that verge of benightedness.”

This accurately summarizes Winters’s views on emotion. He often read poetry and wrote his own poems to keep watch on the edges of experience, which modern poets have explored and contemporary poets continue to explore without caution or control for so long.


Yezzi comments, “For Winters, the purpose of poetry is to describe experience as precisely as possible.”

This is a bit misleading. The purpose of poetry, of literature, as Winters stated many times in his essays, is to judge experience properly. The accurate description of experience, as Yezzi puts it, is surely important to that artistic enterprise, but it is not the final end of that enterprise. Such a view as Yezzi’s can throw a reader far off the track in trying to understand Winters. It even sounds suspiciously like Pound’s imagist ideas about the immediate apprehension of things, which Pound thought the aim of literature and which Winters opposed quite strongly.


Yezzi summarizes well Winters’s concerns with the morality of poetry: “Winters fired back [at John Crowe Ransom] in his essay on Ransom from The Anatomy of Nonsense -- he rarely missed an opportunity to rebut his detractors in print -- that, yes, ethical interest is the sole poetic concern, but a descriptive poem in its contemplation of some small nook of human experience perforce contains a moral element that it is the poet’s job to evaluate. “Morality” in poetry, as Winters intends it, then, is a slippery beast. The morality of a poem is not confined to any ostensible ethical subject matter, but is found in the degree to which the poem adds to our accurate apprehension of experience.”

Accurate and true enough, but as I said in my last comment, there is more going on in Winters’s theory than the apprehension of experience. It is, most pertinently, the judging of experience, which is a moral act (in the very broad sense of that word “moral” as Winters used it). On a side note, Yezzi’s little jab at Winters in this passage is quite inaccurate. The jab is located in the parenthetical comment about Winters seldom missing an opportunity to fire back at his opponents. The fact is that Winters commented only occasionally on the vilifications of his detractors. For example, Winters never offered a single comment in print about Stanley Edgar Hyman’s sharp dismissal of his work in 1947’s popular overview of American literary criticism, The Armed Vision. There are dozens of other examples of disapproving essays that Winters ignored. But what problem is there that on occasion he did defend his ideas, as most scholars and professors do from time to time? Doesn’t everyone have a right and sometimes a duty to do so? I don’t have any idea why this misperception of Winters persists, but Yezzi should not have contributed to its longer life.


Yezzi makes several mistakes in his comments on Winters and English Renaissance poetry: “The best section from this book [Forms of Discovery, 1967], perhaps Winters’s greatest single essay, began as a piece on sixteenth-century verse for Poetry and was expanded to chapter length and retitled 'Aspects of the Short Poem in the English Renaissance.' Save the 'post-Symbolist' poetry of Wallace Stevens, which Winters deems the most versatile in the language, the poems of the Renaissance were for Winters unequaled, the peak from which he perceived a long decline.”

The mistakes are made in the last sentence. As I mentioned in Part One, Winters never thought that Wallace Stevens was the only poet who wrote post-symbolist poetry, as Yezzi implies. Winters didn’t think that the poems of the Renaissance have not been equaled in any other time. Winters didn’t think the Renaissance was the one and only peak of English literature. These are subtle points, but important ones. Yezzi is wrong on each. Though maybe not his greatest essay (a good case could certainly be made for the opinion), “Aspects” might be his most influential essay. Its main tenets have been ably, if briefly, summarized at Wikipedia by Aaron Haspell; see:


Yezzi discusses the Renaissance Plain Style that Winters made famous, but makes a couple sly and serious errors in that discussion as well. He suggests that Winters did not know the best poems in the style, though the poems Yezzi mentions are exactly those that Winters championed. This yet again makes me wonder about Yezzi. Did he read Winters, or at least read him sympathetically or with understanding?

The problem is that Yezzi leaves several serious misimpressions about Winters and himself in one passage about Renaissance poetry. Let’s start with his comments on Winters’s admiration for the Plain Style: “With regard to Horace’s two-fold description of the purpose of poetry, edification and pleasure, Winters’s preference seems clear. Take as an example of the plain-style seriousness that Winters championed this sixteenth-century lyric by Googe, ‘Of Money’...”

This sounds innocent enough so far. Yezzi quotes the Googe poem and then comments: “While very good, this is not among the greatest poems of the plain style (better would be Jonson’s “To His Son” or Gascoigne’s “Woodmanship”), yet it is typical in certain appealing respects.” This sentence wrongly -- perhaps inadvertently -- implies two ideas. First, it implies that Winters considered this poem of Googe’s the greatest poem of the plain style. But, plainly, he did not consider it so -- and this is a serious error, for it slyly hints that Winters couldn’t quite recognize the best. Second, the sentence leaves the unmistakable impression that Yezzi himself is the one who has the sense to judge the better poems of the Plain Style, Jonson’s and Gascoigne’s, which, indeed, are much greater than Googe’s. But this is a self-aggrandizing misrepresentation of himself and Winters. For it was Winters who first championed Jonson’s and Gascoigne’s poems as among the greatest in our language, as well as who first brought the attention of the literary world to their importance -- and to the value and achievements of the Plain Style, for that matter. It was NOT David Yezzi. (The literary world has long resisted giving credit to Winters for a renewal of interest in the Renaissance Plain Style and, of course, for the rediscovery of many fine poems written in the movement). This small passage is so misleading that it calls into question everything Yezzi writes about Winters. Yet because Yezzi clearly wants people to read Winters (see Part One) and is mostly accurate about his more general ideas, I must conclude that the misimpressions he leaves here are probably inadvertent. Nonetheless, I believe that they must be corrected, as I have done.


Yezzi thinks that Winters’s poetry has been more forgotten than his criticism, as he comments: “The black ox of melancholy that had trod on Winters’s critical writing finds in his poems its fullest and most affecting expression, yet his poetry, even more than his criticism, has fallen off the literary radar.”

This is hardly so. Winters’s poetry is still read by many and commented on much more frequently than the criticism. Two fine editions of the poetry have come out in the 2000s and been reviewed in major publications, such as the New York Times. Further, the poetry continues to be highly regarded by many prominent poets, even many who have no truck whatsoever with Winters’s literary theories. In contrast, the criticism has almost no importance at all, except among the few Wintersians who remain. Even most so-called members of the Stanford School, as Wintersians at times have been called, reject -- or at best neglect -- most of his critical tenets (Robert Pinsky for example). I applaud Yezzi for at least implying that Winters’s general ideas, if not Winters’s application of those ideas, are worth your time and worth adhering to.


That’s it on David Yezzi’s 1997 piece on Winters. In this series I will next turn to Christopher Ricks’s chapter on allusion in Yvor Winters’s poetry in his 2002 book Allusion to the Poets.

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