Feb 26, 2007

A Poet Blogger on Yvor Winters, Part II

I continue with my final installment of random reflections springing from comments made on a recent post on Yvor Winters by poet blogger Reginald Shepherd, which, once again, can be found at:

http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/01/few-thoughts-on-yvor-winters-and-three.html

4. “As Robert Hass notes, ‘What is damaging about the later work is that, in addition to adopting the forms and themes of the English [Renaissance] poets, he adopted their diction. He never solved for himself the problem of getting from image to discourse in the language of his time, and instead borrowed the [language] of another age’ (Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry).”

COMMENT: I disagree with Hass quite strongly on these varied points, just to put it on record. It is a misconception that Winters “adopted” English Renaissance forms or diction in his later career. It is blatantly incorrect that he adopted its themes. His writing was damaged in no way. And it is wrong to think that Winters had any “problem” with language, whatever that might mean. Let’s go through this point by point.

First, as to forms, though it is certainly true that Winters was influenced by many Renaissance poets and poems to a degree, it is a misleading simplification to say that he “adopted” Renaissance forms. My case for this opinion will have to wait for enough time to lay it all out. But for now, let me say that very few of Winters’s poems are direct imitations of forms from another age. Winters’s later poems are indeed written in what we now call traditional forms, but these forms are not specific to the Renaissance, nor did these forms cease to be employed after the Renaissance. Hass leaves the impression that Winters’s is foolishly old-fashioned, or even retrograde, but all he has done is demonstrated how foolishly ignorant he himself is.

But what’s wrong with adopting Renaissance forms anyway? Those forms are superb instruments of poetic art, much stronger than anything offered in modernity, this dear age of willful formlessness. Winters’s poetic structure was influenced by English and French poets who over many centuries wrote in what we now call traditional forms -- but what was once more sensibly called simply “poetry”. (Need I point out that writing poems in “form” was what made poetry poetry before the modern age? Hass appears to need the lesson, though he once served as Poet Laureate of the United States.) For a study of the history and the decline of form in poetry, see Timothy Steele’s brilliant, readable survey, Missing Measures. Or perhaps you should consult the erudite writings of J.V. Cunningham, one-time friend and student of Yvor Winters, who was hardly a slavish follower of Winters and wrote in the superb essay “Poetry, Structure, and Tradition” (reprinted in Collected Essays):

I prefer with respect to poetry... the common or garden variety of definition. I mean by poetry what everyone means by it when he is not in an exalted mood, when he is not being a critic, a visionary, or a philosopher. I mean by poetry what a man means when he goes to a bookstore to buy a book of poems as a graduation gift, or when he is commissioned by a publisher to do an anthology of sixteenth century poems. Poetry is what looks like poetry, what sounds like poetry. It is metrical composition.

Hass appears to have, though I thinks he knows about it, little appreciation for such an obvious definition that has been all but lost in our time. He can disagree with the definition, but to be unaware of it and its long history is downright silly.

Nor, second, did Winters “adopt,” as Hass claims, the diction of Renaissance poets -- a bizarrely ill-informed opinion. Winters’s diction is 20th-century American through and through. Winters wrote poetry in a high register, stately and grave, no doubt, which might give it an old or outdatedsound to Hass’s tin ear. But Winters did not “adopt” (what the hell does that word mean exactly in this context, by the way?) any 15th- or 16th-century English diction. Further, though tracing the influences on Winters would be hard work, in no poem does Winters sound or read like a Renaissance poet. See for yourself. His poetry is available at most academic libraries, and two fine collections of his work have recently been published in just the past five years, one for the Library of America, edited by the late poet Thom Gunn (who was a one-time student of Winters’s), and the other by R.L. Barth for Swallow Press.

Regardless of all this, there is NOTHING that is the least DAMAGING in Winters’s chosen forms, styles, or diction. Exactly the opposite is the case, in my view. There is EVERYTHING emotionally powerful and intellectually cogent in the forms he used and the styles he employed.

Third, as to whether Winters had some sort of problem with language, another supremely strange claim from Hass, I believe that Winters never had any such problem to solve for himself, or for me, his reader. Nor did Winters have any problem writing in the “language of his time,” whatever that might mean exactly. Winters certainly did NOT borrow the language, to any significant degree, of “another age.” He writes like a modern writer, though in a highly intellectual and formal register. His diction is nothing but modern. His themes are his own and highly appropriate to the subject matter he chose to write about. Those themes are in no way derived from Renaissance poetry. They are, in fact, heavily influenced by the Romanticism Winters decried in his later criticism, a fascinating topic that several critics have elucidated. Once again, Winters employed a grave, formal, serious diction, but that does not mean that it is somehow not 20th-century American English. Hass’s comments are simply foolish or ignorant, and Shepherd’s repeating them makes me wonder whether he has read Winters with any understanding at all.

But putting aside the issue of influences on Winters, is a writer required to write in the “language of his time”? Hass’s comments appear to be meant to disparage Winters’s whole career, to portray his poetry and possibly his criticism too as completely “out of touch,” valueless to the present age -- or any age. But there is no need to use the language of anyone’s time to write great, good, or valuable poetry, nor is there any reason not to borrow directly from the language of another age (even though Winters did not do so to any significant degree). One should write in the language that is appropriate to a rational treatment of the chosen subject matter, the human experience the poet is endeavoring to understand and adjust his emotions toward. If the English of 1590 works in a poem written in 1950, then it works and should be used. Do 16th- and 17th-century poems have nothing to say to us today? Do we believe that Jonson and Shakespeare and Marlowe and Donne and Wyatt are hopelessly outdated -- perhaps that they have no meaning today at all? Surely not. Yet the casual, chatty style of contemporary musing prosetry, to use my terms (Hass himself writes plenty of this embarrassingly mindless drek), is inappropriate to one degree or another to almost all serious intellectual subjects. There are a few cases -- I think of a few pieces by Anthony Hecht, for example -- in which the convention of chatty prosetry works fairly well. But it is grossly overused and long ago became hackneyed. Hass might find Winters’s poetic practices objectionable from his view, but I do not share his view in any sense. My cases on all these varied, though related, points will have to wait for later.

5. “But the earlier poems have a wildness and a strangeness that I [Reginald Shepherd] find quite compelling. It seems to be exactly this quality against which Winters reacted in his change of style...”

COMMENT: Shepherd implies a lot in this comment. As usual, most moderns are attracted to the wild and the strange, the typical Romantic stylistic ticks that Shepherd discusses earlier in his post. Shepherd doesn’t explain this comment to any degree, other than to imply that he just likes the wild and the strange -- though there is hardly anything wild or strange any longer about Winters’s early poems, language, or form, is there? Haven’t poets been writing the kind of poetry Winters wrote in the 1920s for a century now, from Pound and H.D. right on up to the obscure and purposefully difficult proestry we find in, say, the journal Poetry? Winters would consider this take on his poetry, especially the three poems chosen for reprinting, to be inapt. In those poems, he was trying to achieve a degree of control over wildness and strangeness, the otherness of nature, that he found.

6. “Winters rejects, not just intellectually but first viscerally, any hint of pantheism or a willed unity with nature.”

COMMENT: Shepherd is correct that this was a chief thematic concern of Winters’s poetry. It is one reason why I don’t get much from a lot of his oeuvre. I have never experienced this longing or need to be at one with nature, for some kind of mystical immersion in the natural world, if such a thing were even possible. I don’t even quite understand how to become one with nature, what it would be like if it were to be achieved, what experiences would constitute the condition of being “unified” with nature. In his 20s, in the 1920s, Winters, recovering from tuberculosis that brought him very near death, apparently tried to accomplish this mysterious feat, mysterious to me at least. Here is Dick Davis in his very fine 1983 study of Winters Wisdom and Wilderness on the subject:

There is [in Winters’s early poetry] certainly the already remarked influence of fin de si├Ęcle aestheticism, the concentration on a sensibility that considers the world primarily as a source of exquisite sensation. But two factors are not received and arise from Winters’s own mind and situation. There is first what he was himself later to call, in discussing the poetry of Sturge Moore, “the hypersensitivity of convalescence,” a neurasthenia particularly felt by tuberculosis sufferers to whom the sensuous details of life become almost oppressively insistent in their minutest manifestations. Second, there is the suggestion of a mind utterly absorbed by the phenomena of the natural world: this absorption begins in mere attention, passes to a trancelike revery, and ends in virtual identification of observer and observed.... The mental absorption in the natural world became one of Winters’s major themes. He associated it with a mystical pantheism derived from Emerson, and in his later work wholly condemned it as subversive of the intellect. But in these first poems the trance of the spellbound observer of nature is celebrated, and there can be no doubt that as a young man Winters must have been particularly prone to such self-loss in nature.

I must confess that I have never experienced anything approaching this state of mind, the loss of self as a result of hyper-attention to the sensations the world around me is giving me. I love nature. I love hiking and photography and rock-climbing and canoeing. I love wilderness camping, even wilderness winter camping, and getting out into the wild. But I have never felt as though I have become part of nature more strongly than my own physicality, stronger than being a body dependent on certain conditions to remain alive. I think I understand what Davis is describing, but I cannot comprehend the experience itself. For me it sounds like talk of heaven among Christians -- something we have heard repeated so often since our earliest days on earth that we get used to the concepts, even though we can gain no comprehension of what heaven could be like when we concentrate on what it would be like to experience what the oft-repeated ideas about it actually describe. I do not know what it might mean to have my mind “utterly absorbed” in the natural world, to be fully immersed in what I am seeing and hearing and feeling and tasting. I’ve never entered any trance that approximates this experience. No inebriation or drunkenness I have experienced has ever suggested that such a state of mind has been achieved in my days on earth. (I admit I’ve had very little experience with drugs, prescribed or illegal, or alcohol.)

Eventually Winters came to believe that the desire for utter absorption and the attempt to achieve it could lead, to anyone who took the task seriously, to suicide. I don’t even quite see how that’s possible, for a human being to desire or to actually experience union with nature to such a degree that he would take the step of killing himself to heighten or deepen or further or extend the absorption. Winters came to believe as well that this is what happened to Hart Crane, his friend and famed poet who apparently committed suicide by jumping off a ship in the Caribbean. Crane, in Winters’s view, also tried to immerse himself in nature -- to his destruction. (I have discussed Crane on this blog in September and October of 2006 and will get back to him.)

For these reasons, one of the greatest poems of the English language and one of the best Winters himself ever wrote, “The Slow Pacific Swell,” remains for me little more than a magnificent and lovely exercise. The poem is about the rejection of this longing for mystical immersion. Intellectually I can comprehend the issue, with much study and concentration, but I have NO personal stake in such matters. I suppose we will come back to these matters in time on this blog, as well as to that exceedingly fine poem.

7. “I find Winters’s later poetry rather stiff and narrow, not because it is written in traditional forms, but because he too rigidly prescribed what could be done or what could happen within those forms. This is a danger that all systematic poetry faces, whether ‘experimental’ or ‘traditional.’ The later poems obey his critical strictures all too faithfully. Stylistically, there is also too much archaic diction and phrasing.”

COMMENT: How each of us “finds” a style is a matter of taste. Shepherd is, of course, welcome to his tastes. He doesn’t find Winters’s later poetry, that written in traditional forms, appealing. Let me state for the record that I do -- MUCH more appealing, in fact, than Winters’s earlier imagist poetry, three poems of which Shepherd reprints in full. I do not find Winters’s formalist poetry to be “too” stiff or his theories to have been rigidly applied. I find them very aptly and beautifully applied in most instances, though some poems are much better than others, of course. I don’t believe every line he wrote to have been great, but I contend he wrote some of the greatest poems in the history of the language.

Concerning the stiffness of Winters’s style, I find the opposite to be true. Winters designed the supposedly “stiff” language and style to strictly control and sharply refine the total meaning of each poetic statement. This matter can be studied in depth in Winters’s writings, though the best place to get a deep and insightful overview of his ideas on the strict control of the poetic form can be found in the essay “The Audible Reading of Poetry” in The Function of Criticism.

7a. “Winters believed that forms had intrinsic meanings and carried intrinsic values; he wrote of meter as having a moral significance. This is not a view that I share, but it is consistent with his approach to literature as an ethical endeavor.”

COMMENT: Shepherd raises an important issue here, corollary to item 7., in a comment made near the end of the post. The issue is one of the most difficult and important in the study of Yvor Winters. I don’t know quite what Shepherd means by the word “intrinsic”, for it was not a word Winters used to describe this aspect of his literary theory. Further, I don’t know at all what he means by form having intrinsic “values”. Again, I think he is trying to describe Winters’s ideas as he knows them, but the description is obscure, even for me who knows Winters’s theory very well. If Shepherd simply means that Winters held that form and meter contribute to meaning, he is right. I will come back to this extremely important matter in this blog soon. I have touched on it several times, especially when I discussed Thomas Hardy recently, but haven’t found the time to treat it properly yet.

The word “ethical” also implies something a little different than the word “moral,” which Winters always used to describe his theory. The distinction is worth keeping, a matter Winters wrote about a few times. He opined that the word “ethical” implied that poetry had some sort of direct affect on behavior, whereas the word “moral” implied that poetry somehow refined or adjusted one’s whole worldview, which has effects in many areas of life, in thought, feeling, and action across a wide spectrum of human experience. I don’t think it accurate to speak of Winters as having thought of literature as an “ethical endeavor,” which implies that he believed in a Horatian, didactic theory of literature.

Lastly, I want to point out that the three quotes from Winters’s criticism that Shepherd offers are each crucial to Winters’s critical thought. The first is taken from the seminal “Foreword” to In Defense of Reason, while the second two are each taken from the “Introduction” to Forms of Discovery. It’s encouraging to see Forms -- a book so often downplayed, derided, or dismissed -- get at least some attention. The passages are apt and important to the understanding of Winters.

Now to sum up: As I said at the outset, I don’t exactly what Shepherd was trying to achieve by publishing this overview at this time. He sounds as though he just wanted people to give Winters’s poetry a try, especially the early free verse work. He quotes three important passages from Winters’s criticism, but leaves the strong impression that he doesn’t think much of the ideas presented therein and that they are so far off the mark that it isn’t worth your time to study them more deeply. I’ve been reading him since he made this post, and nothing he has written since has betrayed any influence from Winters. I will say that Shepherd bears reading, though. He is at least concerned that poetry be a part of standard rational discourse and function as a kind of communication, thank goodness.

Contrary to Shepherd, I, of course, encourage you to read Winters, all of him, the early poetry, the late poetry, the early criticism, the late criticism -- and to let yourself get hooked by him if you come to know, as I have, that he is right about many, many aspects of the study of the literary arts. Otherwise, you can move on to something else (which Shepherd already has), even though Winters believed you’d be making a serious, even life-threatening, mistake by not heeding his warnings, his advice, his ideas, and his theories. I doubt that rejecting Winters’s ideas can actually be life-threatening (a matter I must discuss some time, surely), but I do believe him to be right in most areas of literary theory.

Feb 21, 2007

Love and the Winterses

An interesting article was posted on poets.org for Valentine’s Day about modern poets who have fallen in love. The article is entitled “All My Poems Are Love Poems: When Two Poets Fall In Love,” by Craig Morgan Teicher. The article offers profiles of the relationships of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall (one-time student of Yvor Winters), and interviews with C. D. Wright and Forrest Gander and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop (I know the work of none of the last four). The article can be found at:

http://poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19458

The article brought to mind one of the more obscure poet-poet relationships of the last century, that of Janet Lewis Winters and her hubby Yvor Winters, which I have had occasion to mention on this blog a couple times. Rather little has been written about them as a couple, except in the 1994 book Erotic Reckonings: Mastery and Apprenticeship in the Work of Poets and Lovers by Thomas Simmons. Two of the essays in this book cover the effects of the Winterses’ relationship on their writing (mostly the effect of Winters on Lewis's). Though I haven’t yet studied the book closely, it explores the problem of tradition and authority in the lives and work of three pairs of 20th-century American poets: Ezra Pound and H.D., Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke, and the Winterses. Simmons draws heavily on psychoanalytic theory, including the feminist variety. He argues that the mentor-apprentice relationship is inescapably erotic. He finds in Yvor Winters’s poetry a depth of eroticism that has seldom been noticed or discussed by other critics. I remain skeptical of Simmons’s psychological interpretations, but find him knowledgeable and suggestive. As to specifics, Simmons’s argument appears to be that Pound’s and Winters’s relationships manifest profound conflicts between allegiance to a tradition of knowledge and allegiance to their “apprentices,” who in Winters’s case was his wife of several decades.

As in Pound’s relationship to H.D., Simmons thinks that Winters tended to overmaster Lewis, to bind her, as (in Simmons’s judgment) in a form of domination, to a body of knowledge. Simmons reads a great deal into Lewis’s not having written poetry between the early 1940s and the early 1970s. He takes this fact as convincing evidence of Winters’s domination of her on behalf of his zeal for tradition. The relationship of Louise Bogan (several of whose poems are in the Winters Canon) and Roethke (a correspondent with both Mr. and Mrs. Winters) contrasts to the Winterses’ relationship. In Simmons’s view, Bogan and Roethke were wary of the value of a tradition of knowledge. Bogan played for Roethke a role of sustained reciprocity rather than of domination.

I’m not sold on Simmon’s interpretation yet, but I want to give it deeper study. I find very little emphasis on mentor dominance in other discussions of the Winterses’ life together. For example, dominance plays no role in Brigitte Carnochan’s overview of their writing lives in the 1984 book that accompanied an exhibition of some of the Winterses’ papers, entitled The Strength of Art. Nonetheless, there are various small but clear indications of Winters’s influence on his wife, but many fewer of her influence on him. In many ways, it appears that his work fostered the classical development of her style and shaped her choice of subject matters and her treatment of them. And all to the good: she has written several of the greatest poems in the language, and the prose style of her fiction, as I mentioned in a previous post, is masterly (pun noticed, but not intended). Mrs. Lewis’s career is a matter I will come back to from time to time on this blog. First up, shortly, must be her fine poem “For the Father of Sandro Gulotta,” which I have wanted to discuss since our recent discussions of atheism and Christian belief in the life and work of Yvor Winters.

Only a little bit more about the relationship of the Winterses can be learned in the few studies of Winters that have been published, such as Dick Davis’s very fine study of Winters, Wisdom and Wilderness. Or you can glean a few tidbits of information about their married life from the various reminiscences of Winters, such as Thom Gunn’s “On a Drying Hill” or Donald Hall’s piece in his book of such poet reminiscences Their Ancient Glittering Eyes. Also, you can investigate the Winters-Lewis marriage through The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, which was recently published by Swallow under the editorship of R.L. Barth. Finally, there is the book I mentioned, The Strength of Art, which will be hard to find, I believe. The Winterses’ marriage has yet to receive a sustained treatment. Perhaps it never shall, for they burned their letters to each other, according to Brigitte Carnochan.

Feb 13, 2007

A Poet Blogger on Yvor Winters, Part I

A poet named Reginald Shepherd has recently posted a brief, readable, and informed overview of Yvor Winters on his blog. It offers three of Winters’s free verse poems, two of them, the first and the third as they appear in the post, among the most often anthologized and discussed poems Winters wrote. The post can be found at:

http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/01/few-thoughts-on-yvor-winters-and-three.html

Shepherd makes no comment that indicates the occasion for this piece. Not does he leave any indication of what he was trying to achieve at this time with a brief, general overview of Winters, since nothing in the cultural news appears to have prompted him to write. Also, I don’t get any impression from perusing his blog that Shepherd is a Wintersian of any sort. After reading a number of his posts, I have yet to see anything in Shepherd’s blog that he is the least drawn to any major critical idea Winters had. Nor have I seen any evidence of Winters’s influence in his writing. Nor, finally, does he hint that he has been influenced by Winters in any way. But I don’t know Shepherd well yet. I will be reading him, though he seems solely interested in Winters’s early free verse poetry, written in the 1920s, the weakest work Winters did. But Shepherd is a prolific blogger and has already moved on to several other long posts on poetry, unrelated to Winters. It appears that he just wanted to urge people to read Winters, especially his free verse poetry, but to watch out and not get hooked by or bother too much with his criticism.

I have no desire to criticize Shepherd’s post. He’s welcome to his views. But I will use it as a springboard for my own reflections on Winters. I will quote at random a number of Shepherd’s comments and reflect on them.

1. “While it would be impossible to agree with most of Winters’s literary judgments (although he esteemed Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens and thought well of William Carlos Williams, he placed Robert Bridges above T.S. Eliot, and T. Sturge Moore above W.B Yeats, and considered Jones Very and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman to be two of the three greatest poets of the nineteenth century, along with Dickinson), it is also impossible not to admire the clarity, rigor, and consistency of his arguments...”

COMMENT: I assume that Shepherd means 1) that he himself couldn’t possibly agree, or that 2) the literary circle he holds himself to be part of couldn’t possibly agree, or that 3) all literary culture, however defined, couldn’t possibly agree -- or all three. I would not question what he says about himself and his literary circle, of course, but he is almost certainly right about all literary culture: it is so unlikely that American literary culture will EVER agree with Winters on his evaluations that we could say that agreement is in effect impossible. Nonetheless it is possible for another person and other literary circles to agree with Winters on these evaluations, even that Jones Very is one of the greats of English literature. So let me simply state for the record that I do agree on a great majority of the basic judgments Winters makes, including those few mentioned in Shepherd’s comment, and that there are a number of other Wintersian poets and critics who agree as well -- however circumspect they are about admitting it, a matter I will come to in a moment.

I won’t make a case for the reasonableness of my general agreement here, but I think it’s at least important to state that there are some who agree with Winters (on most literary matters). For most of us who agree with him, Winters has, using a phrase Pascale Casanova used in her fascinating book on canon-making and the marketing of literature, The World Republic of Letters, the “power of consecration.” We’re a very small group, no doubt. But it is THE group most worth following in my opinion. Sometimes praise for Winters among those who admire his work can be shockingly high, such as from the very fine formalist poet David Middleton at the opening of a review of a book about Winters in a 1983 issue of the Southern Review:

Yvor Winters is a modern master of the short poem and a major literary critic. Since few professors will defend these propositions, poets themselves, recognizing the seminal mind of the poet-critic, are placing him among his peers: Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold.
To be placed with those three is high praise indeed -- ludicrously high to those who find Winters wrong in just about everything judgment he made.

Yet I also must admit that stating agreement with Winters on his evaluations seems to be a severe problem for many Wintersians. Siding with Winters, at least roughly, on who and what is the best is even something for which Wintersians have occasionally carped at me. I have always found this odd, this extreme diffidence about granting Winters the soundness of his assessments of individual poems and poets. Those who still follow Winters, to one degree or another, nearly 30 years after his death seem almost afraid to follow him, even provisionally or generally, on the central tenet of his critical theory (his concept of evaluation) and the results of the application of that concept (the Winters Canon as delineated in the anthology Quest for Reality).

Concerning Sturge Moore and Yeats, I recommend that you consult the 1983 volume (Vol. 19) of the Southern Review, co-edited for almost two decades by Wintersian Donald Stanford. In issue 1 there is a fine essay and a review on Sturge Moore, and in issue 3 there is a superb essay by Richard Hoffpauir on Yeats compared to Hardy, to Hardy’s great advantage (this essay was reprinted in Hoffauir’s fine study of 20th century British poetry The Art of Restraint). These various writings will give you an overview of why Wintersians generally find Yeats deficient while we consider a few of Sturge Moore’s poems to have been great. Yet Yeats is a complex subject. Many poets and critics who have mild connections to or interests in Winters strongly support Yeats, including U.S. Poet Laureate and one-time Winters student Donald Hall, who in a memoir of his studies with Winters wrote that he never let Winters drive his admiration for Yeats out of him.

Finally, concerning Eliot, as well as Ezra Pound, consult Donald Stanford’s masterly Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry for a brilliant and instructive Wintersian consideration of their many weaknesses.

2. “One also must admire the seriousness with which he took literature and its role in the world, and the high standards he set for literature, idiosyncratic as his application of those standards was. For him, literature was no mere pastime or entertainment.”

COMMENT: I’m not knocking Shepherd at all, but this is a typical take on Winters among those mildly interested in him but not sold on any of his ideas or fearful of being sucked too far into his way of thinking. Such comments often read as rather backhanded compliments: “I can’t agree with this nut about anything, but, boy, he sure gets worked up about poetry.” People have been often impressed by how seriously Winters regards poetry and the study of literature. But in my opinion this ain’t no big deal. His seriousness is hardly distinctive. For every major poet, writer, and critic takes literature very seriously. All the New Critics whom with Winters debated certainly did. So did most of the most influential critics of history, those discussed in Wimsatt’s and Brooks’s Literary Criticism: A Short History. For example, consider P.B. Shelley: every moderately well-read reader knows of Shelley’s claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world (whatever that puzzlingly grandiose epithet might mean exactly).

But Shelley is hardly the only writer to make extravagant claims for literature, just as that lover of art John Ruskin made extravagant claims for the importance of painting. Fact is, I have yet to run across a major critic or poet or writer who doesn’t or didn’t take literature very seriously. Literature was far above entertainment or a pastime, surely, for Blackmur, Burke, Frye, Eliot, Pound, Wimsatt, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Tate, and on and on and on. Thus, Winters wasn’t much different from thousands of novelists, poets, and critics who devote themselves with great passion to literature, as though it’s a direly momentous matter to attend to. Yet I will say that Winters’s very fine prose does have a solemn, grave formality that certainly sobers one up. (Though historian David Levin said he could take and deliver a joke at times, a character trait that’s rather important to Americans for whatever reason.)

3. “I have no doubt that my work would fail to satisfy his strict strictures, but I have learned a great deal from Winters about the importance of clear thought in my own writing and in reading others’ work, and in speaking and writing about poetry.”

COMMENT: This is another common take on Winters’s work from those who are interested in him but cautious. People often are impressed that he was so thorough and logical in laying out his critical theory and applying it, but they don’t want to adopt the theory that resulted from the thought or sanction the results that derive from the theory. I see no reason why Shepherd should care whether his poetry might have passed muster with Yvor Winters.

On another matter, as to whether I need worry whether I or any one satisfies his strictures, believe it or not, I’m very little concerned with that. I am much more concerned to see those strictures refined and re-evaluated and reapplied these long years after Winters’s death from cancer in 1968. Personally speaking, I have little doubt that Winters would condemn much of my own work, perhaps even my understanding of his theory. But his theory is not his now. With the advice, counsel, and help of as many others as care, I am seeking to study, refine, and improve his ideas and judgments. I or we might come up with something yet stronger as theory than Winters conceived, perhaps not. I think it's work worth pursuing -- though perhaps it’s obvious that I think that. For I believe that Winters was mostly right, or on the right track. But there are areas he didn’t cover or cover adequately, especially areas that critics have concentrated on in the decades since he died. And there are areas in which I think he was wrong to one degree or another and other areas in which others who follow him closely think he was wrong. There were judgments he made that were mistaken or off-kilter and need to be corrected. Yet so much of what he did was so good and right that we must work toward improving on what he did, though in the end he might not approve of what I or anyone else or we all together do in revising or improving his theories.

Well, there’s enough to ponder for one post. I will use a few more random quotations from Shepherd’s post to write my own reflections on Winters in my next post -- unless some pressing topic or news distracts me from that plan in the days ahead.

Feb 9, 2007

Janet Lewis Winters and a New History of Paris

In its February 4, 2007 edition, the New York Times Book Review published a review of what looks to be an interesting history of the city of Paris. The subject bears on the study of Yvor Winters in that his wife Janet Lewis Winters wrote a beautifully written, powerful, tragic novel of 17th-century Paris entitled The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. It is one of three historical novels she wrote about actual legal cases concerning misjudged circumstantial evidence in which people were unjustly condemned for crimes they did not commit. One of the novel’s main characters is a book printer and binder who is wrongly accused of and executed for publishing a scurrilous pamphlet about the consorts of Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV. The review briefly mentions that the history covers the topic of the publishing of defamatory pamphlets in the time Lewis wrote of.

The NYTBR review is entitled “Paris Confidential,” by Caroline Weber, about the book Paris: The Secret History, by Andrew Hussey. The review can be found at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/04/books/review/Weber.t.html?_r=1&ref=books&oref=slogin

The Ghost is a strong and undeservedly neglected novel. It remains in print through the Swallow Press (imprint of Ohio University Press), which was the longtime and dedicated publisher of both Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis. It also can be found in academic libraries and the various topnotch web services dealing in used books, such as Alibris and Abebooks.

Novelist and journalist Evan S. Connell made an effort some years back to attract a wider readership to Lewis’s novels. Over the last half century, Connell has written 19 books of fiction, poetry, and essays, several of which have been fine bestsellers, including Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge and the absorbing anecdotal account of Custer’s Last Stand, Son of the Morning Star. Connell published an appreciation of one of Lewis’s novels about historical cases of circumstantial evidence, The Wife of Martin Guerre, in the wonderful book of appreciations of neglected books, Rediscoveries. Also, in an interview for Bookforum, Winter 2001, Connell spoke specifically of his regard for The Ghost:

Q: What contemporary authors do you read? Admire?

Connell: "Admire" isn't in my vocabulary. It suggests worship, genuflection. I've read most of William Styron's work. He's authentic and he's willing to gamble -- Nat Turner, for instance. The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis is one of the most resonant short novels I can remember. I greatly like two other books she wrote: The Trial of Soren Qvist and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. She never got the attention she deserved. So much contemporary fiction is transparent. You could poke a finger through most American novels. I would rather go back to substantial writers from the past.
Yvor Winters never discussed Lewis’s Ghost in his criticism, but he did offer a brief and insightful discussion of The Wife of Martin Guerre in an important essay, in which he claimed that Lewis was one of the finest writers of narrative fiction in English. I would say that Winters would have had no trouble saying that he admired the work of great authors -- nor do I. I find Connell’s fears of the word “admire” to be rather pretentious. Winters’s lofty admiration for his wife’s fiction has not been often seconded, predictably, but I urge you to give Lewis’s extremely intelligent and beautifully composed fiction a try. Her prose comes close to setting one of the great standards for the writing of serious literary fiction in modern times. I hope to discuss it on this blog frequently.

Feb 7, 2007

Sheep and Goats

The New Criterion has announced the winner of its annual Poetry Prize. Critic and editor David Yezzi, who discusses or at least mentions Yvor Winters in his writings and whom we discussed last week on this blog, and other NC editors chose J. Allyn Rosser for the seventh annual award for her manuscript of poems that reportedly pay close attention to form. Besides Yezzi the judges were David Barber, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and Rachel Hadas. A small selection of poems by Rosser can be found at:

http://wiredforbooks.org/jallynrosser/

She’s not an outstanding poet, but certainly not worthless. She has yet to write any highly distinguished verse among those pieces I have read. Her forms are commonly loose, often almost indiscernible, though she at times employs common forms, such as the sonnet. Her writing follows the conventions of what I have begun calling “musing” -- short writings made up of 1) casual prose, 2) meandering personal reflections, loosely connected to some vague theme or symbol (that is, showing a distinct lack of concinnity), and 3) broken into lines to look like something we think poetry should look like on the page. But Rosser does elevate her language at times. Here’s a sonnet from her site:

"Lover Release Agreement"

Against his lip, whose service has been tendered
lavishly to me, I hold no lien.
Here’s his heart, which finally has blundered
from my custody. Here’s his spleen.
Hereafter let your hair and eyes and breasts
be venue for his daydreams and his nights.
Here are smart things I’ve said, and all the rest
you’ll hear about. Here are all our fights.
Now, whereas I waive rights to his kiss,
the bed you’ve shared with him has rendered null
his privilege in mine. Know that, and this:
undying love was paid to me in full.
No matter how your pleasures with him shine,
you’ll always be comparing them to mine.

This shows some facility with language and a skillfulness with the sonnet form -- and with meter, though the metrical scheme is much too loose to gather any emotional steam. The poem has occasionally strong phrasing and makes a couple of striking observations, but also willfully trades in a few weak colloquialisms. As to theme, this sonnet is little more than a cute musing, as nicely written as it is at points. I’ve read a few of Rosser’s recent poems published in the New Criterion, but they have much the same feel as the stuff you can find at the site I link to. She occasionally has something vital to say in her loose poems, but not all that often. She certainly is not a Wintersian poet in any sense, nor is her work up to the standards of the Winters Canon. It wouldn’t even make a first cut with me. It is hardly formalist in any but the loose sense employed by the champions of the so-called New Formalism.

It is said that the New Criterion publishes some of the best poetry in America these days, a lot of it supposedly adhering to poetic forms and eschewing free verse or the most abject prose musings. But the journal hasn’t yet published a poem that I judge outstanding, very good, or, need I say?, great. Among the poets they publish, only Dick Davis’s work do I find even within spitting range of greatness. Davis writes a tight, spare verse and tackles serious subjects with admirable moral insight and formal control. He’s worth paying attention to. He might even have written a few poems already that are worthy of the Winters Canon, which John Fraser judges he has (this is a topic I must save for later). Notably, Janet Lewis Winters and her friends were studying Davis’s poetry late in her long life (she died in 1999 at age 99). But that doesn’t mean that a lot of the poetry that the NC puts out isn’t worth reading. I have profited from a few of the poets the NC has published along the way, including Bill Coyle, the 2005 NC Prize winner, whose work I intend to discuss briefly in a future post.

But I now come around to my main concern in this post. This is a good time to discuss a common criticism of Winters that critics use to summarily dismiss all his critical thought. Many critics, writers, and readers believe, out of ignorance or through the simple parroting of an oft-repeated mistake, that Winters separated all poets and poems into sheep and goats. Winters is partly to blame. Though he said or implied often that there are many degrees of literary achievement, he did praise the great poems of the Winters Canon so highly that he left the unfortunate impression that he held that any poem that failed to make this Canon is not even worth reading. The resulting belief commonly appears to be that Winters believed that there are some few poems that are incredibly beautiful or powerful while everything else is garbage -- or, perhaps more aptly, that there are a few poems deserving of literary Heaven while everything else should be tossed forever into literary Hell, never to be read again. Further, many critics opine, the sheep who enter through Winters’s narrow gate are extremely few, a couple hundred or so, while the goats to be damned number in the tens of thousands. Again, to sum up this view in yet another way, ignorant critics believe that Winters thought that anything that he didn’t believe to be “great” (in his exalted sense of the word) is not worth reading at all and should be burnt. If you pursue the study of Winters in books and journals and around the web, you will frequently come across this opinion, expressed in various ways and believed to varying degrees. Winters, in fact, is commonly mentioned, as infrequently as he is mentioned at all, just to be ridiculed and dismissed for supposedly separating all poetry into sheep and goats in this way.

Because I have been looking at J. Allyn Rosser’s poems in a Wintersian light, I realized that there are probably many readers who have this ignorant opinion of Winters in the back of their minds. I decided to state my opinion here so that there will be no mistake about the matter whenever I consider contemporary poets in this blog and Winters’s system in general: the belief that Winters had a system of sheep and goats, one of absolute and inviolable salvation and damnation, is wrong. I won’t make an extended case for this opinion in this post, but I will state for the record that Winters clearly believed that hundreds if not thousands of poems outside the Winters Canon were worthwhile and in many cases vital and important. The examples could be multiplied indefinitely. John Fraser’s work in editing the Wintersian New Book of Verse (in the Table of Contents Fraser marks various overlooked recommendations from Winters with a double-cross), I believe, was to bring before us some of the lesser but still valuable poems that Winters commended.

My full discussion of the Winters Canon must wait until I have the time for a thorough treatment of the issue. For now, let me say that the Canon is not a matter of sheep and goats. The poems of the Winters Canon are the most supreme examples of poetic achievement in English literature. As such, they set the standard of excellence by which we judge all poetry and, by illustration, delineate the concepts and ideas of the whole Wintersian theory of literature. In drawing up his Canon, Winters was endeavoring to show how literature best works by giving examples of greatness that have been achieved. But as he said or implied, there are degrees of achievement.

In saying all these things I have now burdened myself with finding time to make a full case, but I want to do all I can in the meantime to counter this erroneous view of Winters’s critical theory. The parroted dismissal of him on the basis of "sheep-and-goats" thinking prevents far too many people from reading him.

Feb 2, 2007

The Wall Street Journal Reviews a New Biography of E.A. Robinson

The January 27-28 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal offered a short review by David Yezzi concerning a new biography of the neglected American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. The review is entitled “Modern, not Modernist.” Four of Robinson’s finest poems stand in the Yvor Winters Canon of the greatest poems in English. Yezzi is an editor and critic who has shown some notable appreciation for Yvor Winters’s poetry and critical theories. He wrote one of only two pieces on Winters’s work for a general magazine in the past decade, the 1996 New Criterion piece entitled “The Seriousness of Yvor Winters” (I plan to discuss that Yezzi piece in detail on this blog, for though published long ago it remains important and pertinent to all I am striving to accomplish here). Biographer Scott Donaldson, who is also known as a literary critic, wrote the new Robinson biography, which Yezzi praises as “sterling.” The review article is available online only to WSJ subscribers, but I read it in the paper. It’s worth chasing down, short though it is.

Yezzi summarizes his view of Robinson after a crisp survey of his troubled life:

Robinson’s stock has fallen sharply since then [meaning 1935, the year of Robinson’s death, after a career that earned him three Pulitzer Prizes]. This may have to do with his particular brand of modernity: He was modern without being modernist, radical without being technically experimental. T.S. Eliot declared him “negligible.” As Mr. Donaldson explains, Robinson’s traditional prosody quickly began to look old-fashioned; he quipped that free verse came “armed with the devil’s instructions to abolish civilization.” But in his tumultuous portraits of ordinary people, Robinson swept away the cobwebs of the Victorian-era “genteel tradition.” His red-blooded character sketches -— such as “The Clerks,” “Minever Cheevy” and “Ruben Bright” -— make Eliot’s portrait of J. Alfred Prufrock (indelible as it is) seem a bit effete.
Yezzi is a good writer, and as usual he turns a few eloquent phrases in this paragraph, an apt and accurate summary judgment. Yezzi goes on to mention Yvor Winters in his next paragraph, one of only perhaps a handful of references to Winters in a national publication of general readership in the past decade. Even if we didn’t know what he says about Winters, you’ve got to admire Yezzi for mentioning a critic hardly known at all nowadays in literary culture. The reference concerns Winters’s judgment of the poem “Richard Corey,” Robinson’s snappy, jingly character sketch that springs on us its famous surprise ending, that the wealthy Mr. Corey committed suicide with a gun. Yezzi implies that Winters didn’t quite appreciate the poem as much as he should have, but I would quibble with that opinion. I think Winters is right about this poem, that it isn’t all that good. Further, I would say that by discussing this poem in this context, which gives the vague impression that it is one of Robinson’s best, Yezzi distracts readers from Robinson’s truly great work and makes it seem as though Robinson’s flaws and defects are acceptable, perhaps even preferable. He even implies, inadvertently no doubt, that Winters couldn’t read poetry very well. (I am cautious about speculating on psychology, but I would venture a guess that Yezzi is both trying to encourage people to read Winters and protect himself from being labeled a Wintersian – a word almost connoting in literary culture what “Nazi” connotes in political discussion -- which could wreck his career as a popular reviewer. I can’t blame him for seeking protection from that fate.) But neither implication is correct, in my judgment. But I must save a discussion of the famous poem about Rich Richard the Suicide for another post, if my readers show interest. (The poem was made famous mostly, I should pause to note, by Paul Simon’s rewrite of the poem as a song for the hit Simon and Garfunkel L.P. Sounds of Silence.)

But perhaps I am too hard on Yezzi. He does go on to discuss one of Robinson’s poems that Winters chose for his Canon:

Mr. Donaldson does well by Robinson’s “Luke Havergal,” a haunting poem that the poet Allen Tate called “one of the great lyrics of modern times.” The poem’s spectral speaker, Mr. Donaldson argues, comes “out of the grave” to encourage Havergal to join his departed lover in death:

The leaves will whisper there for her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as you fall;
But go, and if you listen she will call.

Robinson consistently worked to understand human motivations in matters both mundane and extreme.
It was Robinson’s intelligent, diligent work to understand human experience by rational means that drew the attention and admiration of Yvor Winters. Winters wrote his only book-long study of a single poet on Robinson, published in 1946 by New Directions. That book is not much read or studied any longer, that I can tell (not that it ever was). I refer to it much less frequently myself than Winters’s many other essays. But I do quote from the book a dozen times or so in my Year with Yvor Winters, to which a link can be found on the front page of this blog. Yezzi also briefly discusses the poem “Eros Turannos,” another great that is part of the Winters Canon and which has received some extensive and noteworthy study in modern criticism. In particular, I think of John Crowe Ransom’s methodical, insightful examination of the poem is one his collections of critical essays (I can’t remember which offhand). It is beneficial to compare Ransom to Winters on this poem. Maybe we can study that matter at some point on this blog.

Yezzi winds up his review with a salutary encouragement to start reading Robinson more:

Through the compression of his lyrics, Robinson achieves a novelistic density, cramming entire life stories and an impressive range of human feeling into a tight space. As one contemporary critic put it, he is modern poetry’s “biographer of souls.”
I suppose that’s one reason to get back to Robinson. But it’s far from the only or the best reason. But I must such a discussion for later, too. This post has wandered too far afield, and I have other ground I wish to cover. Before giving leave, I want to give you Yvor Winters’s choices as great among Robinson’s poems and John Fraser’s more recent choices for the Wintersian New Book of Verse -- and then briefly compare the two lists. First Winters:

Eros Turannos (“She fears him, and will always ask”)
Veteran Sirens (“The ghost of Ninon would be sorry now”)
Luke Havergal (“Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal”)
The Wandering Jew (“I saw by looking in his eyes”) - DROPPED BY FRASER

Now John Fraser’s choices:

Eros Turannos
Veteran Sirens
Luke Havergal
Hillcrest (“No sound of any storm that shakes”) ADDED TO WINTERS
Mr. Flood’s Party (“Old Eben Flood, climbing...”) ADDED TO WINTERS
Rembrandt to Rembrandt (“And there you are again”) ADDED TO WINTERS

You see by my notes that Fraser drops “The Wandering Jew,” a poem Winters highly praised, mentioned frequently in his essays for illustration, and discussed quite extensively in itself. Fraser has made a mistake here. I agree with Winters that “The Wandering Jew” is great, perhaps Robinson’s single greatest poem. Yezzi mentions that he thinks that “Eros Turannos” is his best, but makes no case, since he’s writing only a short review of a biography. Like Yezzi, I must save the case for “The Wandering Jew” for another occasion, but I recommend its careful and thorough study.

Fraser adds “Hillcrest,” a poem that the late Donald Stanford, one-time Winters student and superb critic and editor, considered one of Robinson’s finest, but which Winters judged to be slightly marred. I would agree with Stanford and Fraser here, and say that this poem is one of the greats. My case also must wait for later.

Finally, Fraser adds “Mr. Flood’s Party” and “Rembrandt to Rembrandt.” The first choice appears to have been influenced by Stanford, who praised the poem very highly in his seminal, great, and unjustly neglected book of criticism Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry. I am still weighing that judgment. (I must get to Stanford’s work on this blog, for he deserves our close scrutiny as, perhaps, the leading Wintersian since Winters’s death in 1968. But I must resist the urge to plunge into his criticism in this post, which has already roamed far and wide.) I must note that “Mr. Flood’s Party” is the 66th best English language poem of all time as decided by The Top 500 Poems, that anthology that came out about a decade ago using one simple, suggestive criteria: the frequency with which anthologies have reprinted poems. Fraser’s second choice, “Rembrandt,” which on his web site Fraser marks as a Winters recommendation, is one among several Winters advocated among Robinson’s medium-length poems. I see no reason why Fraser chooses this one over the others Winters deeply admired. Indeed, Winters opined that “The Three Taverns” was the best among these poems that he considered very good but not quite great. Winters chose none of Robinson’s medium-length poems for the Winters Canon. I tend to think that a couple of these medium-length poems are great, but I haven’t made up my mind which. “The Three Taverns,” which concerns Saint Paul’s entry into Rome, appears to be the best and the most deserving of the Winters Canon. All these poems are available on several web sites.

I must pause again to note that The Top 500 Poems also chose “Luke Havergal,” “Eros Turannos,” “Miniver Cheevey,” and “Richard Corey” as great poems, using its remarkable and illuminating criteria. “Richard Corey,” in fact, was ranked as the 148th greatest poem on its list -- quite high, I think, much too high. I plan to discuss The Top 500 Poems some day on this blog, for it has a great deal of relevance to the study of Winters.

But oh, there is so much more that could be said and debated concerning just these two short lists of E.A. Robinson’s best poetry and Yezzi’s scattered comments in one little review. To sum up, I am more likely to agree with Fraser on “Rembrandt” but vigorously disagree on his exclusion of “The Wandering Jew” and a couple other medium-length poems Winters recommended.