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 siècle 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.