Jun 25, 2007

Is Winters Taking Over the Poetry World?

In a recent May, 2007, post, I discussed an essay by a poet and literary editor named Robert Archambeau on the relationships between the New Criticism and Yvor Winters. I realized that I should mention that Archambeau wrote another post on his "Samizdat" blog last year that Winters, though dead now almost 40 years, might be gaining a measure of sway over the American “poetry world” through the rise of his former students to prominence and influence. In the work of those students are, Archambeau suggests, to be found strong and truly lasting effects of Winters's teaching and mentoring. The post can be found at:


Archambeau claims, a little playfully I suppose, that “the evidence piles up in favor of my thesis”:

Consider this: even if [Donald] Hall [current U.S. Poet Laureate] serves for only a single year, it would mean that for five of the last twelve years the poet laureate will have been a former student of Yvor Winters (Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, each for multiple terms, now Hall). What else could it be but the spirit of the old poet moving among us, working for unknown ends? It's not like the man didn't have an animus toward the eastern establishment, either: he once told Hall that the people at Harvard thought he was "lower than the carpet." Maybe that's the key -- maybe Winters has worked his posthumous mojo and lined up a series of his former students as laureates just to get back at Harvard by blocking Jorie Graham from assuming the august office.

The idea is striking and amusing. The problem with it, to consider it seriously, is that none of these three “descendents” of Winters has much to do with anything he stood for or believed in or practiced as poet or critic. None of them is a “Wintersian” (see my post defining the term) except in an extremely loose sense. Robert Hass has made a number of misleading comments about Winters and lets fall not a single hint that Winters has influenced his poetry or reviewing in any way (search on his name in the box at the top of this page for a few comments on him from me). His poetry is in actuality what I call "prosetic musing."

By the way, another blogger named Patrick Krup (I do not know him) also discussed this matter on November 22, 2006, in a blog post entitled “The School of Winters”, which can be found at (search on “Yvor” to find the relevant post):


Krup quotes Thom Gunn as having set the defining principle of this “school”:

“The life of poetry is not just contained but is defined by its form.” Gunn’s final point might be taken as the banner flown by this great informal school of American poets -- Winters, Bowers, Cunningham and Gerlach.

I offer a hardy “Hear! Hear!” for that single word “great” as applied to the first three (Gerlach I’m not sold on yet, though I’ll consider him more intently some day). And yet... I would say that there very few traces left of Winters’s influence among the most prominent members of this “school,” which, in my judgment, is non-existent. Only the poet Dick Davis, whose poems are published in the New Criterion from time to time, seems close to being part of any such "school" any longer.

Robert Pinsky has written a few loosely formalist poems, especially back in the 1960s. They show a bit of skill, artistry, and intelligence. But he has written in recent decades almost exclusively like a prosetic muser, much like Hass, even though he often employs the wholly pointless practice of dividing his conceptually jumbled prosetic lines into regular stanzas, on the view, I suppose, that if it looks like poetry written by past masters then it just might BE poetry. Also, Pinsky has written casual criticism about poems that Winters judged, and Wintersians still often judge, very good or great. But his critical thought betrays no more than a trace of the influence of Winters. Still, I appreciate his efforts in trying to keep older, formal poetry alive in the reading public with his various activities on behalf of traditional and formalist poetry, such as the Favorite Poem Project, which has a web site and has published two books of older, well-known poems that people still love and benefit from.

Just for fun, I want to take a look at a fair sample of Pinsky’s work, which is much like Hass’s -- and even Hall’s. This is Pinsky’s ode “To Television”:

Not a "window on the world"
But as we call you,
A box a tube

Terrarium of dreams and wonders.
Coffer of shades, ordained
Cotillion of phosphors
Or liquid crystal

Homey miracle, tub
Of acquiescence, vein of defiance.
Your patron in the pantheon would be Hermes

Raster dance,
Quick one, little thief, escort
Of the dying and comfort of the sick,

In a blue glow my father and little sister sat
Snuggled in one chair watching you
Their wife and mother was sick in the head
I scorned you and them as I scorned so much.

Now I like you best in a hotel room,
Maybe minutes
Before I have to face an audience: behind
The doors of the armoire, box
Within a box -- Tom & Jerry, or also brilliant
And reassuring, Oprah Winfrey.

Thank you, for I watched, I watched
Sid Caesar speaking French and Japanese not
Through knowledge but imagination,
His quickness, and
Thank You, I watched live
Jackie Robinson stealing

Home, the image --
O strung shell -- enduring
Fleeter than light like these words we
Remember in, they too winged
At the helmet and ankles.

It’s not really a poem -- is it? -- though it is broken into lines and stanzas. Hey, I know what it is. It’s ersatz poetry. It’s what I call prosetic musing. Indeed, it muses almost randomly. It hardly even follows what could be called an associative method, which Winters often argued was a weak or incomplete method of poetic construction. The lines have no unified character. The theme has no structure or drive or purpose beyond the emptily sentimental. Pinsky drives that purpose at us with the heavy emphasis on the word “home” in the final two stanzas. There appears to be no method beyond mere whim. Actually, the subterranean objective, unconscious most likely, appears to be to sound “deep” -- I'm using the word facetiously, just to be clear -- meaning the way poets feign to sound deep: ponderous, astute, sensitive, emotional, witty. In this way, it reads mostly like a public statement of social marking: intended, again probably almost entirely unconsciously, to identify the writer as belonging to that class of people who are very deep (hands pressing the organ keys and the voice going low as one says these words aloud). For this reason, I find the poem pretentious. Nonetheless, it’s nice to read, though very choppy. It puts a few nice random pictures and notions in the mind. It’s light and easy. But it’s trite, too. “Snuggled in one chair,” "dreams and wonders," “box within a box,” “sick in the head,” “Jackie Robinson stealing home” -- these phrases and too many others are terribly limp, bordering on or crossing over into cliché. But this style has become common in our time, this snaking between the trite and the sparkling, the pop-chatty and the “deep.”

Another sub-goal of Pinsky’s exercise seems to be to see the details of life clearly, to put readers right behind your eyes and let them see as you see or once saw and thought, however loosely, which is a common goal for the river of prosetry that flows endlessly on in our times. But as a whole it’s nearly empty intellectually. I could almost overlook its lack of structure or its lack of a significant overarching purpose if it offered even a few crumbs of understanding. But it offers no insight into television worth pondering. It’s not truly deep, however “deep” it feigns to be, nor is it a work of art, something to ponder and make part of one’s life, something that adds to your store of knowledge or refines the emotions. But I don’t mean to say that it’s somehow painful or absurd to read. It has a few nice turns of phrase. But I've got to say that it’s very close to being a waste of time.

My loosey-goosey analysis of this one poem could apply generally to almost everything Pinsky, Hass, and Hall have written over the past 30 years. \

As I insinuate, like Hass and Pinsky, Donald Hall has for a long time been a prosetic muser -- hardly a poet at all. Back in the 1950s, he wrote a couple of loosely formal poems that showed some promise -- Winters praised one that became an anthology favorite, "My Son, My Executioner" (I hope I recall the title exactly) -- but he has left all that behind for chaotic, muddled, free-verse, prosetic musings. And he writes too often of nostalgia with icky, drippy sentimentalism. Further, his criticism is as slack and loose as his prosetry, though he has tried to keep a few poems Winters considered very fine or great in the public eye, such as his published statement that the great Thomas Hardy poem “During Wind and Rain” (which stands in the Winters Canon) is the single finest poem in the English language. That’s a judgment worth considering seriously, and we will so consider it when we come around to Hardy in my reconsideration of the Winters Canon on this blog. Nonetheless, Hall betrays almost no influence of Winters any longer, though he showed the world no more than a trace of it in his youth. (Both Pinsky and Hall are considered in another post on this blog; search for that post it using the search box at the top.) You can find a healthy selection of the poetry of Hass, Pinsky, and Hall at two web sites:

The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/

and the Poem Hunter: http://www.poemhunter.com/

Would it have mattered to Winters to have started a school that is now beginning to take control, even if it were true? It reminds me of one of Woody Allen’s great lines: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” I tend to think that Winters would stand aghast that these three U.S. poet laureates have abandoned almost all he taught them (or tried to) and yet have risen so high. I certainly stand so aghast.

One of the curious embarrassments of Winters’s career was that he appeared to believe with all his heart and mind that his views would some day be vindicated and that his judgments about critical theory and the application of that theory, which has earned the strongest scorn, would be widely accepted in literary culture. I doubt that such will ever happen, and it certainly has almost no chance of happening in the next 50 years or so. But Wintersians, if there are any, keep plugging along and keep guiding people to Winters’s writings and ideas. Not every idea or judgment in his formal writings is valid or true. But he said SO much of SUCH great value, much more than even those who studied with him or have written sympathetically about him are still willing to grant.

Jun 1, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl: Content and Form

I briefly discussed the form-content distinction in my post on the New Criterion’s recent essay about Robert Bridges, which came out in the NC’s annual poetry issue in April. Two new essays about the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefensthal have come out that also concern this subject. The essays were occasioned by the publication of two new biographies of Riefenstahl, which have brought up the issue of the content as contrasted to the form of her unsettling films concerning the heyday of German National Socialism. The first essay is by Charles Taylor, entitled “Ill Will” from the May 7, 2007 issue of The Nation. Taylor’s first paragraph makes it plain what he will have to say:

The most durable piece of Nazi propaganda may yet turn out to be the belief that Leni Riefenstahl is an artistic genius. Ever since Triumph of the Will goose-stepped across movie screens in 1935, Riefenstahl has been central to the arguments about whether politics can be separated from art, whether form can be separated from content.

Taylor has more in mind than that “content” is highly important to how we understand and evaluate works of art, an idea Yvor Winters would have approved strongly. Taylor seems to think that not only is the “content” of Riefenshahl’s best films (she's pictured with the leader she lauded) quite obviously morally unacceptable, probably even dangerous (though he makes no case for this view), but also that her aesthetic form, which has been so often acclaimed by film critics, is deeply wanting as well. I believe the article is worth reading and pondering in the light of the critical theories of Yvor Winters. It can be found at:


In light of Taylor’s essay, I thought of a passage from Terry Comito on Winters’s views on the dire importance of the literary arts to life and of the importance of “content” as well as “form”. This quotation comes from Comito’s fine study of Winters In Defense of Winters (1986):

Poetry was a matter of life and death to Winters just because it does make sense: “makes,” creates, islands of understanding, structures of intelligibility where none were visible before. This was for him not a theory but an irreducible datum of experience that any plausible theory would have to explain. His objection to Eliot and Ransom was their failure, for all their professed regard for such admirable things as logic and tradition, to find a way of thinking about poetry that adequately accounted for this fundamental capacity; and their encouragement, among those for whom their talk and their own poems had a prescriptive force, of poetry in which this capacity was in fact impaired.

How many critics and aficionados think of poetry or any literary art form as providing some kind of “structure of intelligibility”? Not many any longer, I would suppose, judging from all my reading in poetry and poetry criticism. Poetry seems to be written either to muse surreally on images or symbols, to give an emotional buzz of some sort, or to provide some sort of rapt immersion in the quotidian. How many people turn to poetry for knowledge or understanding -- when they simply want to find something out? Not many. Yet Winters’s theory is distinctively focused on the issue of knowledge and understanding. Is Riefenstahl a bad artist because she tries to give us a badly flawed “structure of intelligibility,” as Comito would put it?

The second recent essay that I think worth your time is the New Yorker’s review of the Riefenstahl biographies by Judith Thurman, entitled “Where There’s a Will: The Rise of Leni Riefenstahl,” which can be found at:


The essay also gives us an interesting and valuable look at Riefenstahl, though Thurman does not endeavor to make as direct a statement as Taylor has of the dangers of the “form” art takes in the hands of a person who is delivering dangerous “content.”

I might come back to this issue in the future. I offer this post just to make you aware of the discussion of Riefenstahl and its possible bearing on Winters’s critical theory. If you wish to pursue this issue in greater depth in Winters, the best essay to start with is probably the piece in In Defense of Reason, “John Crowe Ransom, or Thunder Without God.” But that entire book is sprinkled with ideas that are germane to this issue.

I am also aware that the New York Review of Books has published an essay on the Riefenstahl biography. I have not yet had a chance to look it over. If anyone else has, I'd be interested on your take on it or either of these other pieces.