Nov 29, 2007

Basic Definitions: “Classicism”

For quite a while I have been bandying the term “classical” about on this blog without defining it properly. The time has come for a definition to ensure that I am not misunderstood when I refer to Yvor Winters or any other author as a classicist, especially as modern version of one. The term denotes and connotes a variety of concepts and emotions. Critics, even advocates of Winters’s ideas, have not often referred to Yvor Winters as a classical poet, either in his lifetime or in the succeeding decades. But he was reckoned as one in one of the most important recent considerations of modern classicism, Donald Stanford’s all-too-short essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet,” which was published in the Southern Review in 1969 (a year after Winters’s death).

I will come back to Stanford’s definition of classicism shortly, but let’s start with a fairly recent book on the matter, In Search of the Classic (1994), by Steven Shankman, a scholar of ancient classicism who wrote an essay, collected in the book, on the “classical rationalism” of Yvor Winters’s poetry (the essay was first written for the 1981 Yvor Winters issue of Donald Stanford’s Southern Review). This valuable, learned book offers several close studies of relatively recent manifestations of literary classicism, but the definition of “classical” that Shankman offers in his introductory essay is one I consider far too elusive:

I should state, at the outset and as explicitly and concisely as possible, what I mean by a classic: in terms of what I call the classical position, a work of literature is a compelling, formally coherent, and rationally defensible representation that resist being reduced either to the mere recording of material reality, on the one hand, or to the bare exemplification of an abstract philosophical precept, on the other.

Though Shankman expounds this definition in great, multifarious detail throughout his book, the definition as such is much too imprecise to be of much use. A skilled critic could make a case for just about any literary artwork’s being classical using such a definition. Could not an adept critic characterize almost any writing as “compelling,” “formally coherent,” and “rationally defensible”? What serious writer sets out to write works that are NOT compelling, that lack coherence, and are indefensible (depending, of course, on what these concepts mean to each writer)? Classicism must mean something more exact and complete than this. Shankman’s essay on Winters carefully lays out the meaning of “classical rationalism,” which is a very complex issue that is much worth closer study. In this essay and several others in the book we soon see that that classicism means much, much more to Shankman than this hazy initial attempt at being explicit. To bolster his meaning, Shankman had earlier trotted out a definition of the term from Hans-Georg Gadamer that Shankman says comes close to his own meaning:

What we call classical is something retrieved from the vicissitudes of changing times and its changing taste.... [It] is a consciousness of something enduring, of significance that cannot be lost and is independent of all circumstances of time, in which we call something ‘classical’ -- a kind of timeless present that is contemporaneous with every other age.

That's all? Enduring? That helps very little. What serious writer doesn’t offer his writings as enduring? Every major modern experimentalist who ever put pen to paper, even the wildest members of the avant garde, believes that his writings should, and fervently hopes that they will, endure. I know I do. And there are many examples of very personal and private writings and odd experiments that have endured. Gadamer’s definition of classical is almost worthless. But not quite. It brings to mind many important points Winters made in his essays about the importance of poetry’s bearing on general truth, on Gadamer’s “timeless present” that some writings seem to inhabit. Yet Winters was dedicated to new literary ideas and modes in ways that can surprise those who have only read of his theories in the summaries of his opponents. Very little about his work betrays a slavish commitment to ancient or early modern models, such as from the English Renaissance, as has been claimed from time to time (for example, by Robert Hass and David Yezzi, who have made errors on this matter).

Now let’s turn to Winters, briefly, for he had little to say on classicism and never used the word “classicist” to describe himself, so far as I know. In his first book, his analytical study of the nature of literary statement, Primitivism and Decadence (1937), Winters mentioned classicism only a few times and did not define the term. There is, however, one pertinent and suggestive passage that concerns whether two modern writers can be admired by those who admire classicism:

A classicist may admire the sensibilities of [James] Joyce and [St. John] Perse with perfect consistency (though beyond a certain point not with perfect taste), but he cannot with consistency justify the forms which those sensibilities have taken.

This brief comment suggests that Winters thought of classicism as more concerned with the forms of literature than with its contents. The form a literary artwork takes, in itself, gives it a certain conceptual and emotional feel. It is this “feel” and its meaning that Winters endeavored to elucidate throughout his critical career. This is a suggestive point about classicists, well worth studying in some detail on this blog some time in the future.

But Winters was never clear on how form and classicism are associated. He used the word “classical” here and there, even capitalizing it at times. He discussed it briefly as a concept in relation to T.S. Eliot, who famously claimed to have become a classicist. (Winters’s severe and corrective essay on Eliot was reprinted in The Anatomy of Nonsense, and both books I have mentioned in these paragraphs have been reprinted in In Defense of Reason.) But he never defined the term in any way -- not even for the little known but important statement of allegiance to classicism in the opening “Statement of Purpose” to The Gyroscope, the little magazine that he and his wife Janet edited and published for a couple years in the early 1930s:

The Gyroscope will be a mimeographed quarterly journal publishing prose and verse and attempting to fix in literary terms some approximation of a classical state of mind. The Gyroscope will be opposed to all forms of spiritual extroversion: (1) to all doctrines of liberation and emotional expansionism, since they deprecate and tend to eliminate the intellect, the core of conscious existence....

And so on through seven more oppositions, all of which deserve study. My main concern here is the first, the journal’s proposed opposition to “expansionism,” what I would describe as emotion out of balance with reason. The proper balance of reason and emotion appears to be a central aspect of Winters’s understanding of classicism. Keep this comment particularly in mind as we consider Stanford’s definition in a moment. In a later issue of The Gyroscope, which lasted only a couple years and is extremely hard to find, Winters wrote an essay, “Notes on Contemporary Criticism,” that appears to express a strong affinity between his critical theories and classicism. Here is one deeply classical comment from that essay:

If it be objected that I propose no end for which a man should reduce his emotion to a minimum and then, if need be, thwart that minimum, I answer with the Stoics that the end is a controlled and harmonious life. Any man who gratifies an unjust desire, who indulges knowingly in a violation of equity, weakens his self-control by that much and opens the way to complete loss of it, to disintegration into pure emotionalism, which is pure mechanism: such a man is in danger of losing his humanity, or ceasing really to exist as a man.

What a fascinating passage from a striking and powerful essay. I cannot take the time now for all the attention it deserves. My central point is that classicism as Winters understood it involves the control of emotion in one’s writing for the sake of moral control, for the living of a harmonious life (however such concepts might exactly be defined). This is superbly consonant with many definitions of classicism in our standard reference works in the field of literature and hints at Winters’s own understanding of the term.

The passage from “Notes” leads me to Donald Stanford’s definition of classicism as given in his vital 1969 essay “Classicism and the Modern Poet.” It is this definition that I find the most reliable, and it is one that I employ, provisionally and rather generally, on this blog. Stanford’s essay discusses several modern writers who claimed to be classicists in some significant sense but who Stanford believed were not, among them Ezra Pound and Eliot. Rather, Stanford claims that Winters, Robert Bridges, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and J.V. Cunningham are true exemplars of modern classicism. At the outset of this essay, Stanford begins by rejecting T.S. Eliot’s well-known claim to be classical. In the course of this discussion, Stanford uses some of Eliot’s own words about classicism against him. The definition of classicism Stanford offers in the midst of this opening is what I find pertinent to our discussion here:

“Dignity”, “reason”, and “order” -- these are the impeccable ideals of classicism. But what have they to do with some of the men whom Eliot held up for emulation? We expect from the classicist, together with a sense of history, of tradition, a “serene and severe control of the emotions by Reason” [a phrase quoted from Eliot], a respect for the literature and institutions of the past, a desire for harmony and order in the arts, a recognition of the dignity of man.

That’s as close as Stanford comes to a full definition of “classicism.” The definition is useful, but also quite vague in the same ways that Shankman’s and Gadamer’s definitions are. For we see that many ways of writing could be called classical under this definition. Most of today’s experimental poetic musers believe their works defend human dignity, adhere to reason (at least new, experimental ways of being reasonable), and exhibit proper order (at least new kinds of order). Yet this definition serves well enough when we look at the artworks that qualify as classical in the judgment of those who employ the definition. At heart, it is definition by example, as accomplished in Winters’s own poetry anthology Quest for Reality, in which the defining principles and attributes of classicism and its modern manifestations are most clearly seen.

As you no doubt see, in quoting these various comments and definitions of classicism, I have raised many issues that I have either brushed past or not even mentioned. Much more can and must be said on the topic of the classicism of Yvor Winters and his advocates, the so-called Stanford School. From whence will the Wintersian arise to address these issues? For even I in this post have come to no firm and reasonable conclusions on what it means exactly and fully to call Yvor Winters a classicist.

Nov 20, 2007

Donald Stanford’s Final Book

I have wanted to bring to your attention a book that was published a year ago but which has received no notice whatsoever in American literary circles. I have yet to find a single review of the book in an American literary journal of any size. Nor have I found a review in a British journal. The book is the work of the late Donald Stanford, poet, critic, LSU professor, and editor who was probably the finest modern classicist of the Stanford School, a term denoting the associates of Yvor Winters, in one way or another. Before his death in 1998, Dr. Stanford was at work on this final book in an effort to revive interest in four British writers whom he considered worthy of study and who each had been a confrere of the great poet Robert Bridges., and Stanford’s goal was to bring these four poet-novelists back to our attention, that is, I presume, to see them read and studied once again. Though very few critics have apparently yet bothered with this book, it is highly deserving of your consideration. Though its title is rather pedestrian, its contents are superb.

Before commenting on the book, it is important, I think, to review once again why I am devoting a long post to this obscure book of criticism. Donald Stanford was a student of Yvor Winters’s at Stanford in the 1930s. He published a distinguished book of poetry in the 40s, to which Winters contributed a short but striking forward. Stanford became a professor of English literature and eventually settled into a career at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He had a distinguished, if mostly overlooked career. In our gleefully heretical times, he was often too strict a classicist, too closely associated with Winters, and too much taken with the so-called Victorian poets to gain wide influence. Yet with Lewis Simpson, he became co-editor of the Southern Review, Second Series, which was a revival of the famed Southern Review of the 1930s. His editorial work in the second run of the journal was magnificent. He kept alive the study of Winters’s critical ideas (he even published a few of Winters’s final essays) and fostered the development of the Stanford School, to which Wintersians have been said to belong (because Winters taught at Stanford University), in many vital and constructive ways. But he also guided the journal in other directions not obviously associated with Winters’s work. I consider Stanford our finest Wintersian critic, an exceptionally fine formalist poet, and one of the most erudite and accomplished classicists of modern times. Setting aside his work on the Southern Review, the summit of his career is probably the publication of his study of modern literature, Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry (1983), which offers intensive studies of the poetic achievements of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (the revolutionaries), Wallace Stevens (who put one foot in each camp), and Edwin Arlington Robinson and Yvor Winters (the “conventionaries”). This book’s fifth poet often raises a dismissive smirk or two, since Stanford implicitly elevates Winters to the rank of those four much better known luminaries of modern literature. But the critics and poets of the Stanford School think the elevation is fully, indubitably warranted and only ask that it Winters’s achievement be given a judicious hearing, reader by reader.

And so now I come to Stanford’s book, his last, A Critical Study of the Works of Four British Writers, edited by R.W. Crump. Dr. Crump reportedly found the manuscript in nearly finished form among Stanford’s papers after his death and brought the book to publication. The four writers are Margaret Louisa Woods (1856-1945), Mary Coleridge (1861-1907), Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938), and Robert C. Trevelyan (1872-1951). You can find information about Stanford’s book at the web site of Edwin Mellen Press:

http://www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=6912&pc=9

The four authors are not wholly unheard of. You can easily find some of their poetry on the web, and a few of their works remain in print, in Britain and even in the States. I have found a book of Woods’s poems still in print and a few of her poems on the web, but none of her fiction. Newbolt’s best-known poetry seems to be widely available in anthologies and in a couple of published editions, but his novels are hard to find in print. I have found almost nothing of Coleridge’s work (the original cover of one of her works is pictured). Finally, I have found a few poems by R.C. Trevelyan here and there on the web, but very little of his fiction is in print. A few of the many novels written by these writers remain available at major academic libraries around the country, in addition to several editions of their poetry. Overall, then, these four are fairly obscure writers. They have been greatly overlooked or almost entirely forgotten. I have found very little evidence of their being objects of critical study in the U.S.

Stanford’s book seeks to bring Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan back to our attention and, presumably, assign an indefinitely higher place to some of their works in the literary canon. The long chapters concern the life and literary achievement of each author and are subdivided into sections that scrutinize each author’s writings, organized by genre: fiction, poetry, verse drama, and criticism (if applicable). The book focuses much less on poetry than I had been expecting. Rather, Stanford devotes much more space to the prose of these writers, often presenting quite lengthy overviews of the plots and themes of their fiction. Why do I find this mildly surprising? Stanford himself edited many essays about fiction and the short story, but focused much of his criticism on poetry.

Many of the obscure novels Stanford discusses are historical fiction, a genre that Yvor Winters never focused on in particular, though his wife Janet Lewis was a distinguished author of several superb novels of historical fiction, which Winters greatly praised. Many of the historical novels Stanford discusses are set in medieval times (a popular subject matter at the turn of the 19th century). There are even some works of fantasy and early science fiction, which Stanford has made me think might be worth reading. Stanford’s general assessment is that the fiction of these four novelists is worth reading and studying, though he does not judge every novel or story as supremely excellent. In reading Stanford’s enlightening summaries and provisional appraisals, I don’t get the impression that he considered any of these novels to be great, on a level with the finest fiction of English literature, that of Austen, James, Melville, or Wharton. Rather, Stanford leaves the impression that many of these works are moderately successful while some few are especially fine.

Though the book’s publicity suggests that Stanford sought to set these four writers back into the canon (whatever that might mean exactly), there is little in the book that makes Stanford’s position clear on how accomplished these writers are. Nowhere does he state exactly how good he judges the work of these writers to be in comparison to the greats of literature (the Wintersian greats, that is). Further, nothing that has been published in the past year suggests that Stanford has been successful in bringing any of these writers “back into the canon” (again, whatever that especially vague phrase might mean). He does not explicitly set the work alongside that of any major writer, either of the Standard Canon or of the Winters Canon in prose (a much more amorphous assembly than the one Winters endeavored to form in poetry) in order for us to be able to know how Stanford judges each separate work. He doesn’t even clearly assess their artworks in light of the achievement of Robert Bridges, who was the subject of Stanford’s superb critical study, In the Classic Mode (both Winters and Stanford considered Bridges to be one of the greatest poets of the English language). In general, the impression that Stanford’s commentary leaves is that Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan are worth our time and study, but just how good they are, how diligently we should seek out their works, how much effort we should put into studying them, is left indefinite. I will give some of their novels and poems closer inspection some time, even though I had quite a time trying to find Stanford’s book, let alone the authors’.

Poet David Middleton, of Nicholls State University, one of our finest living formalist poets, wrote the strong introduction to the book. It recounts Stanford’s career, not the writers’, to prepare us for this study. Middleton is a little breathless about Stanford’s goals, writing,
...Stanford brings together in his final book two of his central concerns as scholar, critic, editor, and poet: the assignment of a rightful place in the literary canon to poets wrongly forgotten or marginalized....

Once again, Stanford is not as clear on this matter as Middleton implies that he is. I would say that the tone of the book suggests that Stanford wanted us to “give these writers a chance” rather than that we consider them “must reads.” I don’t think Stanford hoped for much more. As I say, it doesn’t even appear that he thought that they could stand with the greats, though he certainly considered their work superior. What he was trying to accomplish concerning these four writers, it seems, is what I’ve been trying to do with this blog and the study of Yvor Winters: put out commentaries on Winters’s ideas and work in the hope that they will inspire people to read Winters. I think this is what Stanford was mostly trying to accomplish concerning these authors.

Middleton also feels that the new book makes “a defense of reasonable poetic experimentation that does not discard [the] essential defining characteristics of poetry.” This issue plays a small role in the book, as I read it, but Stanford only sketches such issues as he runs through each career. As I have said, he spends much less time on the writers’ poetry than I had expected to find.

By the way, Middleton states that he considers poetry “a regularly repeated rhythmic or syllabic patterning.” Now there’s a suitable definition for us of the Stanford School, SOME KIND of pattern defines poetry. And not an ersatz pattern, I would add. A poet can’t just mill a thicket of prose into stanzas of four lines of roughly equal length and call it a poetic pattern -- though that seems to pass muster for thousands of poetry critics and so-called poets nowadays. Stanford, as Middleton puts it, hoped that more poetry would keep to the “significant and longstanding practices and inclinations of English writers, especially poets, including the use of classical myth, the evocation of natural beauty, the deliberate employment of an elevated poetic diction, and the presentation of subjects from history.” True, true, and well said. Overall, Middleton’s "Introduction" is not so much an opening for this study of the four Victorian authors as it is a general overview of the achievement of Donald Stanford. It deserves thoughtful reading.

You can read some reviews of the book at the Edwin Mellen site, which are, naturally, glowing, in the nature of blurbs. William Bedford Clark’s blurb (he’s from Texas A&M University), is almost rapturous in its praise:
By any measure this is an important and commanding work... [I]t represents the judicious ‘last testament’ of Professor Stanford... [His] acute sense of how poetry works and how it derives from a dynamic interpretation of literature and life is evident on every page... [T]his posthumous contribution... to our understanding of modern literature will prove a lasting one.


My goodness! But as much as I respect the literary achievement of Donald Stanford, these comments are somewhat misleading. This book is hardly Stanford’s “last testament,” which implies that the book somehow sums up his career. Moreover, the book, as I have already suggested, contains little on Stanford’s modern classical theories of poetry. Finally, the book has little to say to “modern literature,” mostly since the four authors have no standing in modern literature in any sense I can think of. I can only hope Stanford and the four authors will find some readers, but it seems that it will take a long, long time for it any of them to receive ANY recognition, let alone become “lasting” (whatever that might mean). More’s the shame.

Finally, with a $120(!!) price tag in the U.S., I don’t know how soon I’ll be getting my hands on this book. I managed to track it down on the interlibrary network in the State of Michigan. One library had it on the shelves, praise be! Now it’s time for one of these libraries to get Donald Stanford’s Collected Poems, which was the subject of a previous post on this blog.

To conclude this post, I want to mention that I have been reading some of the poetry of Woods, Coleridge, Newbolt, and Trevelyan and would be happy to post some observations some time if anyone is interested (please let me know). In the meantime, if anyone else knows some of their work well enough to comment on it, I will be pleased to post your observations on this blog. For starters, here is Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem entitled “Clifton Chapel,” which Stanford commended:

This is the Chapel: here, my son,
Your father thought the thoughts of youth,
And heard the words that one by one
The touch of Life has turn’d to truth.
Here in a day that is not far,
You too may speak with noble ghosts
Of manhood and the vows of war
You made before the Lord of Hosts.

To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth.—

My son, the oath is yours: the end
Is His, Who built the world of strife,
Who gave His children Pain for friend,
And Death for surest hope of life.
To-day and here the fight’s begun,
Of the great fellowship you’re free;
Henceforth the School and you are one,
And what You are, the race shall be.

God send you fortune: yet be sure,
Among the lights that gleam and pass,
You’ll live to follow none more pure
Than that which glows on yonder brass:
‘Qui procul hinc,’ the legend’s writ,—
The frontier-grave is far away—
‘Qui ante diem periit:
Sed miles, sed pro patria.’

This is a well-wrought poem on a conventional theme, at least for the times -- near the opening of the First World War. The conceptual treatment of the theme is a somewhat trite, almost clich├ęd, but the diction is superb and the metrical control is strong. The iambic tetrameter is managed nicely, even though it is so very regular that you would think it might become dull. I have my reservations about the poem as a statement. What the poem is saying to us makes me quite nervous, for the poem is a call to military sacrifice, seeking to inspire other young men to make wasteful sacrifices like those made in the terrible, wasteful, foolish war that stands in its background. I think of William James’s great essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” as a counter to such sentiments: if only most of the energies of sacrifice were to be spent on peacemaking.

For another starter, here is Margaret Woods’s “Genius Loci,” which Stanford singled out for its excellence. This poem can be found in many anthologies and appears to be well known in some circles:

PEACE, Shepherd, peace! What boots it singing on?
Since long ago grace-giving Phoebus (1) died,
And all the train that loved the stream-bright side
Of the poetic mount with him are gone
Beyond the shores of Styx and Acheron,
In unexplored realms of night to hide.
The clouds that strew their shadows far and wide
Are all of Heaven that visits Helicon (2).

Yet here, where never muse or god did haunt,
Still may some nameless power of Nature stray,
Pleased with the reedy stream's continual chant
And purple pomp of these broad fields in May.
The shepherds meet him where he herds the kine,
And careless pass him by whose is the gift divine.

1. Apollo or God the sun
2. abode of the muses and sacred haunt of Apollo

This is very strong work, nearly as good as some of the finest work of Robert Bridges. The metrical scheme is brilliantly executed, and the diction is profound and powerful. This poem is worth knowing well. The subject is a typical one for Romanticism (even for ever more Romantic times), but it is a fine example of a more intellectual treatment of such a theme.

Nov 13, 2007

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 4

The Lute Obeys
(Note: Yvor Winters modernized the spelling.)

Blame not my lute! for he must sound
Of these and that as liketh me;
For lack of wit the lute is bound
To give such tunes as pleaseth me
Though my songs be somewhat strange,
And speaks such words as touch thy change,
Blame not my lute!

My lute, alas! doth not offend,
Though that perforce he must agree
To sound such tunes as I intend
To sing to them that heareth me;
Then though my songs be somewhat plain,
And toucheth some that use to feign,
Blame not my lute!

My lute and strings may not deny,
But as I strike they must obey;
Break not them then so wrongfully,
But wreak thyself some wiser way;
And though the songs which I indite
Do quit thy change with rightful spite,
Blame not my lute!

Spite asketh spite, and changing change,
And falsed faith must needs be known;
The fault so great, the case so strange,
Of right it must abroad be blown
Then since that by thine own desert
My songs do tell how true thou art,
Blame not my lute!

Blame but thy self that hast misdone
And well deserved to have blame;
Change thou thy way, so evil begone,
And then my lute shall sound that same;
But if till then my fingers play
By thy desert their wonted way,
Blame not my lute!

Farewell, unknown! for though thou break
My strings in spite with great disdain,
Yet have I found out, for thy sake,
Strings for to string my lute again
And if, perchance, this silly rhyme
Do make thee blush at any time,
Blame not my lute!

YVOR WINTERS’S EVALUATION: 4.5 Stars, or NEARLY GREAT

Like most of the other poems of Thomas Wyatt that Yvor Winters selected for Quest for Reality, he only mentioned this poem a couple of times in his essays. Like many others as well, Winters never discussed the “The Lute Obeys” in detail or made a case for its inclusion in what I call the Winters Canon. Further, as with Wyatt’s other poems, no Wintersian that I know of has ever considered whether the inclusion of this poem in Quest for Reality is justified (which depends on what each writer considers the purpose of Quest). I have seldom found the poem even mentioned in essays and books on Winters’s career. Once again, if Winters’s goal was to get the poems of Quest read and studied as exemplary models, he didn’t do enough to promote the excellence of this poem in print -- though he might have done much more to do so in his Stanford poetry classes. In general, the poem is rather infrequently chosen for anthologies or selections of Wyatt’s poetry.

Furthermore, I notice that John Fraser has cut this poem from his quasi-Wintersian anthology, A New Book of English Verse. I wonder why. Fraser does not mention the poem in his lengthy introduction, so we can only guess at his reasoning, unless Fraser were to take some time to write to this blog (which is unlikely). As you will see in a moment, its removal is, in my view, wrong-headed (1). For I hold that this might be Wyatt’s greatest poem.

The few comments Winters made about “The Lute Obeys,” in accord with the main currents of his literary career, suggest that he did not consider this poem one of the greatest poems, though he did judge it to be a particularly good one -- hence the star-rating I believe Winters would have assigned to it (had he not been appalled at the concept of ratings). He did NOT mention the poem in the first published version of his influential essay on Renaissance poetry, “The Sixteenth Century Lyric in England” (Poetry, 1939), which was expanded, revised, and retitled decades later as “Aspects of the Short Poem in the English Renaissance” (Forms of Discovery, 1967). In the second version of the essay (considered by many to be his finest work), Winters quotes this poem in full and comments on it briefly, though the comments are somewhat odd. Concerning the poem’s themes, Winters wrote in “Aspects” that Wyatt was advocating a plain style of love-making through his use of the plain style in his poems about love. Now, this might be accurate to some small degree, but this is hardly the central theme of the poem, which concerns the Petrarchan convention of the unfaithful lover, once again. (Wyatt, like many Petrarchans, beat this theme to smithereens, which is a literary-social issue worth studying.)

As with other poems by Thomas Wyatt, Winters seems to have thought that the WAY Wyatt composed this poem is salutary: the regular meter, the rational shape of the argument, the controlled diction. Though the content of the poem is, again, strictly conventional, the treatment is expert. But these are only my informed guesses, as they must be with all of Wyatt’s works. I can file no petition for other views, since no member of the Stanford School, the so-called Wintersians, has ever bothered to scrutinize the poem in detail -- I’ve never seen it even mentioned.

BEN KILPELA’S EVALUATION: 5 Stars, or GREAT

Though I have read almost no literary artworks that emulate this poem in the history of English poetry, I consider it a superior model for poetic composition in almost every way.

The overt subject matter, the paraphraseable content, is again indefinite as to the specifics of the moral circumstances, since we cannot discern the exact moral relationship between the speaker of the poem, a courtly lover it seems plain, and the woman who allegedly has wronged him and wants to keep him from proclaiming her transgressions -- that is, singing of them with his lute. It remains unclear what kind of relationship the speaker had with the woman, a sexual union only or a marriage -- or possibly some other kind of relationship. The poem’s speaker, whether we see him as Wyatt or not, is a man who wants his betrayer and the world, it seems, to know of the wrong the woman has committed against him in her unfaithfulness. Interpreting the poem in the light of Thomas Wyatt’s lusty life, the speaker’s treatment of this subject seems a touch juvenile to me, wishing the worst on a woman who has rejected him. Since the poem does not specify or delineate how the woman was unjust or immoral, how she betrayed the speaker, we have no adequate means to judge the moral rightness of his claims against her and must try to see the poem as a general statement upon the experience of being wronged.

Yet the poem, even more so than “My Lute Awake,” successfully rises above the specifics of courtship to concern itself with a general and timeless moral principle. (Dan Savage, whom I have featured before, offers a funny look at the blame-game.) With a steady thematic focus and gathering force, the poem line by line deepens our understanding of the importance of the public recognition of immorality. This poem deserves greater study. No member of the Stanford School has bothered with it. That is a sad commentary.

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS:

This poem has been on my mind for decades. I wonder whether that has been so for anyone else. The poem is a powerful expression of the need for social sanction as one of the central keepers of morality, which is the subject of countless artworks in literature and cinema. One might compare the poem to a massive array of fine novels and films, such as, to choose just a few quick examples from the modern era, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Wharton’s Age of Innocence and, in film, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Kobayashi’s Hara-Kiri, and Peter Mullen’s recent Magdalene Sisters (2). I have reflected long on its main ideas, on the emotional power of its rational treatment of its concepts, and on its sharp, controlled, profound style.

Several lines stand out with great force in context. The sudden turn to the positive imperative in the lines from the fifth stanza, which begin “Blame but thyself” and “Change thou they way,” strike with great power and meaning. Up to this stanza, Wyatt’s diction and syntax have slowly gathered momentum, before suddenly sounding on the strong accents of the two lines and the change in syntax from the negative to the positive imperative. This draws considerable meaning from these lines with great emotional power.

Also forcefully, yet very differently, the poem ends on a much softer note, the high emotions of the discussion of betrayal having been spent in the first five of the poem’s six stanzas. But the quiet ending is also quite emotionally striking, following upon the stately build-up to the ringing fifth stanza. “Yet have I found out, for they sake” stands out as a superb line in context. By slowing and quieting the stern, riotous emotions embodied in the diction of what has come before, even in the immediately previous lines, this one line embodies a righteous anger and a thirst for justice that still seethes.

We are forced to assume, of course, as I have mentioned, that the woman is truly to blame, for it is only her transgressions that the poem focuses on. But I am an advocate of removing the speck from my own eye before trying to remove the plank from my sister’s. For this reason, in the application of the poem to my life (as contrasted to the interpretation of it), I see it as a call to me: “Blame but thyself, Ben...” and “Change thou they way, Ben...,” as it were. These are just and good commands, to be seen as responses to the wrongs I have committed against others, for the times that I have been the betrayer.

Footnotes:

(1) Another project I have for this blog, as I mentioned in just my second post, is a study of Fraser’s anthology, as lengthy as that will have to be. (So much to do, so much to do!)

(2) I have been at work for some years on a study of cinema through a Winters-influenced critical system. In my judgment, these films turns out to be several of the finest works of cinematic art when studied from a Wintersian perspective. There are many other films worth study, though, and some day I will publish the results of my labors in this vein.

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.

MISCELLANEOUS PASSAGES with COMMENTARY:

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.

6.

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.

7.

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:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canons_of_Elizabethan_poetry

8.

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.

9.

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.

Nov 1, 2007

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

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

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

http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/15/jun97/winters.htm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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