Mar 12, 2008

Roundup 1

Let me be honest. I just can’t find enough time outside work and family and assorted other fun (reading, writing, photography, serious golf, more serious tennis, marital romance, etc.) to write on nearly the number of topics I have been pondering for this blog. In this first of yet another recurring series (I’ve got a couple going already), here are brief notes on extraneous discoveries and ideas:

1. We’re all tangled in pop culture nowadays:

I ran across an article in the Independent (U.K.) on a study that proposes that cultural elites do not exist as we tend to conceive of them. The web site of the British council that funded this study is:

The Independent’s article says that the researchers found that the "cultural elite," people brought up on the so-called higher arts (such as opera, symphonic performance, and theater), people who supposedly disdain “vulgar” pop songs or mainstream television shows, that such an elite does not exist. This topic has bearing on Yvor Winters’s work because of the alleged elitism of his theories and the literature he championed. Are such high-brow theories applicable to objects of so-called popular culture (assuming we can make clear distinctions between artworks of pop culture, Mid-Cult, and High-Cult [to employ Dwight McDonald’s useful terms)? I think there is no fundamental reason they couldn’t be. What the study shows is that even those who prize highfalutin literature (the kind featured regularly on this blog) still appreciate and find edification in artworks of popular culture. This reminded of the philosopher Alexander Nehemas, whose book on aesthetics from last year, Only a Promise of Happiness, revealed that he values, in some serious sense, episodes of the TV show Frazier as much as Shakespeare’s plays. Though they are few, Wintersian classicists, I would guess, drink often at the well of pop culture, too. Winters himself didn’t seem to. He didn’t watch much television that I am aware of. He didn’t go to the movies. I have been working on a study of film using Winters’s critical theories, but Winters probably did not consider film a serious art form. In any case, is it important for classicists to admit their knowledge and appreciation of art from pop culture? What pop culture do my readers prize as much or nearly as much as great literature? I think this issue needs some deeper study.

2. 10 dangerous poems:

I stumbled upon a book entitled Ten Poems to Change Your Life, by some fellow named Roger Housden. This author seems to think his ten poems are “dangerous,” which seems a nonsensical and pretentious claim to make about these ten fairly recent poems, except for the excerpt from the “Dark Night” of St. John of the Cross. None of the poetry has classical roots. Each is a free-verse prosetic musing. Most of it is hardly poetry at all. You might want to find reviews of the book through a search engine and give it a look. Let me know if you think anything in Housden’s list is truly worth attending to. I didn’t find any of his dangerous poetry particularly edifying. Also, I’d like to hear from my readers about how important the poems that Yvor Winters thought supremely great have been in people‘s lives. Has anyone’s life changed because of the poetry of the Winters Canon? Anonymous comments are welcome, too, as always. By the way, since I first jotted this note down, I have learned that Housden has several similar "inspirational" books of poems that can purportedly change your life in one way or another. I haven’t had a chance to look at all of them.

3. What’s a good use for self-help books:

There was a very funny yet disturbing animated cartoon published online at the New Yorker a couple months ago. The animation starts with a close up of a stack of books with titles like these: Affirmation Therapy, More Joy, Self-Helping, Every Day - Every Which Way. As the imaginary camera backs up for a wider view, you see that someone is standing on the stack of books. As the view becomes wider still, you see that the man standing on the book is putting a noose around his neck. It’s funny but thoroughly discouraging. For don’t we writers and readers hope that our books and our readings will help make people better and stronger? Don’t we want what we read to be on a list of “poems to change your life”? Of course most serious readers do, as Yvor Winters argued (though he was certainly not alone in measuring literature by some kind of moral standard). But this cartoon draws attention to the nagging problem that all our efforts are sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, for naught, completely for naught. Winters believed that the way poems were written, their formal properties, their diction and meter and stanza structure, were vital to their meaning and power. Has anyone’s life changed because of the formal properties of any poem or one of the great poems of the Winters Canon? Winters seemed to argue that Baudelaire’s work had had such an effect on him. But there is very little personal reflection in any of his writings, not even in his letters, which are filled with shop-talk on composing poetry, but next to nothing on what poetry did to him. You get very little sense from any of his writings of what poetry really meant in his life. His students have repeatedly testified to the intensity of his classroom poetry readings. But few have commented on what the poems he loved and judged to be our greatest works of art meant to him, how they might have changed his life. What do they mean to my readers? I am slowly working on describing what many of them have meant to me as I work my way through the Winters Canon.

4. Filling in some blanks with Blank Verse:

Robert Shaw’s strong critical work certainly deserves more than a spot in a roundup. I didn’t learn until recently of the 2006 publication of his new book on blank verse, which looks to be excellent upon a thorough skimming. Most pertinently, the book covers a number of poets who are important in the study of Yvor Winters: Wallace Stevens (who wrote, in Winters’s view, some of the greatest blank verse of all time), Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, and others -- including Yvor Winters briefly. The book has no discussion of Winters’s criticism, unfortunately, even though it seems that Shaw is aware of Winters. But Winters didn’t conduct a deep study of blank verse, strange to say. This book and the subject of blank verse are issues that I hope to get back to in greater detail. The book is certainly something to get energized about if you are one of those interested in seeing a lot more poetry written in traditional forms, not to mention rational structures (which Shaw does not discuss). Shaw gives wide, sensitive readings in a loose tradition -- perhaps a formal practice that has been much too loose. Shaw’s work offers technical precision and clear exposition. I hope to take an in-depth look at Blank Verse some time soon.

5. A glass of Gallo burgundy:

Did you see this amusing quotation from art critic Robert M. Parker in Forbes some months back in their “Thoughts on the Business of Life” column:

I know collectors with 40,000 bottles who if you poured them a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy wouldn’t know the difference.

I sometimes feel something similar about Winters’s evaluations and the Winters Canon. If I were given an unknown poem, could I discern it’s excellence? For example, would I have thought, say, J.V. Cunningham’s “The Phoenix” is one of great artworks of the language or have discovered myself as such without Winters’s assistance? If not, how can I presume to evaluate the poetry of the Winters Canon, which I have said is something that must be done and which I have begun doing? Who is qualified, who possesses the needed skills, who can set the criteria, to judge such matters? Such considerations and questions hold almost all of us all back from speaking boldly about what’s great and what is less than great. But such qualms didn’t deter Winters, no sir. That’s why he often seems arrogant, almost ridiculously so. Whence came his supreme confidence in his powers and skills? Should any of us trust him? Or anyone else? Even ourselves? It seems, even among quasi-Wintersians, that few do. He has often been treated in the way David Levin, the Stanford University historian, once wrote of his specific evaluations: that they weren’t the main point in learning from him. Yet Winters thought the work of precise evaluation stood at the center of his critical enterprise. The discerning between the glass of Gallo and the so-called finest wines was crucial to all he thought and wrote and felt about literature.

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