May 29, 2008

A New Study of One of Winters’s Best Poems

It has taken me two years to get around to this brief consideration of a young critic who has embarked on a study of modern poetry, essay by essay, that is, in part, bringing attention back to some of the most significant work of Yvor Winters. It has been a long time since Winters’s poetry has received the kind of careful scrutiny that James Matthew Wilson offers in some of his work. A few of Wilson’s essays have been published in the past couple years in Contemporary Poetry Review, an online journal of growing influence. CPR has published some strong criticism on poets who are writing in traditional form rather than free verse or, Lord preserve us, more prosetry. I haven’t been able to find the time for an extended consideration of James Wilson’s work. So I offer this glance at the Wilson piece that CPR published in 2006 on one of Winters’s great poems, entitled “Classic Readings: Yvor Winters ‘The Slow Pacific Swell’.” Accessible only to subscribers, the essay can be found at: 10/2/2006

The very fact that Wilson pays close attention to this one poem in a long essay is a measure of his regard for it. He believes that “Slow Pacific Swell,” little known or studied as it is, is a poem to be deeply admired because it observes the traditional as it embarks on important poetic innovations. This appears to mean to Wilson the ways in which the formal aspects of the poem relate to its modern themes. (The photo, by the way, is of a swell coming ashore on the Pacific.) For Wilson, the poem is important because it speaks of the “eternal in the evanescent,” which is a difficult, abstract theme that the essay tries to elucidate.

In the essay, Wilson first considers another great Winters poem “To the Holy Spirit.” In Wilson’s mind, “Spirit” stands out as one of the finest balanced expressions of Winters’ constant theme (Wilson thinks it might be limited): the struggle of the human reason to perceive and understand the order we can find in a messy and heartless universe, a theme which also forms “Slow Pacific Swell.” Wilson gives a fair reading of “Spirit,” which elsewhere on the web I have written might be the finest single poem in the English language. In his discussion of this poem, Wilson theorizes that most of his Winters’s poetry explores two “modes” of order, intellectual and formal. Some of Winters’s poems strain to understand how the mind can overcome sensory and psychological limitations to "encounter Being and reality in Truth," which Wilson regards as Thomistic concepts. In other poems, those focused on the cognitive, Winters studies the mind in romantic or irrational states, seeking a proper attainment of a classical or stoic balance.

Wilson admits to being frustrated with Winters in his tight focus on the self -- and he is not alone in this. The focus becomes, for Wilson, monotonous. It does seem so to me as well at times. This monotony, nearly an obsession, is a subject for further study.

Wilson believes that “To the Holy Spirit” and the poems on similar themes express, in sum, Winters’s attitude to reality. He says that they are not experiments in the presentation and judgment of reality itself. I don’t quite fathom the distinction Wilson makes on this point. Winters seems to me to have clearly to have sought a judgment of reality in “Slow Pacific Swell.” I might have to come back to this larger topic at a later time for a closer look.

Wilson next turns to the formal aspects of Winters’s poetry. He opines that poetic formalism is crucial to “Pacific Swell” and its take on reality. Wilson says that the rhyme scheme, heroic couplets (of all things), contributes a “virtuous poetic order,” what he calls “good making.” For Wilson, the opposite of rhyme, it seems, or of poetic form in general, is the chaos of unmaking that “verges on prolific non-existence.” This is another difficult phrase, both in and out of context. I’m not certain Wilson explains well enough what he means here, but a study of this matter will have to wait. Yet Wilson states clearly his belief that Winters’s poem deserves our admiration for the virtuosity and variety of its strong heroic couplets, an opinion with which I concur wholeheartedly.

The conceptual structure of “The Slow Pacific Swell” is masterly and crucial, Wilson next claims. Winters presents us with a quasi-allegory, which Wilson discusses at length. He says that the poem’s symbol gradually form a parable. Gradually, readers become uncertain whether the poet is speaking of the literal Pacific, as in the first stanza, or of the effects of cruel nature on the struggling intellects of men and women. But there is, in my view, little uncertainty, as Wilson also appears to see. It is both: the coastal scene described informs the parable as symbols. This conception of the poem is close to Winters’s own discussion of it in one of his letters (the letters were published just eight years ago). In 1958 Winters wrote to Allen Tate at length about the poem and its symbolism:

The ocean throughout this poem is the familiar symbol of the eternal non-human and sub-human of the universe. It is seen from three points of view, and these are arranged in a properly rational order: first the remote view from the hill-top and childhood; send the immediate view of semi-immersion in the thing itself; finally from the relatively mature view of accustomed and occasional contemplation.

In the same paragraph Winters compares his use of symbols to Donne’s much more famous use of them in a poem Winters often discussed:

Here as in [my poem “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight”], the sensory details CONTAIN the theme, but they are not illustrations or ornaments. [John] Donne’s gold and compasses [in the Elizabethan poem “A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning”] are more quotable than any of my details: that is, they are more easily detachable. This is because they are, in a sense, attached, they are ornaments -- extremely good ornaments, but ornaments.

There is a message of sorts to the theme embodied in these symbols, Wilson says. Winters, he says, is telling us that reason, wherever it may take us, is our “chief resource” and cannot, should not, be set aside even when we come to those watery margins that can flood over it. The shore of the Pacific stands for the margins of human experience. Reason not only corrects and validates, but moves beyond the physical senses. Wilson claims that “The Slow Pacific Swell,” surprisingly to him, succeeds not at adapting the heroic couplet to the modern lyric (if the poem may be called it a lyric at all), but rather stands alongside other modernist allegories, of which he names several.

In summary, Wilson believes that the careful deployment of allegory and controlled formal structure in “The Slow Pacific Swell,” as a sonnet sequence written in heroic couplets, makes the poem one of “almost unsurpassed mastery and beauty.” This is a bold, atypical claim with which I wholly agree and which needs badly to be heard. But, as Wilson says, the poem is masterly and beautiful because of its intellectual purpose, to see what constrains and limits the mind, as well as what constrains poetic form itself.

I hope you’ll search out this and other essays by James Matthew Wilson. I hope to give this and him closer study in the months ahead.

1 comment:

James Matthew Wilson said...

Dear Ben,

I normally abstain from commenting on other persons' commentaries on my own writing; indeed, I prefer not to leave comments on 'blogs in general. However, I do so now to express my gratitude for your continued efforts to meditate on and preserve Winters's legacy.

Further, I wanted to express my gratitude for your extended attention to my essay on Winters's "Slow Pacific Swell."

I can't address all the items in your entry, but I should clarify my rather obscure phrase about free verse bordering on non-existence. A material being, including a poem, as Aquinas teaches, is the union as it were of four attributes: first, the union of form and matter; second, the union of essence and existence. As Etienne Gilson writes in one of his aesthetic treatises, to deny a work of art has form is practically to deny its existence. As I have speculated in my long essay "Our Steps amid a Ruined Colonnade" (Part III), much of contemporary free verse strives to escape determination, that is, to escape the limitations of having a form, of being composed of matter, of being, finally, some particular thing rather than another. As Winters probably appreciated, such artworks exist, but they flirt with the possibility of non-existence. Winters thought this suicidal. Jacques Maritain described it more metaphorically and precisely as indeed "the suicide of the angels." When one tries to refuse form, one refuses the conditions that make one's life possible; and so I made bold to accuse many contemporary poets of flirting with the negation of being.