May 16, 2008

Rankings, Ratings, Voters, and MVPs Too

I have yet to generate much comment or discussion on this blog, but I have soldiered on ruminating on my passions and concerns as they relate to the art and thought of Yvor Winters. One of the foundations of my understanding of Yvor Winters as both critic and poet is his principle of evaluation, which means, as it meant in Winters’s practice, identifying the best poems ever written. As I have mentioned several times in the past two years that I’ve been keeping this blog, this subject has not held much interest for scholars who study Winters and admire his art or are sympathetic to his theories to some significant degree. As Robert Barth once pointed out to me (he’s the editor of Winters’s selected letters, a recent edition of his poetry, and a recent edition of Janet Lewis’s poetry), Winters’s ideas about evaluation have much more often drawn the scornful attention of scholars who think little of his poetry and are largely hostile to his critical ideas.

In our culture, as probably everyone knows, the work of rating and ranking and making best-of and top-ten lists has become a common practice in almost all areas of human endeavor, though it is widely practiced especially in the arts and humanities -- and sports. Have ratings and lists and the like become a joke? Has the practice of rating works of literature been badly tainted because ranking and rating is so prevalent in sports and so many other areas? Perhaps. Yet many are the “credible” scholars who engage in making rankings and best-of lists of artworks, such as Harold Bloom, to consider just one example among dozens. Yet, in light of the scarcity of trustworthy ratings, the plethora of silly lists, and the depth and breadth of disagreement among all the lists, Yvor Winters’s practice of evaluation, of choosing the best and greatest, feels rather cheap -- a forerunner of the tiresome ranking craze that grows ever crazier by the year.

With such notions in mind, I had a good laugh about a recent Washington Post article, “Top 10 Dumbest Sports Trends” (April 17, 2008). Its #1 trend was: “meaningless rankings, power polls, and ‘MVP races.’” The author of this lighthearted, satirical piece is Neal Pollack, and I believe you can find it easily enough online. Pollack’s #1 dumb trend focuses in on the recent practice of making lists of pro athletes who might qualify for a top award in one league or another. This new practice of tracking an evaluation that will be made by vote in some time to come has really become silly because of the hundreds of sports articles over the last winter concerning who was supposedly “leading” the supposed “race” to the MVP in pro basketball, as Pollack discusses:

Sportswriters and pundits... are treating the MVP race with the gravitas of a presidential election. That's because they make up the Electoral College. When they're debating who's going to win the award, they're not really talking about who they think the best player is; they're talking about whom they should pick as the best player. It's the ultimate circle-jerk of sports-guy self-regard.

I hope that my focus on evaluation in interpreting Yvor Winters’s criticism, and even his poetry, is not a matter of bogus, pretentious gravitas. I am trying hard not simply to draw attention to myself by debating with myself. I have loved and benefited greatly from Winters’s work in large part because he chose to say which works of art he thought are truly great, nearly perfect, in sharply specific terms -- and, insightfully and movingly, why he thought so. This is a serious business in my eyes. I hope such work is of much greater implication all the hype surrounding the NBA MVP “race.” I hope the ratings hype in other venues does not taint Winters’s theories and practice of evaluation, or the very idea of evaluation.

Yet, it appears, this subject makes even scholars sympathetic to Winters very, very uncomfortable, almost queasy. For they can’t seem even to bring themselves even to talk about Winters and evaluation, to defend his ideas, alter them, improve them, or discard them. I think evaluation, the work of rating and the justifications of ratings, is central to the study of Winters and central to the future of literature -– or at least of classical literature in our time. For how can we know what to pay attention to, how can we recognize excellence and foster future excellence, how can we properly judge that which is new or unfamiliar or even experimental, unless we know what is great and why it is great? I strive, full of hope, to keep the study of this broad subject matter from becoming a matter of icky, pretentious self-regard.

The business of attention is, after all, crucial. Here in Michigan, from where I write, some state agency has embarked on an effort to commemorate and publicize Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories far and wide because of some anniversary of the stories. This summer there will take place more than 200 events concerning the stories. 200?! I suppose this is partly a good thing, since it encourages reading. But Hemingway’s early stories, weak and almost insipid as they are, are being touted as “masterpieces” across the state. Winters wanted to pay close attention to evaluation because evaluation makes us pay attention. All too often confused evaluations have drawn attention to seriously weak or badly flawed artworks. I have struggled through Hemingway’s sloppy, jejune Nick Adams Stories a couple times, but they are almost worthless in comparison with Janet Lewis’s fine, unpardonably obscure chronicle-novel of a historically prominent family of Michigan’s Sault Sainte Marie, The Invasion, which was first published in 1932 but which has been reissued recently by the MSU Press. I wrote a review of The Invasion for several years ago. Here it is:

“Lovely Portrayal of North Country Indian and Frontier Life,” September 22, 2000, by Ben Kilpela: This book is more a chronicle than a novel, and wonderful it is to see it back in print. Janet Lewis wrote this account, imaginatively elaborated, of one of the most important families in the history of Michigan using the journals of John Johnston, the family patriarch, other family journals and memoirs, and personal interviews with members of the fourth generation Johnstons, whom Lewis knew as a girl. It is a superb read, nonetheless: rapt, poetic at times, historically accurate, elegant, and absorbing. It contains one of the finest depictions of Indian life ever written and certainly offers one of our finest portrayals of the "invasion" of Indian country by the fast encroaching Europeans in the late colonial period. Lewis's style is not for everyone, however. Her writing, as polished as it is elsewhere in her oeuvre, is a tad uneven in this, her first prose work (first published in 1932 by the excellent and now defunct Swallow Press). That's hard for me to say, since I love her novels and have long been one of their leading advocates. The narrative loses momentum and wobbles at times, and some characters are rather poorly sketched. Some scenes appear to be unfinished, dashed off, or ill-conceived. Her descriptive passages are, moreover, very intensely beautiful, almost imagistic. Lewis was a fine poet -- a very fine poet, I should say -- and her bent toward Imagism, as found in the poetry of Ezra Pound and many another leading poet in the first half of the 20th century, deeply influenced her narrative style. I love her passages of description, but I realize that not everyone takes to this sort of lyrical style. To sum things up, the novel is an account of the family of John Johnston, an Irishman who came to the wilderness around incredibly remote and rugged Lake Superior as a trader at the end of the 18th century. He married the daughter of an Ojibway "chief" (her nickname became Neengay), and established himself as one of the community elders in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, which was British at the time of his arrival in 1791, but became American in the War of 1812, an affair which plays a role in the story. Midway through the book, the narrative turns to the next generation of the Johnstons, John and Neengay's children, and later moves on the 20th-century Johnstons. It is astounding how quickly the world of the Indians changed, in less than 100 years, and the invasion that brought this change about is the main theme of Lewis's chronicle. In the opening, we read about John Johnston struggling to survive the winter in a small drafty cabin on the uninhabited western shores of Superior and in the end see the Soo Locks open and the Indians witnessing the once unimaginable event of long steamers coming up the once impassable rapids on the Saint Mary's River and entering Lake Superior. A number of important historical figures come into the account, such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Johnston's son-in-law, who used Neengay's stories to form the tales that Longfellow later used to write "Hiawatha" (a somewhat sad fate for the fascinating myths of the Ojibway), and Lewis Cass, who led an expedition across Superior in 1820 after visiting Johnston's outpost and eventually became the first governor of Michigan. There's plenty more to keep your interest, and the history is mostly accurate, so far as I am able to judge. In The Invasion, you will discover some of the most perceptive writings on the life of the northern Indians and the frontier, as well as explore the meaning of the invasion that forms its theme. I hope you will give Janet Lewis a try.

Perhaps a proper evaluation of both Hemingway’s and Lewis’s works will draw more attention to the works that truly deserve it and truly repay the attention paid. I can only hope.

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