Oct 29, 2008

A Canon in Film

I mentioned some time ago that I have put some work into a book of film critiques from a Wintersian-classicist point of view. This work led me to many books of film reviews and criticism, many of which involve ranking and rating films and making a “canon” of the great films. One recent book in film criticism in particular, despite the fact that I disagree with the critic on most of his judgments about specific films, made some excellent points about canon-making that I think are germane to the discussion and defense of Yvor Winters’s ideas about evaluation.

The book I am referring to is Jonathon Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004). Rosenbaum (pictured), knowledgeable and discriminating film critic of the Chicago Reader, opines that though they are much maligned, canons are highly valuable for getting a grasp on any particular field of artistic study, for forming one’s own values, and for refining one’s critical judgment. Now, these views seem consonant with Winters’s and mine on the making of canons, even though Rosenbaum’s introduction is much more circumspect on the question of “necessity” than his bold subtitle.

In his book Rosenbaum tries to convey his pleasure in watching films, especially those that have yet to find their way onto U.S. screens. Much as Winters believed of poetry, Rosenbaum believes that too many films of too great achievement and value have been overlooked. This was exactly Winters’s point about the development of classical poetry in English through the past five centuries. Almost exactly like Winters on poetry too, Rosenbaum is passionate about the subject of film and its canon, the discoveries he has made and the effort to draw attention to them. Rosenbaum, as Winters did with classical literature, cares about what the Hollywood machine has kept us from seeing and aims to enrich our viewing with the films he believes to be neglected masterpieces and talented filmmakers who are difficult to pigeonhole. Rosenbaum is certainly more eclectic about film than Winters was about poetry, I will not deny. But he points out the blind spots and arbitrariness of the commercial distribution system in film.

This was exactly Winters’s viewpoint, and this is a primary purpose of setting a canon. Exactly, it is my primary purpose in discussing and trying to develop Winters’s canon in the discussion of the poems of Quest for Reality and my repeated endeavors to bring attention to John Fraser’s New Book of Verse.

Rosenbaum’s liking for Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis -– he calls it “the best piece of literary criticism that I know” -– is revealing about the canon he sets. Films, for Rosenbaum, as literature for Auerbach, are supposed to depict reality, i.e. represent the life of “the common people.” Erudite as it is, the book has a tendency to favor realistic films with a social value as the authentic artistic form. Experimental films do not easily or clearly fit into this vision.

Seeing such things, however, is just what is so useful about a canon -– to get into the mind of the critic. It is the best and fullest way to fathom the critical principles by which the critic judges and by which he thinks we should all judge. That was Winters’s purpose as well. It is my purpose too.

I have not read all of Rosenbaum’s book. Frankly, he is no Wintersian -- nor even classicist in any sense. I found it surprising that he looked to Auerbach, for his judgments are almost entirely anti-classical. (Film has never had a classicist critic. John Simon might be the closest so far.) But my central point is that his justification of canon-making is helpful in the study of Yvor Winters.

Oct 10, 2008

On the Beauty of Puddles

Did you happen to notice and read the graduation speech of David Foster Wallace’s published by the Wall Street Journal upon the news of his suicide? The main point of his talk to the graduates, which you can find at the WSJ web site, was to find spiritual strength and perhaps happiness in recognizing that water is WATER. Twice he told the grads to say to themselves, “this is water, this is water” when they come upon a spill or a puddle or a pool or a pond. By cultivating amazement at the recognition of the magical, mysterious existence of water, Wallace believed they will be able to get through the tiresome, nettlesome days of their humdrum lives to come. (The photo is one of mine, of a pond in a garden here at Michigan State University.)

It doesn’t surprise me that a literary, or High-Cult, writer came up with this idea in this chatty, witty talk to students (and I think fairly highly of Wallace’s writing, I must add as disclaimer). Writers and critics by the hundreds have proffered marvel and wonder as the highest purposes of literature, particularly poetry. My view is that this idea, as insipid as it is, has become a leading cliché in our dominant literary culture, as I have pointed out and discussed a couple times on this blog already. I believe it stems from Romanticism, this hyper-concern with knowing small, commonplace things to be amazing. We see the idea everywhere. One of the most idiotic manifestations I can think of off the top of the head is from the somewhat recent Oscar-winning film American Beauty, in which a main character marvels at his videotape of a plastic shopping bag being blown about an empty sidewalk (by the way, I’d love to see some more examples). Is this the best and most important work poetry and literature can perform, to help us marvel and wonder at small things? Yvor Winters would have wretched at the thought. The idea reached one summit in Oscar Wilde’s discussion of beauty in “The Critic as Artist,” in which he proclaims his belief that finding beauty is the essence of all things:

Æsthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong. Æsthetics, in fact, are to Ethics in the sphere of conscious civilisation, what, in the sphere of the external world, sexual is to natural selection. Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Æsthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not because they make the renunciations of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without hurt to the soul, and can wish for nothing that can do the soul harm, the soul being an entity so divine that it is able to transform into elements of a richer experience, or a finer susceptibility, or a newer mode of thought, acts or passions that with the common would be commonplace, or with the uneducated ignoble, or with the shameful vile. Is this dangerous? Yes; it is dangerous -- all ideas, as I told you, are so.

This sort of talk is a cross between what Winters called the Hedonistic and Romantic theories of literature, as deliberated in the “Foreword” to In Defense of Reason. The overt hedonism of such thinking about literature did not so much morally trouble Winters as overwhelm him with the pointlessness of the idea:

The chief disadvantage [of the Hedonistic theory] is that it renders intelligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high position among other human activities. Art, however, has always been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should be able to account for this fact.

Is Wilde’s brand of emotionally indulgent, antinomian thinking dangerous (Wilde, by the way, gleefully admitted that it IS antinomian), as Yvor Winters might have thought, or is it just trite? Or is it dangerous because it’s so trite? Any views? And how are the Hedonistic theories and the Romantic theories of literature interrelated, as I believe they are?

Oct 3, 2008

The British Debate the Question of What a Poem Is

The matter bubbled up some months ago, a debate that began in Britain about what poetry is, which led to a number of articles and responses in British magazines. This debate started when the Queen's English Society, through a representative by the name of Michael George Gibson, decided to publically announce the judgment of the QES that certain prize winners in a recent British poetry competition are not poetry because the winners -- and all the finalists, for that matter -– were written in free verse. On behalf of the QES, Gibson claimed that “true poems” are written in some discernible measure and most often in rhyme. True poetry, said Gibson, gives the reader or listener a “special pleasure.”

Gibson, however, made a colossal blunder in defense of the position of the QES, for he foolishly chose to illustrate the claim with a supposed non-poem by English Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, “The Golden Rule” (recently commissioned for Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday). Despite Gibson’s confident pronouncements for the QES that “The Golden Rule” is written in prose, it is a formalist poem in every way. It’s written in a clear and very regular blank verse, which shows that even the well-meaning folks of the QES are as ignorant as that reviewer in the New York Times who said that Robert Pinsky’s recent, much-discussed piece “Poem of Disconnected Parts” is written in blank verse, which obviously it is NOT (see my earlier post on that matter). Anyway, take a gander at Motion’s fine work in an obviously and highly formal meter:

The Golden Rule

The waves unfurl and change the shape of coasts,
The shrinking woods fall backwards through their leaves,
The night-horizons twist in chains of light:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The language bursts its bounds and breaks new ground,
The fledgling words lay down a treasure-trove,
The speed of heart-to-heart accelerates:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The sun unwinds its heat through threadbare sky
The lakes and rivers map their stony graves,
The stars still shine although their names grow faint:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The black-and-white of certainty dissolves,
The single mind insists on several lives,
The ways to measure truth elaborate:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

Motion’s iambic pentameter seems stodgy, almost wooden, to those who have lost or have never had the taste for meter. There is hardly any variation whatsoever. The only major departure I see is in the phrase “their names grow faint,” which ends its line in a near spondee. And yet Motion handles the rigid meter** very well. The final stanza, in particular, reaches a powerful moment of insight, the idea of certainty dissolving expressed in a methodical and conventional meter. Gibson, for the QES, said of the poem, “It is in pairs of lines and I will assume they are measured out in a formal way, but beyond that there is no other formal principle. It falls short of being a poem.”

Dead wrong, Mr. Gibson.

I feel almost incredulous that such a mistake could be made -- and then followed up with wide publication. By using a search engine, you can easily find lots of commentary on the QES challenge on the definition of poetry.

Naturally, the British Poetry Society, which put on the competition responded to Gibson’s criticisms. One trustee said: “There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.” That is a position that is simply unacceptable to me, that anything anyone says is a poem is one. Such a view leads, and has led, to a lot of nonsense in the world of poetry and to a significant diminishment of poetry’s importance and beauty. Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet (unknown to me) and former chair of the Poetry Society, added, “As for ‘what poetry is’: in The Use of Poetry T.S. Eliot said, ‘We learn what poetry is -- if we ever learn -- by reading it.’” I would also disagree with that, for it also leads to the incoherent position of accepting as poetry anything that anyone says is poetry.

Another British poet, by the name of Michael Schmidt, claimed that the campaign of the QES is similar to a movement in the U.S. labeled "New Formalism." Followers of that movement, Schmidt claimed, “set up a magazine” (just one?) that included any poem as long as it “rhymed and scanned.” The comment about rhyme is incorrect. I don’t know what single magazine Schmidt was speaking of, but there have been several U.S. journals devoted to formal verse in recent years, and none of them made rhyme a requirement and many of the meters employed have been highly experimental. Schmidt was quoted further as saying, “But the bankruptcy of that [the use of meter and rhyme, that is] has been recognized.” The “bankruptcy” of formalist poetics?!

Dead wrong, Mr. Schmidt.

Even in British publishing “new formalism” has had a vibrant life, thanks in part to the work of Janet Lewis’s longtime friend, the late Donald Davie (who was, by the way, editor of Yvor Winters’s Collected Poems).

Interesting to many might be to discover that Yvor Winters, who has so often been chided and derided for his conversion to formalist poetics early in his career, had little to say against free verse in and of itself. In fact, his letters discuss free verse very seldom, as it might be astonishing to realize, and he never railed against free verse in his letters or published essays. In fact, he wrote fondly and insightfully of free verse even after his conversion away from the Imagist poetics that he subscribed to at the beginning of his career. Winters’s views are made more complex because he believed that the best free-verse poetry was not truly “free,” but followed patterns of continual variation. We get some insight into this knotty concept in a letter to John Crowe Ransom in May of 1928 (when Winters was 28 and in the midst of leaving free-verse Imagism behind), in which he wrote informally of his belief that free verse can be scanned:

The question of meter is again too complicated for this letter, but if you are interested, I will send you some specimens of scansion some time in the next year or so. Specimens of “free” verse, that is. My own, {William Carlos] Williams’s, Miss [Marianne] Moore, perhaps [Ezra] Pound’s. I believe that, allowing for irregularities (as in much blank verse) most of the good free verse -– and there is quite a bit of it -– is based on a line of primary and secondary stresses, the first being normally of a fixed number and the second and unstressed syllables varying. Sometimes the line is deformed for various reason, but can usually be straightened out if one has a counting-complex. At any rate I will fight for what pleases me, not for what can be measured by a footrule, and I believe that the above-named poets write verse whether it can be measured or not. I can, incidentally, scan most of my own verse of the last five years on this principle, having done it.

Winters’s formal writings on the scanning of free verse are of great interest (if mostly unconvincing to me). You can find them in his first book Primitivism and Decadence, which can be found as the first part of In Defense of Reason, his most famous work.

** Footnote: I should explain that I do not use the word “rigid” here as a pejorative , as it has been so used in many comments about formalists and Yvor Winters’s own verse, in particular (even among those who admire his work). Rigidity can be beautiful, as beautiful as or even more beautiful than looseness. Andrew Motion’s lines have great character and a certain strong beauty. Of course, I am aware of the current general bias in literary culture against regular meters in our time. But the continuing popularity of old formal verse (Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, et. al.) promises that some day a new and perhaps even large cadre of poets will devote themselves to the use of meter.

The beauty of rigidity, I think, needs a defense for our time.