Nov 12, 2008

Central Purposes of This Blog

It has been more than two years since I started this blog. Comments to my posts and comments as separate posts, which I welcome, have not even begun to trickle in. Let me just repeat that a main purpose behind my writing this blog is to create a community of and discussion among the like-minded, or at least like-interested. For the study of Yvor Winters to continue, for his ideas and literary style to find new adherents, and for his advocates to develop his ideas in new ways, people who might be drawn to Winters’s brand of modern classicism need to become informed about Winters and to discuss his writings.

My goal is certainly not to get everyone in the world, or even in the U.S., to agree that Winters is right or that the Winters Canon of greatest poems should be adopted, though the theory and practice of that canon are fine topics for discussion. As I have written before on this blog, there is no chance that literary culture in general will agree to the rightness of Winters’s ideas in my lifetime. But I do hope that, though they are few now, ever more readers and writers will undertake and advance the study of those ideas as they learn more about Winters, employ his theories and principles in new ways, and built out and up from his critical system.

This has already happened once in my lifetime, in LSU’s Southern Review in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was then that Professor Donald Stanford, during his editorship of that journal, fostered a Wintersian enclave in the form of a periodical that would publish writings about and in tune with Winters’s classicism. During Stanford’s tenure from 1965 to 1982, the Southern Review published dozens of poets and critics who analyzed and evaluated Winters’s critical ideas and wrote of and about and according to Wintersian classical principles. Writers and critics quickly disbanded the Southern Review “enclave” upon Stanford’s retirement from LSU in 1982. (I hope to do an overview of the Southern Review “enclave” some time -- yet one more matter to get to.)

There are now very few Wintersian writers left whom I am aware of. Poet Helen Pinkerton is still living and writing, though she is past 80 now. Poet John Finlay died more than two decades ago. Poet David Middleton, once Stanford’s student, is around and writing some poetry and some short essays, but he has not published a lot. Poet and critic Tim Steele has been in the game pitching from time to time, but he has not been devoted his latest work to classical principles (his main interests right now appear to lie with the New Formalism, which is certainly not a bad place for them to lie). I have discussed John Fraser's web site many times, and it deserves your careful reading for many reasons related to the study of Wuinters. I do not consider former Winters students Donald Hall, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass, though they are prominent in American literary culture, to be Wintersians -- or even classists of any kind. To their credit, Pinsky and Hall have dabbled in the New Formalism, but Hass is hardly a poet. I think of him as a prosetic muser.

Steele’s and Middleton’s work deserves more attention around here, along with Pinkerton’s latest book of poems, Taken in Faith, which is very fine (if not close to great). But what the study of Winters needs are more people writing in and telling me what they know, where the new Wintersian writers and critics might be (if there are any), and who is taking Winters seriously (and mostly positively or approvingly) in their writings. I hope as well that people will start responding on what I have been writing about. Or I invite you to offer suggestions about new topics, or to let me know about recent writings that should be taken note of for having some important relationship to Winters thought and poetry. Also, as always, I invite people willing to post on some aspect of Winters as well, though that, it seems, will take much longer.

I still hope for community through this blog -- or another blog or email list, if my methods do not appeal to enough people to get discussion on Yvor Winters started. My hope appears to be barren at the moment, but the time for a new enclave might come around again.

In my next post, I will review the recent writings on Winters that I am aware of and want to bring attention to and hope to comment upon in the months ahead.

Nov 5, 2008

Faint Taste for Hart Crane

Did you notice that William Logan, poetry critic of the New Criterion and occasional poetry reviewer for the New York Times, came out with a defense of his challenge to the value of Hart Crane’s poetry? I discussed the challenge briefly on this blog a good while back, mostly because of its important bearing on the study of Yvor Winters. (The short piece came out in Poetry last month, and you can find it easily with a search engine.) Apparently, perhaps inevitably, Logan got a truckload of irate mail concerning that review he wrote in the Times about a year ago about the Library of America’s new edition of Crane’s poetry and letters. In that earlier piece, Logan took a couple genial swipes (rather correctly placed swipes, in my view) at the merits of most of Crane’s work.

Logan doesn’t exactly back down in the new piece in Poetry. He calls a good deal of Crane “gassy” and bashes a few lines as “embarrassing,” with the implication that a lot of Crane is just as, if not more, inept. But he doesn’t quite give what I would call a vigorous rational defense of his views, either. In fact, I found the new piece rather disappointing. I was looking forward to Logan’s lacing up the gloves and throwing a few good punches in the form of some sound reasons for his judgments concerning Crane. But in the Poetry article he no more than briefly repeats a few of his opinions concerning Crane’s style but then, quite feebly, defends those views on grounds of the infinite variability in literary taste. I must says that I find Logan’s stand on the relativism of judgment (to be facetious) rather distasteful:

You can't stand that ditherer Coleridge, she can't stand that whiner Keats, I can't stand that dry fussbudget Wordsworth, and we all hate Shelley -— poets are Rorschach tests.

This from a poet and critic as erudite and as sure of himself as William Logan? I find such comments rather alarming. I could hardly credit that I read them. Come on, Bill. Give us reasons. I agree with you on Hart Crane. I think he is far overrated. He IS full of gas. But enlighten us with some of your good reasons why you think he is.

Yet even Logan belies this limp defense. For at the end of the Poetry piece, he faintly, very faintly, implies that there is something more at stake in seeing Hart Crane’s work for what it is than a matter of relative taste:

If the critic were meant to offer solace, he would have taken up a different line of work. All he can do is record his feelings for the one or two readers willing to look again at Crane -- the critic's job is not to pat the reader on the head and whisper sweet nothings in his ear.

But why bother with trying to get anyone to “look at” Crane again if taste is wholly relative? There is no reason to look again if taste by this definition is all that counts and if one taste is as good as another. But Logan seems to want to say that something important is at stake in recording “his feelings.” It seems that he thinks that there is something important to readers looking at Crane again, whatever that might mean exactly and concretely. Tell us what it is, Bill.

Evaluate Yvor Winter’s judgments and tastes as you will, but he certainly took pains to give reasons in defense of his views -- and he gave them sometimes quite forcefully. (Nonetheless, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, more often than people realize Winters didn’t bother defending himself against many of his attackers.) Winters was out to change tastes and more. Something big was at stake. Winters fought his position in the belief that we readers of the modern age NEED to develop, first, a taste for a new brand of classicism so that a few and ever more poets would away from the damaging practices fostered by Romanticism.

What William Logan claims is that it comes down to style concerning Hart Crane: “If there's a negative case for Crane, it lies in all that waxy rhetoric, glossy on the outside and rotten within.” But Yvor Winters, as a classicist, thought Crane’s weaknesses laid in much more than his decidedly breathlessly bombastic rhetoric. Here is a taste of Winters’s sharp comments on Crane from Primitivism and Decadence, as reprinted in In Defense of Reason:

... the fragmentary, ejaculatory, and overexcited quality of a great many of the poems of Hart Crane is inseparable from the intellectual confusion upon which these particular poems seem to rest (for examples, The Dance, Cape Hatteras, and Atlantis). Crane possessed great energy, but his faculties functioned clearly only within a limited range of experience (Repose of Rivers, Voyages II, Faustus and Helen II). Outside of that range he was either numb (My Grandmother's Love-letters and Harbor Dawn) or unsure of himself and hence uncertain in his detail (as in The River, a very powerful poem in spite of its poor construction and its quantities of bad writing) or both (see Indiana, probably one of the worst poems in modern literature).

Well, I suppose I must admit that these particular reasons are not much fuller (and no sharper) than Logan’s in his two recent pieces. But in the context of Winters’s study of modern American poetry in Primitivism and Decadence, his assessment of Crane gives us much deeper insight into Crane’s weaknesses than William Logan has so far given us. The blatant, resigned relativism of Logan’s latest effort in Poetry helps little to clarify his views or further debate on Hart Crane or any other critical issue he has fulminated upon. For such ideas actually thwart debate -- by laying the whole of all such matters at the feet of the infinitely variable, ever-changing gods of mere taste. Despite this setback, I am still hoping for a lot more from William Logan.