Dec 17, 2009
It's a wonderful thing to see, of course. In the current convention, naturally, Pinsky has to take Jonson's poem down many notches before he can praise it. Deflating revisionism is all the rage in our times. If you can't haul some work or person down a good long way, what critical good are you? In this case, Pinsky makes "Ode to Himself" sound like a simple, childish compaint, a kvetch, as he says, that rises, seemingly accidently, to profundity. He makes it sound as though Jonson might have described how he wrote the poem something like this: "I was just bellyaching like mad on paper the other day, as I usually do, and all of a sudden I noticed that I had all written a lot of pretty good stuff, you know that high and mighty writing that makes it sound like you're a deep thinker. So I put it in my book. Why not?" It's an interesting take on the poem, worth considering, at the least.
Whatever his critical position and opinions, Pinsky is the only nationally known writer or poet with connections to Yvor Winters (Pinsky was his student at Stanford University in the 1960s) who is doing anything to revive interest in Winters's work. Though what the nationally known give, the nationally known can easily take away just as quickly. For Pinsky keeps failing to mention Winters, as in this case, or downplaying Winters's ideas when he discusses the classical poems that Winters pretty much rediscovered for our era. It doesn't make me particularly angry, just sad that Pinksy doesn't make it clear, concerning Jonson's "Ode," that it was Yvor Winters who first championed this poem as one of the greatest in the language.
But this is not unlike Pinsky's reticence about Winters on other occasions, such as in his discussion of Herbert's "Church Monuments" on the same site some months back. In that piece Pinsky did mention Winters, at the least, but I found the mention a little odd. Pinsky left out that he was Winters's student and that Winters taught that poem for decades and, further, that Winters considered it one of the greatest ever written. This downplays Winters's ideas to the point, perhaps, of silencing him. I wonder why. It might be that it's entirely innocent. It could very well be that Pinsky is embarrassed by his association with Winters. I can't say. But it looks suspicious.
Finally, Pinsky's audio readings of the "Ode" and Herbert's poem are disappointingly weak. See what you think. Is "Slate" or Pinsky at fault for this very bland reading? I can't say. But they won't do much to help great poetry gain more attention.
Dec 9, 2009
Emerging through the automatic doors,
I feel the Santa Anas' gusting heat.
It's five o'clock. The grainy sunlight pours
Through eucaplyti whose peeled bark strips beat
The trunks to which they cling like feeble sleeves.
The campus lawns are eddyings of leaves
Viewed by day's milky, unassertive moon.
The sculpture garden has a recessed seat.
I take it, thinking of the afternoon.
And of the library. Cultural oasis?
Few would object to its conserving aims.
Still, tracking books by way of data bases,
I feel I'm playing Faustian video games.
And jotting notes down from computer screens,
I doubt our armories of ways and means:
Whether in books or trusted to a disc,
The written record may, as Plato claims,
Subvert and put our memory at risk.
Yet books consoled me when I was a child,
And seeing words and software joined and synced,
Even philosophers might be beguiled.
And if a relish verses nimbly linked,
Here flowing, there concluded with a twist,
It was Greek librarian-archivist
Who had an odd pedantic inspiration --
Make prose and poems textually distinct --
And first gave lyric measures lineation.
Banners on the Art Gallery's facade
Ripple and flap; in a collegial wrath,
Two birds dispute the rights to a carob pod;
A puffed-up brown bag somersaults a path
Where Rodin's Walker [ital] makes his headless stride.
Leaves spin up into coilings and subside.
This windy much-ado, arising from
The desert could well serve as epitaph
For Alexandria, Rome, Pergamum --
For all the ancient libaries whose collections
Have vanished in a mammoth wordless void.
And though I have the evening clouds' confections,
Thoughts of the art and science thus destroyed
Leave me a little empty and unnerved.
The consolation? Some things were preserved,
Technology now limits what is lost,
And learning, as it's presently deployed,
Is safe from any partial holocaust.
I could construct a weighty paradigm,
The Library as Mind. It's somehow truer
To recollect details of closing time.
Someone, as slotted folders on a viewer,
Tucks microfiche squares in their resting places;
Felt cloth's drawn over over the exhibit cases;
The jumbled New Book Shelves are set in shape;
The day's last check-outs are thumped quickly through a
Device that neutralizes tettle-tape.
And shelvers, wheeling booktrucks through the stacks,
Switch lights off at the ends of empty aisles;
Jaded computer terminals relax;
Above lit spaces of linoleum tiles,
The hitching-forward minute hands of clocks
Hold vigil still, but a custodian locks
The main door, and the last staff members go
Home to their private lives and private trials.
Still over us, the Santa Anas blow
The leaves about in rustling shifting mounds;
The long, rusty-colored needles pine trees shed
In broom-straw trios strew the walks and grounds;
Winding, as though along a corkscrew's thread,
A squirrel has circled down a sycamore.
The frail must, in fair times, collect and store,
And so, amid swirled papery debris,
The squirrel creeps, nosing round, compelled to hoard
By instinct, habit, and necessity.
The varying stanza form is one that could, and should, provide a model for our times. It is similar to the 10-line stanza Paul Valery used for a few good and great poems ("Palme" and "Ebauche d'un Serpent," for example); the rhyme scheme that varies yet remains similar stanza to stanza could give modern formalists who don't want to get too rigid quite a bit more freedom than the traditional poetic forms of English allow. (Loose rhyme schemes and metrical patterns appear to be a major need for modern formalist poets and could help turn a few poets from prosetry to poetry. For the bane of rigidity has been almost completely scorned in our times [though I am ever puzzled why even the word appears to elicit shrieks of horror], even among the New Formalists. I should write more about this, but I only have time to say that if it takes loose forms to get more a few more poets to write in some sort of credible poetic form, then bring on the loose forms. A little bit of form is better than none at all.) Steele's nine-line stanza is expressive and well worth imitating for anyone aspiring to write real poetry, not the almost mindless, slapdash prosetry that fills our journals and magazines. His iambic line is well turned, though some of the variations are too loose. His diction is casual, in the way of the New Formalists, who hold court in their small fief nowadays while imitating the prosetic musers who run the cultural kingdom at present.
As to theme and content, there is a lot in this poem, about the meaning of the intellectual life, about civilization, about the importance of poetry and reading, about books holding off the winds of destruction, while books themselves succumb to those same winds. (I was just reading in a history of the Jews in ancient times of a lost history written about Nero's and Vespasian's war against the Jews in AD 68-70 that was written in answer to Josephus's famed work on that same topic. It is crushingly sad that that work did not survive.) It makes me want to get over to the library and gather some nuts for the winter -- though I really don't need much encouragement to do that, summer or winter. The symbolism is strong and moving, almost Post-Symbolist, in Winters's definition, though it is really not much more than a plain analogy -- and there's not a thing wrong with that, I hasten to add. Some of the diction here is pure ornament, but most of this cake's icing is understated and well turned. Are these witty moments weaknesses, like the empty flashiness of a vibrantly decorative stylist like, say, John Updike? I would say that they are slight weaknesses in a good poem. But I dislike quibbling about something so good as this.
It's interesting that the poem is so thematically diffident. Right in the midst of the poem, Steele writes that he thought about writing of the analogy of the library as a place where, perhaps, "Mind" is fulfilled and preserved. But then he immediately sets any such grand theme aside for some further musings about leaves blowing about and squirrels gathering nuts. He seems as milky and unassertive as the moon of the first stanza. The turn away from the big theme seems emblematic of our age, when our poets feel, or seem to feel, a little shy of big ideas. Winters certainly had no such diffidence. The poems he thought greatest are all about big ideas, perhaps too big in some ways. (I think of those dense poems on subjects like "being" that Winters wrote, wrote about, and thought highly of.) Perhaps Steele, like many another writer, felt that he is simply not up to the task of speaking of something so profound as the "Mind" and consequently felt compelled to set his sights much lower, even though his premise led him to the brink of saying something big with his suggestive analogy. But these are for now mere reflections, things I will ponder in the years to come as I think of this poem.
Yvor Winters, if I were asked to make a guess, would not think all that highly of the poem's style. He would almost certainly consider large chunks of it "journalistic," which was a particularly damning adjective for him. This word seems to have meant to him "pedestrian," and much of Steele's writing in this poem is a touch -- in the dogged convention of our era -- pedestrian, perhaps arising in part from the diffidence I just mentioned, but perhaps arising too from the need to get published, since this sort of chatty writing reigns in our literary culture. As to Steele's ideas, Winters would probably have found them poorly developed and the poem as a whole structured rather sloppily. I would agree with that assessment to some degree. The poem is not great, perhaps 2 stars or so in my system. But it is worth taking time to contemplate. It is a bit of a musing ("take some interesting subject; look at it in several ways and from a bunch of angles; see what pops into your mind by association or otherwise; finish by tossing your best notions into a pile, which then becomes the poem"), but at least it muses upon important matters with moments of fine style, a few sharp insights, and a fairly strong poetic line.
Any thoughts from my readers are always appreciated.
Dec 2, 2009
As we all realize, Stevens has become one of those much beloved central figures in American literature, one of the untouchables, the object of a protective fan-base, almost a celebrity of sorts. As you also may know as well, though Winters considered Stevens to have written some of the greatest poetry in the English language and several of the greatest poems of the modern era, Winters also touched the now untouchable Stevens quite forcefully. I would say that he punched him -- and pretty hard. For Stevens's poetry degenerated badly in the last two-thirds of his career as a poet, in Winters's judgment, and my own. (I have no idea exactly when Stevens wrote his poems. I presume he tinkered with them for years before publishing them. I refer to their order and time of publication.)
At the end of his essay, Logan includes a list of the poems he considers very good or great in Stevens's body of work, and some of these poems aren't too bad. But Logan passes over almost all the poems Winters considered great. Only "The Snow Man" makes the list of both critics. Logan even makes the colossal mistake of thinking "Sunday Morning" tedious (without explaining why he thinks so). Winters considered this, perhaps, the single greatest poem written in English in the 20th century, and I come close to agreeing (Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit" gets my vote, provisionally). Logan doesn't quite say so, but it seems that he finds "Sunday Morning" to be soaked in amateurish philosophy, a view with which, if accurate, I cannot disagree more.
But, overall, Logan's is a provocative read and worthwhile for being that. And that's what William Logan is often after, a little provocation (though I do think that he truly holds the opinions he uses as sticks to poke nests). Regrettably, however, he doesn't sum up Stevens well. We hardly get any sense of why to read his poetry other than that it sparkles from time to time with some elegant lines, vivid diction, and passages that have little or no meaning or importance or substance. There is much more in Stevens than that, even in the weak later poetry. Logan seems to get nothing out of Stevens that I can tell from this piece. I see in his work a desperation that arose from a loss of meaning in life, the result of a flustered effort to find some purpose for modern humankind, which has lost all confidence in past truths. This overarching theme, for me, makes Stevens one of the truly representative modernist writers, even though his work declined so much in the later years as he treated his theme in ever more bizarre ways. I recommend for a summary of Stevens, if only it weren't so obscure and hard to find, the discussion of his work in Donald Stanford's Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry, in addition, of course, to Winters's essay on Stevens in In Defense of Reason and his later reconsideration in Forms of Discovery. By the way, though Logan discusses a passage of it at length, I find R.P. Blackmur's study of Stevens nearly worthless.
On a side note, I wanted to say that I was very appreciative of a reader who sent the recommendation of the poetry of Australian Stephen Edgar, whose work I have been reading lately (and you too can find a few of his poems on the web). This is what I was hoping for a lot more of on this blog. I repeat my call for comment: please send me your recommendations for new classicists we can all consider. I will post a note on Edgar some time in the near future.
Oct 9, 2009
I turn now to the longer and later essay, in which John Fraser wrote that his anthology The New Book of Verse (once again, NBV hereafter) sprang from his desire to find poems that simply “had to be” in an anthology of “good and great poems.” I quote those phrases from the “Unknown Flights” introduction (considered in "Part I"), though Fraser does mention this purpose in the “Critical Preface.” When I first read it a year ago, I deeply hoped that the preface would give us an account of the critical theory at the foundation of the NBV. Alas, it offers only slightly more help in understanding the nature of the NBV than the introduction.
To summarize, the preface offers no clear, sharp, or detailed account of why Fraser selected the poems found in the NBV and not others. Even though the title of this essay implies that Fraser will discuss a literary theory in the preface, he is almost as vague and elusive in the preface as he was in the “Unknown Flights” introduction that he wrote four years earlier. In the preface Fraser offers no theory of literature, no system of evaluation, no take on the art of poetry, and no assessment, provisional or otherwise, of Winters’s literary theory or any of the concepts that form that theory. As in the introduction, Fraser seems to be saying that the NBV simply offers poems that he admires, which is what so many critics of Winters (even those few who generally or loosely approve of him) have thought Winters was doing -- mistakenly, I believe -- with his lists of great poems and his anthology of great or important poems, Quest for Reality (hereafter QR).
As in “Unknown Flights,” John Fraser’s “Critical Preface” offers no clear or sound account of his critical principles, despite his laying out several short and direct paragraphs about those principles. Let me turn first to some of the implied criteria, those varied comments that Fraser drops intro his discussion and that appear to describe, roughly, provisionally, his critical principles.
Early in the essay, Fraser mentions that one poem is “a fully realized poem,” which implies that full realization is a central criterion for the anthology. But such a phrase is almost entirely obscure. A critic could conceivably construe just about anything written to have met such a criterion. Later, when discussing how themes are treated, Fraser mentions “selves… engaged in realizing the being of other selves.” Again, the context of this comment implies that this activity is another important distinguishing feature of the poems of the NBV. The phrase has the appearance of profundity, but when you examine it closely, you realize how vague it is. Just about any poem ever written could be taken as meeting such a criterion, even the most privately confessional poems of the 20th century. My guess is that what Fraser means by these and similar phrases is that exceptionally good poems are not too personal, however much “personalness” might be judged too much or “publicness” too little. Returning later, it seems, to this idea of a poem’s being too personal, Fraser implies that a very good or great poem should be “free-standing.” But, again, he fails to make it clear what that phrase means exactly. How freely and in what ways does a poem have to stand free to be considered good or exceptionally good? Moreover, as it stands without further elucidation, a critic could construe just about any poem to have met this principle, which makes the principle only a whisker above meaningless.
This matter of “personalness” comes up again in passing when Fraser offers a very brief yet seemingly important discussion of certain poems by Philip Larkin. In this passage, Fraser returns yet again to this matter of poetry’s needing impersonality, in some way, to be judged good or great. Fraser mentions “personal” and “depressive” as being weaknesses of a certain Larkin poem, which implies in context that very good poems avoid being personal and depressive. But such adjectives are simply too vague to be of any help. Fraser adds that another of Larkin’s poems is “heavy-footed,” which implies that “heavy-footed-ness,” whatever that is, is a sign of weakness. Yet again, however, Fraser fails to explain this word. A critic could say any poem avoids these three adjectives that have apparently kept two good poems by Philip Larkin poems out of the anthology.
Among other minor criteria mentioned or implied, Fraser mentions that good poems offer “finer states of selfhood,” which, as noble a phrase as it is, could mean anything at all -- and is thus almost wholly meaningless. Fraser also implies that a poem is very good or great when its themes or purposes are “sustained” throughout the poem. That is more than vague; it’s meaningless, since the phrase could mean anything at all and since any critic could make a case that any poem meets the standard.
Late in the “Critical Preface,” Fraser does offer an explicit list of principles, to which I now turn. In this section, Fraser mentions that exceptionally good and great poems must use coherent metaphors and solid similes -- and not use them excessively. What makes a metaphor coherent and a simile solid? Again, we can have no idea because the criteria are unacceptably vague and left unexplained, though Yvor Winters discussed proper metaphors extensively in his writings. Fraser then mentions “generalizations that are obviously untrue or simplistic.” That seems sensible enough, but on its face, it means almost nothing in theory and could mean just about anything in practice.
Finally, among various other implied or hidden evaluative criteria in his list, that most important Fraser mentions are these:
1. “psychological substance”
3. “not formalistic”
4. “a degree of ‘concreteness’”
5. “relative tautness”
6. “something ‘happens’ rhetorically”
This is not an exhaustive list, but these seem to me the main criteria. I see nothing in any of these words and phrases that helps us understand the principles behind the NBV or in any way develop, add to, or enhance the critical thought of Yvor Winters. Nor do they even mean much. Each phrase or word is frustratingly nebulous.
Though he doesn’t mention vividness in his list of attributes, Fraser, both in the preface and in other writings in Voices in the Cave of Being, appears to be mostly concerned with what I call “thereness,” by which I mean descriptions of certain objects or settings or events as being so vivid that they “live on the page” (yet another phrase left unexplained). At one point, in discussing some passage of description that he considers thrilling, Fraser writes that the scene is “there,” and puts the word in italics, as though this sense of vivid, living “thereness” is a central feature of the best poetry. But he fails to explain exactly what this quality is. He sounds no less fuzzy about “thereness” than Ezra Pound once sounded about “freshness” in his famous book The ABC of Reading:
A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.
Well, I suppose so. But what’s fresh and what isn’t? How does anyone know? Anything could be construed as fresh by someone who happens to find it fresh -- anything!
For all these reasons, I find John Fraser’s implied theory of literature and literary evaluation to be seriously wanting. But even more disappointing than the vagueness of his critical discussion is what Fraser has neglected in his “Critical Preface,” especially since it purports to be a quasi-Wintersian anthology. Fraser does not define what poetry is, nor try to explain, develop, or strengthen Yvor Winters’s definition of poetry (admittedly vague in itself) as “a statement in words about a human experience.” Fraser does not discuss any of the central concepts of Winters’s theory, despite his various comments about Winters being the greatest critic in English (see "Part I" of my essay). Fraser offers no discussion of Winters’s ideas about connotation and denotation. He does not discuss didactic or hedonistic poetry, which Winters rejected as unsound. (Judging from his emphasis on “thereness,” by the way, Fraser seems to be something of a aesthetic hedonist, though that is a matter I will have to take up later). He offers nothing on Romantic aesthetics or philosophy that builds on Winters’s ideas about Romanticism or relates the NBV to Winters’s critical thought. Most strangely, he offers not a word on the morality of poetry, which was a central concept in Winters’s criticism and in his work of evaluation and the development of the QR anthology. Despite the importance of the concept of morality to Winters’s theory, Fraser seems to have no interest in the subject, as my brief run-through of his critical principles indicates. Rather, he seems to have been mostly interested, rather simply, in “realization,” in “thereness,” in vividness, which, in my judgment, all mean little more than “well written.”
Finally, concerning the neglect of Winters, though Fraser writes several times that the NBV focuses on formal poetry, poetry written in what are nowadays commonly called “traditional poetic forms,” he has nothing to say about the meaning or importance or value of form at all. We are left wondering why he focuses on form other than that he likes poems written in traditional forms (a phrase, to repeat, I distinctly dislike). Further, Fraser has nothing to say about Yvor Winters’s theories of form, neither to approve or disapprove or to develop those ideas. And it is most puzzling that he has not a word to say about Winters’s theory of meter, the part of Winters’s work as a critic that is most often begrudgingly praised by those who know of that work, though Winters’s theories about the meaning and value of meter are more often ignored, dismissed, or reviled. (I must add that I have my doubts about this aspect of Winters’s theory, too.)
As you see, John Fraser accomplishes nothing more on theory in his “Critical Preface” than he does in his “Unknown Flights” introduction, and it is a huge disappointment to me. Fraser has done something important through the NBV, given us some new poems to read, profit from, and consider. He has given his own stamp of approval as great or exceptionally good to many of the poems of the Winters Canon. But he has done almost nothing to advance the study of Yvor Winters or to develop his ideas with the NBV’s prefatory essays. Without a coherent and full-blooded critical theory behind it, including clear and sound tenets of evaluation, the NBV amounts to a book of personal likes and dislikes.
So what does it come down to, this anthology? I think we can derive a hazy system of evaluation from Fraser’s writings. The poems of the NBV are exceptionally good or great poems (4 to 5 stars under my system, I would guess) that are written in traditional forms (mostly), are impersonal in some unspecified manner and to some unspecified degree, concern general themes to some unspecified degree, contain vivid writing of some unspecified kind, and are well written in some unspecified way. (Being “well-written” is what most of Fraser’s criteria come down to in the end).
A telling test case for the value of this set of critical principles is whether the poems of John Ashbery should or even could be included in this anthology. I do not consider Ashbery a poet -- or even a good writer. Yet it appears obvious that a critic could claim that Ashbery writes great poems (as more and more critics, unbelievably, absurdly, have been claiming lately) that are personal reflections on impersonal general themes; that are vivid in some sense (as many have claimed); and that are very well written (as has also been claimed). The only lack in Fraser’s system in Ashbery’s badly written pseudo-poetry is traditional form, though it bears remembering that Fraser includes a number of free-verse poems in the NBV, such as several by Wallace Stevens, and considers them to be formal in some sense. (Many critics claim that Ashbery’s formless drivel has some kind of formality as well.)
On the basis of this test case, I conclude that John Fraser has done little to advance the development of modern classicism with this anthology, as valuable as the NBV is for other reasons.
For I do not wish you to mistake my judgment. What John Fraser has done is valuable and important. He has given us new poems to consider, poems he appears to consider as part of the classical tradition. He has given a credible stamp of approval on the status of Yvor Winters. He has given us a variety of essays that offer lots of comparisons and contrasts to get a better feel for his vague ideas about poetry and literary evaluation. But despite all this, he has not given a full or even an outline of a classical theory of literature and literary evaluation -- and certainly no ideas that update or improve on those of Yvor Winters. The work he has done with the NBV is commendable. But much more is needed if classicism is to find many more adherents in the modern age.
John Fraser still has a chance to accomplish much more through the NBV anthology, for he is still working on his book and adding to the anthology. But it appears that he is content with the work he has done. I appreciate what he has accomplished, even deeply so, and have been studying it closely and reading it frequently. I have profited from the NBV and its associated essays a great deal. I have even truly enjoyed most of Fraser’s writings. But I see a great need for the next greats not only to be proposed but to be properly defended for Yvor Winters’s classical literary ideas to be properly developed and strengthened. This John Fraser has yet to do or even try to do.
If the deeper study and refinement of Yvor Winters’s ideas is going to occur any time soon, it must begin with what John Fraser has done, given us new poems that a critic supportive of Winters’s classicism considers great or very good. But someone must go on to show us why and how we know they are great by consistent, clear, and detailed argument.
Sep 23, 2009
Fraser’s anthology became the New Book of Verse (hereafter NBV). It is on line and is linked in the right-hand column of this blog. In the following years, the NBV and its supporting essays have become part of a larger and distinctly valuable work on traditional-form poetry (how I dislike having to write such phrases), entitled Voices in the Cave of Being. In those same years, Fraser decided to add poems to the NBV, presumably poems that he judges to be as great or as remarkably good as the poems Yvor Winters had chosen for QR or mentioned in his essays as being extraordinarily good.
I use the NBV frequently and have wanted to assess its purposes and Fraser’s case for his selections to see whether they can advance the study of Yvor Winters’s classicist theory of literature or even play a major role in the development of Yvor Winters’s ideas beyond the point Winters left them. Sad to say, however, Fraser’s introductory and explanatory writings about the NBV make no detailed, systematic, or strong case that the NBV contains anything other than the poetry Fraser happens to admire. This short essay is my effort to understand and evaluate those writings.
There are two main pieces to consider, the introduction to the NBV entitled “Unknown Flights” and the “Critical Preface.” Before assessing these essays, let me state again and clearly that John Fraser’s extensive work in Voices in the Cave of Being is one of the most significant and valuable developments in the study of Winters and his critical theory since his death. Fraser once called Winters “the most important American man of letters since Henry James,” as Fraser quotes himself in his introduction to the NBV. On top of that, Fraser dares to recount his praise for Winters’s most reviled book, Forms of Discovery (1967), which Fraser once wrote was the work of a “great mind.” Indeed, building out and up from Forms and its companion QR anthology, Fraser writes that he set out with the NBV to make a “fat” anthology of the poems Winters thought excellent, especially good, or vital to the future of literature and modern classicism.
These comments lead us to believe that Fraser intended the NBV as a development of Winters’s critical ideas and practices, as an attempt to bring greater maturity, precision, and depth to Winters’s classicism. For these reasons, I believe we need to look closely at the introduction (dated November 2004) and the “Critical Preface” (dated February 2008) to try to comprehend what Fraser’s purposes for the NBV are, as well as what his theories of literature and specifically of the evaluation of poetry are.
I will consider the introduction “Unknown Flights” first, which was posted on Fraser’s web site some years before the “Critical Preface.”
* UNKNOWN FLIGHTS *
This introduction explains that Fraser was influenced by Yvor Winters through the late Don Stanford, the modern classicist who was editor of the Southern Review, Second Series, till 1982. (I have mentioned or discussed Stanford numerous times on this blog.) In addition describing how the anthology came into being, Fraser gives us a few hints about its varied purposes. However, I must be candid in saying that the critical principles that inform the NBV are left extremely vague in the introduction. The literary theory behind what Fraser has chosen for the anthology and what he has left out, if he has any such theory, is left a mystery, at least in this piece. I was going to write that the introduction leaves Fraser’s theory “a little fuzzy,” but he is much more vague than that. His critical tenets are almost entirely lost in mists.
A central problem for the introduction is that, despite his strongly implied approval for Winters and his critical ideas and practices, Fraser doesn’t state openly or precisely why he wanted to publish this anthology, on line or otherwise. He does quote his own comment that Winters had a “great mind” and was a highly important man of letters, which imply that Winters’s selection of very good and great poems (published not only in the 1968 QR anthology but in the various lists of great poems he made throughout his career) is to some degree consonant with Fraser’s own views. Near the end of the introduction, Fraser even writes that Winters “was the greatest critic of poetry in the language”. Those are words of high praise -- perhaps the highest praise possible (assuming that Fraser meant “is” the greatest and has not changed his mind or found another critic who has superseded Winters).
Nonetheless, from this introduction, we get no sense of why Fraser thinks Winters is the greatest critic in English, nor what his case for his claim is, nor how his claim accords with his anthology or accounts for his additions and subtractions. Further, Fraser writes that the overview of poetry discussed in Winters’s final book, Forms of Discovery, which most critics disdain (when giving it any attention at all), was an “exhilarating experience.” But Fraser does not explain or elaborate upon why it was exhilarating. We can suppose he is hoping that his readers will find the NBV anthology equally exhilarating, but why should they? Fraser fails to explain or elaborate upon these opinions or even seek to justify them in any sound or significant way in “Unknown Flights.”
Still, the introduction does make a number of offhand, sketchy comments that seem intended to explain and substantiate his opinions of Yvor Winters’s critical ideas and practices and to help us make sense of the NBV anthology. Let’s take a look at the main comments. Fraser writes that the poems he has chosen for the NBV are “well-made and clearly individuated.” These two phrases appear to stand as criteria of the finest poetry. But, as you surely see, the phrases are exceedingly vague and provide almost no help in understanding a classical or Wintersian critical theory that might underlie this anthology. Later Fraser writes that his additions from the 20th century are “strong poems.” This seems to be a criterion, too. Obviously, though, the limp adjective “strong” is of no help whatsoever. Just about anything can be -- and just about anything has been -- called a “strong” poem. With a tone of approval, Fraser once mentions that the work of another scholar has helped to keep “the Wintersian tradition of verse alive.” This comment implies that keeping that tradition alive is part of Fraser’s purpose in compiling this anthology. But Fraser doesn’t define the tradition in this piece, which makes the comment of very little help in understanding the theory of critical evaluation that informs the NBV.
Yet along his way, Fraser keeps dropping in more of these comments, which appear to tell us what makes the poems of NBV particularly admirable. He writes that some of the poems provide “richness of experience” and a bit later “magnificence.” In passing, Fraser also mentions that the poems exhibit “splendor of language,” “intelligence,” and “craftsmanship.” But Fraser explains none of these words and phrases, even though they are so nebulous as to be nearly meaningless.
Finally, in section XXIV of the “Unknown Flights” introduction, Fraser brings out a list of attributes of the poems, an inventory which promises to give us some sound insight into his critical principles and might build in some significant way upon the literary theory of Yvor Winters. As he begins his list, Fraser gives us the sense that in it we will find, at the least, an outline of his critical theory. He implies that the listed attributes justify the selection of the poems and stand as the evaluative criteria behind their selection.
So what is in this list? Fraser writes that the poems of the NBV avoid “versified autobiography or philosophy or social commentary.” They are dedicated to poetry as “expressive form.” They are different from the poems found in best-selling anthologies. They are “some of the best poetry,” written in “living language.” Fraser lists a few more attributes in much the same vein, but I consider these to be the main items. They are enough to see that every one of Fraser’s criteria is far too imprecise to help us understand Fraser’s views or see how they might improve on, refine, deepen, or advance Yvor Winters’s classical ideas -- or help us find the best poems or aid us in making discoveries of good or great poems on our own.
Near the end of the introduction, Fraser implies that the NBV contains some of the exceptionally good and great poems of the English language, but this comment only leaves us wondering how Fraser makes the distinction between the two, what those other good poems are that have been left out, and, further, which poems in the NBV are good and which great. But no deeper explanation of “good” and “great” -- nor any critical theory at all, for that matter -- is forthcoming in “Unknown Flights.”
When I first read, it, the introduction to the NBV left me more than a little deflated. But it was not to be the end of the story. I was highly pleased when I saw that just last year John Fraser had published an additional “Critical Preface” to the NBV. I hoped that that newer piece would give us significantly deeper insight into what Fraser is trying to accomplish through the anthology. To that essay I will turn in the second and last part of this essay.
Let me add as well that rather than focusing on what is missing from these two essays, I will consider more fully what John Fraser has achieved with the NBV and its attendant materials at the end of Part II.
Sep 16, 2009
I know I’ve been hard on Pinsky at times, especially for his poetry, which has descended into trivialities and downright bad writing in recent years, but I do appreciate Pinsky’s efforts to focus attention on some of the poems and issues that Winters thought crucial to the future of literary culture. Pinsky’s article on Herbert’s poem can be found at:
If you wish to dig deeper into this one poem, I also recommend John Fraser’s wide-ranging and sometimes very personal discussion of it in his on-line book Voices in the Cave of Being (which contains the anthology I have often touted on this blog as a highly significant, if not the single most important, development in the study of Yvor Winters in the past 20 years, the New Book of Verse). Fraser’s essay on Herbert’s poem can be found at:
Why all this emphasis on one 24-line poem? Clearly, Pinsky and Fraser deeply admire Herbert’s stellar achievement in this one poem, which has been overlooked or forgotten almost throughout the entire course of English literary history (most books and web sites offering selections of Herbert’s poetry do not include this poem). Having introduced both Pinsky and Fraser to the poem, as they both mention, Yvor Winters considered “Church Monuments” to be one of the half dozen greatest poems ever written in the language, as he made clear in several of those short lists of the greatest great poems that he put out from time to time in the midst of his essays. It was the only poem of Herbert’s that Winters considered to have achieved greatness. The poem is simple to find on the web, so I won’t reprint it here. In fact, it is reprinted at both sites I have linked to in this post.
My judgment on “Church Monuments”? I agree with Winters. It’s surely one of the greatest of the great poems, though it is still infrequently anthologized or discussed or paid attention to in literary culture. Because it is so great and because Yvor Winters “discovered” it are two chief reasons why I believe he is to be largely trusted and looked to as one of the greatest literary critics in the English language. This poem was one of the main reasons I became a Wintersian.
By the way, another modern classicist poet, David Middleton, who once studied with Donald Stanford at LSU, wrote in the 1980s that Winters failed to see the excellence of Herbert’s “Love (III),” which Middleton considered a great poem on a par with or perhaps greater than “Church Monuments.” Of note, John Fraser has mentioned not “Love (III)” but “Affliction” as Herbert’s other great poem. Winters, it is evident, did not judge either of these poems to have achieved anything near the canonical standard that “Church Monuments” and the other greatest great poems of English set. What do you think? For now I will forbear to reveal my own judgments concerning these poems. Here’s Middleton’s choice:
by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
. Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
. From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
. If I lacked anything.
"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here";
. Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
. I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
. "Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
. Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
. "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
. So I did sit and eat.
Sep 14, 2009
The letters are certainly fascinating, both for their tone and for their audacious opinions. Surely, the tone will a bit shocking to those who haven’t read much in Winters’s essays or in his letters (the first edition of selected letters came out just nine years ago). He can seem discourteous, inappropriately direct and honest, too sure of his own judgments, even somehow almost brutal in the way he assesses the work of individual young poets. I would hate to read an assessment of my work from him. Thank goodness I will never have to (or at least never have to in this life -- perhaps some unpleasant fate awaits me in another).
The opinions about the importance of poetry and of university departments of English will undoubtedly be a bit shocking or bewildering as well. Winters explains in these letters, especially the second to the young poet’s father, his extremely elevated estimation of the work of the finest poets. Their work serves as the chief guardian of our civilization, the sine qua non of the intellectual and spiritual health and vitality of the West, in Winters's judgment. I’m not certain I agree with a view of poetry so exalted, as much as I appreciate reading in and studying the art. Does anyone out there stand with Winters on this, that poetry forms the heart of civilized life? It doesn’t seem that any Wintersian I know of, not even such devoted classicists as the late Donald Stanford or John Fraser, comes close to agreeing with Winters on this towering view of poetry.
Jul 23, 2009
With that in mind, I offer a poem this week from John Finlay, who was an exceptionally fine poet who died young. Though almost entirely unknown in American literary culture, a number of poets have taken and keep taking note of his achievement, including the late Donald Stanford during his days as editor of the Southern Review, Second Series. Finlay was deeply interested in Yvor Winters and wrote a dissertation on his work and a couple essays on Winters as well. You will have a lot of trouble finding his poetry and essays, though David Middleton edited a small edition of Finlay's collected poems in the 1990s. I own that book, but I do not know whether it is still in print (it can be purchased as a used book at various web sites). There is plenty of excellent poetry in Finlay's body of work to choose from, but here is one that I admire a great deal:
The Case of Holmes
The scientific searcher scans the blood,
The objects in the room, the tracks of mud,
Thickest around the pathos of the corpse.
He doesn't let instinctual grief that warps
The vision cause him not to find that fact
Which later hangs the murderer. Abstract
And lean, he seems emotionless cold thought,
Almost at times as sexless, always taut.
He has to drug a mind that will not cease
Once a case is solved -- cocaine's release,
Or trance before the chemical blue flame.
And there are states of mind he cannot name,
As skulking in the fog, urban night-wood,
He feels compressed, erotic brotherhood
And for the hardest criminal. But these
Are freakish states and disappear. He sees
Himself as whole in this: revulsion for
The great malignant brain who wages war
On those who break an ego's brutal dream.
He matches brain to brain in the extreme
Of hot collected nerves and cold reserve.
Fear also makes him whole; he must preserve
One being in the conflict with that brain
Or else, at one mistake, he will be slain.
This is dense stuff, poetry crammed with ideas. Written in expertly managed heroic couplets, Finlay's iambic line is nicely controlled. The themes are pertinent to much in our present society: the fascination with the killer and the mass killer; the interest in deviancy; the trust in science; our frustration with a lack of answers on crucial questions about the mind; the risks of studying the mind closely. The poem's approach to these themes is similar to much in modern free-verse and experimental poetry, such as one might fnd regularly in The New Yorker. Many poets nowadays write in Finlay's manner in this poem: take a subject or object from popular culture and then treat it seriously, though with wryness and wit. The technique often becomes cloying and leads to bathos and prosetic musing of the worst sort. But some poets are skilled enough to handle the technique well, as I believe this poem does. I know I really should explain what's good and bad in the use of the technique, but I do not think I have the time now for an extended discussion of the matter.
I should note that "The Case of Holmes" does not stand in close line with Finlay's usual style or approach. He was a much more serious poet than is suggested here with the wit he put on display in "The Case of Holmes." Nor is this a great poem -- though I do believe that John Finlay, as obscure as he is (certainly more obscure than even Yvor Winters and nearly all the poets of the Winters Canon), wrote a few great or near-great poems (4- or 5-star poems, in my system). But this poem is a striking example of what top-knotch verse focused on ideas can still accomplish, even at this late stage in the decay of poetry.
As I noted concerning the George Turberville poem I discussed in May, many of the poems in the Winters Canon directly concern this matter of the power of the mind and the province of reason. Much in Winters's own writings concern this matter, and I believe that Finlay was deeply influenced by Winters in his own poetry and criticism. One Winters poem I think of is the very fine poem "John Sutter," Winters's equally dense and ideational poem about the power of emotion to derail the processes and powers of reason. That poem was chosen by Ken Fields as part of the anthology Quest for Reality, the book that I call, somewhat loosely, the Winters Canon. (Fields chose Winters's poems for the anthology after Winters died in early 1968 before the anthology was finished.
Jun 4, 2009
“Lunching on Olympus”
Well, there you go. That’s what the the making of canons is all about: deciding who the "Olympians" are, those artists wose works are so well written and so important that they are literary gods. The essay can be found at:
The title, and the essay that follows, reveal, by implication, that the author believes (and, by deeper implication, that we all should believe) that among the "gods" of modern literature reign W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin, and William Empson, for these are the four authors he writes of lunching with "on Olympus." The essay is a casual one, offering no discussion or assessment or even praise of the four writers' work. In fact, the essay is a simple recounting of four mundane conversations, almost in the manner of an old Esquire bio-essay. The essayist treats the four writers mostly as celebrities, not overtly as "gods." But the implication is clear: by giving these writers this kind of rapt attention, by implying that their humdrum lunchtime quips and quotes are worth laying out in detail, by giving all that title, we are meant to see these men as four of the Olympians, Gods of literature!
Now, what does this symbolism of Olympus mean? The essayist wishes or expects us to see these four writers as canonical -- that is, the writers whose work we should pay attention to, read often, ponder frequently, write and read criticism about, teach in class, expect educated people to know of, consider the best. Again, the choice of the word "Olympus" and the tone of the casual essay make the view plain and clear.
None of these poets, in my judgment, qualifies as an “Olympian” in this sense (though, I should note, John Fraser includes poems by Auden and Larkin in his New Book of Verse, which has led me to reassess my evaluation of their work). But many people will no doubt continue to read these writers in part because of what the author of this American Scholar essay -- and most other critics -- say about them, that these writers are worth paying the closest attention to, as though their artworks were nearly scripture or revelation. (I say "most other critics" with the probable exception of Empson, whom few writers consider one of the greats of literature as well as I am able to determine.)
That, my readers, is what making canons is for: declaring whose work should be read, which of their works should get the most attention, which should get the highest praise, which should serve as models and standards, which should be considered as supremely important -- and studied and contemplated as such. Should we pay more attention toi T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or to Elizabeth Daryush's "Still-Life"? To discover the Olympians, and to delineate how we can and should identify them, that is almost exactly what Yvor Winters was trying to achieve in making what I call the Winters Canon, those lists of greatest poems (and the anthology Quest for Reality) that so embarrass even those who have affinities with Winters's work nowadays. (The photo is of a sculpture depicting a fight among the Olympic gods.) Yet Winters realized, wisely, that evaluation stands at the heart of the work of criticism -- even among those who deny its centrality. In the "Forward" to In Defense of Reason (1947) he explained the matter wisely and succinctly:
The professor of English Literature, who believes that taste is relative, yet who endeavors to convince his students that Hamlet is more worthy of their attention than some currently popular novel, is in a serious predicament, a predicament which is moral, intellectual, and in the narrowest sense professional, though he commonly has not the wit to realize the fact.
Our professors identify or accept designated Olympians. Much of the very loose and vague system of canon-making in the general literary culture is built on, importantly, selecting what will be taught in class, but also on what will be written about in journals and, perhaps most importantly in our day, what will be said about particular literary works and authors in popular magazines and web sites. One example of the large role of popular media is Ron Rosenbaum's short essay on Slate last year claiming that Keats's "Ode to Autumn" is the greatest poem in English, a matter which I have already discussed on this blog and on Slate.
Hence, don’t listen or cower the next time someone bashes or dismisses Yvor Winters for canon-making. Writers and critics and even readers of all stripes practice it -- mostly implicitly, but occasionally explicitly as well, as shown in this essay about lunching on Olympus.
May 28, 2009
To His Love, That Sent Him a Ring Wherein Was Graved, "Let Reason Rule"
Shall Reason rule where Reason Hath no right
Nor never had? shall Cupid lose his lands?
His claim? his crown? his kingdom? name of might?
No, Friend, thy ring doth will me thus in vain;
Reason and Love have ever yet been twain.
They are by kind of such contrary mold,
As one mislikes the other's lewd device:
What Reason wills Cupid never would;
Love never yet thought Reason to be wise.
To Cupid I my homage erst have done;
Let Reason rule the hearts that she hath won.
by kind": by nature
One would have to dig deep to understand fully what Turberville intended here. Is he bucking himself up to make or keep a commitment to some babe, or his wife, with this mythology of Reason and Cupid? From what I know of him, which is quite modest, he meant what he seems to have meant by the first and last lines, that he wishes to exclude Reason from matters of love. But to what purpose he wishes to indulge himself in such a construct, as we might now put it, I do not know.
Yet despite the sharp excellence of this small poem, I find the central premise to be almost entirely untrue. Reason and Love do not hold sway over seperate realms, and Love rules no province in which Reason has no right. (The very idea of rational thought having rights of any sort within the precincts of the human soul or spirit is very strange.) Reason can, does, and should control activities in the land of Love to some degree, sometimes small, sometimes quite large -- perhaps most often as an Inner Check on the promptings and demands of Cupid.
So why, we may ask, did Turberville wish to tell himself these little myths (if myths they are, which is wide open for endless debate, of course)? He doesn't seem to be proferring these ideas insincerely or satirically, from what I know of his life and work. But it is clearly obvious, and was so in Turberville's day, I believe, that human beings often do employ reason in the business of love. So why would the poet defend his myth? We can only speculate about Turberville, while trying to survey the lands where Cupid and Reason vie in our own souls to see what application his ideas might have. For we in this age are deeply taken with this same myth, that the ways of Love cannot and should not be controlled or influenced by Reason. Indeed, so much does the poem express notions that are widespread in modern times that it feels almost romantic in its implications, though, of course, Romanticism would not come to full flower until more than two centuries later.
Many poems of the Winters Canon are concerned with issues that are central to "To His Love," which we might generally call the province of Reason. Yvor Winters's own "John Sutter" is one of the great studies of the power of desire or passion in human experience. One phrase from the poem, "grained by alchemic change," strikes to the heart of the matter. The phrase refers to the "madness" for gold that overmastered and led to destructiveness the prospectors on Sutter's land. The poem speaks to the power of the passions nearly to transform our nature, at least for periods when we give in to their sway, though Winters held that Reason can and does and often should hold sway over such passions.
But what came to mind more readily is Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence, one of the great novels of all-time in the judgment of Yvor Winters (I concur), perhaps the first prominent critic to judge it so highly. The Age of Innocence concerns, in part, the ways in which Reason and other forces check Cupid. I think that novel stands above this poem as a more true and complete evaluation of the relationship between them because it more accurately portrays the psychic landscape where Reason and Cupid and moral codes and competing desires jostle for control. Also, I might add, Martin Scorsese's film of the novel is worth seeing as well. I consider this film to be one of the finest ever made, judging it apart from the novel it adapted so well and so thoroughly as I am able. Though off the subject, I note that the film uses the symbol of sumptuousness more forcefully than the novel, with insightful results. But that's a subject for another post.
Turberville's poem also brought to mind a passage from William James's famed speech "Remarks at the Peace Banquet," which he gave in Boston on the closing day of the World Peace Congress in October of1904:
Reason is one of the very feeblest of nature's forces, if you take it at only one spot and moment. It is only in the very long run that its effects become perceptible. Reason assumes to settle things by weighing them against each other without prejudice, partiality or excitement; but what affairs in the concrete are settled by is, and always will be, just prejudices, partialities, cupidities and excitements.
Turberville goes beyond this. However feeble it might be, he seeks to exclude Reason, though, as I say, what he fears from Reason malingering in Cupid's supposed realm is uncertain.
Of course, the Renaissance is littered with poems on or related to the subject. One I thought of is Christopher Marlowe's famous lines from "Hero and Leander":
It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-ruled by fate.
The reason no man knows; let it suffice,
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight.
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?
There's the expression of a myth that reigns in hearts to this day, as Hollywood shows us again and again. Lastly, I must note that William Shakespeare also had much to say on the subject of the relationship of Reason and Cupid. "Sonnet 147" from his famed series is particularly complementary to Turberville's concerns:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve,
Desire his death, which physic did expect.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Note, however, the much different tone -- Shakespeare seeing love in this instance as a hellish disease. In contrast to this sonnet, Turberville's poem expresses no lament over Reason leaving him. Rather he insists upon Reason's departure -- to the point of denying its rights in the lands of Cupid.
May 21, 2009
It was written by Janet Lewis, wife of Yvor Winters. Mrs. Lewis was an accomplished poet who put out relatively little poetry. She did, however write several great or near-great poems, as well as many other very fine pieces. I rate most of her work at 3 or 4 stars by my rating system. Her novels are also excellent, perhaps as fine as near-great (perhaps 4 stars by my system). She has mostly been forgotten, except among Wintersians and those with some interest in Winters. Here is the poem, from later in her career, that I judge to be one of the greats of the English language:
For the Father of Sandro Gulotta
When I called the children from play
Where the westering sun
Fell level between the leaves
. of olive and bay,
There where the day lilies stand,
. to touch with a curious hand
The single blossom, furled,
That with morning had opened wide,
The long bud tinged
. with gold of an evening sky.
All day, and only one day,
It drank the sunlit air.
In one long day
All that it needed to do in this world
It did, and at evening precisely curled
The tender petals to shield
From wind, from dew,
The pollen-laden heart.
Sweet treasure, gathered apart
From our grief, from our longing view,
Who shall say if the day was too brief
For the flower, if time lacked?
Had it not, like the children, all Time
In their long, immortal day?
(Mrs. Lewis's note: "written for Vicenzo Gulotta of Milano whose son was dying of leukemia.")
(By the way, the lines beginning with periods are actually set over to the first tab, but Lord help me if I can discover how to set a tab in this blogger software. I wanted to indicate the original typography in some way.)
As I have discussed briefly a couple years back, Janet Lewis did not appear to share the bracing, brave, yet sorrowful stoicism of her husband. This poem offers no explicitly religious theme, though we might not have to dig far into Lewis's writings and biography to reach the conclusion that in this poem she was expressing some kind of Christian hope. But on its face, the poem does not give us a hope that is specifically, explicitly Christian. Indeed, the final lines are so indefinite as to leave us rather bewildered. We can interpret them, or assent to them, in myriad ways as assertions about "the world to come" (or "worlds" to come, I might add). But is that the central purpose of the poem, to express some view of an afterlife? Religious pluralist as she seems to have been, Lewis appears in this poem not to have wanted to hold out some kind of hope in an afterlife, but to explore the meaning of "Time" in our lives and deaths, even in very short lives, such as that of day lilies. This poem offers no identifiable hope in a separate supernatural existence, though it is probably true that Lewis believed that there is one. But the poem as it stands only expresses a vague, uncertain feeling of hope -- and as a poem, not as a set of philosophical propositions. But as such, the poem is a beautiful explication of its themes.
By the way, I have spent too much time writing the paragraphs below to offer much now on the structure and language of the poem. Let me quickly say that the diction is flawless and the lines are wonderfully made. In particular, I would like you to note the movement in and out of rhyme, which I consider a superb model for future work in contemplative verse. It reminds me of another old device that has found few poets to give it to a try, Shakespeare's use of a couplet to end a section of blank verse. Lewis herself offers several couplets here and there with expert control. The meter, too, is skillfully managed throughout the poem and deserves close study.
Turning back to themes, the great modern classical poet Helen Pinkerton, who is still living, wrote some years back that this poem expresses a belief that Time (with that capital "T") is "fulfilled" through living, however short the life is as measured by time (with the small "t"). As much I respect Ms. Pinkerton's work, she does not elaborate on this idea in a way that makes more sense than the poem itself, I must confess. I don't see how "Time" is fulfilled in living within time as a measure. I cannot see what such a concept would mean for my life if it were true, nor what it might mean for anyone else's life as a whole, ended in death, to be a fulfillment of Time. The concept sounds like blather, as much as I have pondered it. Sometimes, I get the sense that it is a Buddhist idea of some sort -- one of those supremely vague notions of a person's life being like a drop of water that falls into an eternal ocean of pure and exalted being. Pinkerton's is an interesting, though brief, meditation on the poem, though I will leave it for you to discover yourself. It can be found in the "Introduction" to Lewis's Poems Old and New, 1918-1978 (Swallow Press, 1982).
"For the Father of Sandro Gulotta" expresses ideas that are similar to Yvor Winters's in some ways, but it holds out something different. As is clear from her body of work, Lewis wrestled with some of the same notions of time and Time as her husband (though let me be clear that he never wrote of a difference between small-t-time and captital-t-Time). There are at least a dozen poems in Lewis's oeuvre that directly address the matter. One of the most interesting for our purposes here is an earlier and fine sonnet entitled "Time and Music." This poem, which I will not quote in full, was adressed to Winters, who had written a poem about that mentioned being "trapped in time." In reply, Lewis expressed the idea in "Time and Music" that just as a piece of music is experienced in and through time passing but has a wholeness beyond time, so human beings live life within time but can see their lives whole as part of Time. This appears to be vaguely related to Lewis's notion in "For the Father" that one day is immortal. As a melody rides time in a piece of music, wrote Lewis in "Time and Music," so we "from life as well as death are freed...." As I say, I cannot fathom how it could be that the passing of our lives inside time, like the passing of a piece of music, has a more complete and even immortal existence (or something like that) outside or above or beyond Time. That string of words I just laid out sounds perilously close to nonsense when I think about them for long, though they might summarize what Pinkerton was talking about in her comments about Time's being fulfilled in living, however short the life.
This leads us to the question whether Lewis's indefinite ideas about immortal days and lives, whether true in any sense, provide any comfort, as they appear to have been intended to do? Though I consider the poem a great one, a classical one, I find the idea of an immortal day, as well as I can understand it, rather cold, like Greek warriors giving their lives to violent death for longlasting fame. Nonetheless, I remain open to conceptions of time and Time that can help us and comfort us at the prospect of death.
Another point to make is that many poems in the Winters Canon are deeply concerned with time, especially with the sorrows of its relentless, unstoppable passing. I have done no systematic study of the diction in the 185 poems of Quest for Reality, but a rough run-through showed me that the word "time" is probably the most oft-used word in the anthology. If you are one of those who look to word counts for insight into ideas, this is surely an important finding. One ringing example is Shakespeare's Sonnet 77, especially these lines:
Thou by thy dial's shady stealth mayst know
Time's thievish progress to eternity.
This is something very different from what Janet Lewis had in mind, as you no doubt see (she knew this sonnet well). Time as a thief does not mesh well with the idea of death fulfilling time. My general point, though, is that there is much to study, many differing views of time, across the Winters Canon. Someone really should take up a study of the matter.
And this leads us, at the last, to a reconsideration of the poem's achievement. Is it possible for a great poem to be rationally obscure -- or rather significantly obscure -- at the point that it reaches its fullest evaluation of its material? For, as I have said, I find the idea of fulfilled Time to be obscure to a great degree. Yet I am holding out hope that I will someday see that this concept of Time is rational, or at least not significantly, ruinously obscure. Perhaps I will see the matter otherwise in the years ahead, one way or another. For now, I judge "For the Father Sandro Gulotta" one of our greatest poems.
Your sundry reflections, as always, are welcome.
May 14, 2009
But is this sonnet about ultimate reality, as I infer? There's nothing certain in it to indicate this, except for the tone and feel and a few words (such as "majesty" and "faithless"). But to me the chilhhood events described feel as though they stand as symbols, and many readers of the poem have taken them as symbolic. But the poem could be about this world alone -- about the human experience of hoping for some kind of literal home on Earth. Do we look to the author to decide?
The Poet at Seven
And on the porch, across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread a dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain,
And on all fours crawl under it like a bear
To lick his wounds in secret, in his lair;
And afterwards, in the windy yard again,
One hand cocked back, release his paper plane
Frail as a mayfly to the faithless air.
And summer evenings he would whirl around
Faster and faster till the drunken ground
Rose up to meet him; sometimes he would squat
Among the bent weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come
And whip him down the street, but gently home.
Donald Justice was once a student of Yvor Winters in the latter stages of his career at Stanford. Justice died in 2004 after a long career as a poet and teacher. I offer this poem because some quasi-Wintersians and others who have remained interested in Winters's ideas have pointed to Justice's work as exceptionally strong poetry that has roots in Winters's classicism. John Fraser has included several of Justice's poems in his quasi-Wintersian anthology, A New Book of Verse, implying that they are at least near-great. Justice wrote many poems in traditional forms, though he sometimes loosened the forms a great deal -- in many poems even to the point of losing almost all sense of an ostensible form. But he also wrote poems in a prosaic free verse (though it was consistently good prose) that barely rises above what I call prosetic musing.
In this variation on a Petrarchan sonnet, Justice maintains a strongly iambic pentameter line while varying from the underlying meter in strikingly expressive ways. The only oddities in the verse are the endings of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th lines. These lines all follow the iambic pattern until the final foot, which are anapests. I don't see any point to this particular emphatic variation at these three positions in the sonnet. The 4th line in particular is made a shambles by the anapest, and the line gains nothing thematically important from the clunky variation.
I judge John Fraser's selections for his New Book of Verse to be good poems, some better than others. But I find "The Poet at Seven" to be a better poem than several Fraser selected, none of which I judge to be great or close to great. I don't consider "The Poet at Seven" a great poem, either, but it is a fine one, and it adheres to some of the principles of Wintersian classicism that Justice learned in class and toyed with during his career.
But what of the symbolism? I see Justice's look back at play when he was 7 years old as symbolic. What do you think? Justice remembers the games he played and appears to turn them into symbols of the desires and goals and work that have occupied him across his life. The hiding from the rain suggest his running from adversities. The flying of a paper airplane suggests his seeking to achieve his aspirations. The spinning until dizzy suggests a delight in the world of the senses (though this symbol is much more uncertain and probably a mild weakness). His waiting for a parent or friend to take him home suggests his desire for some greater being and some better home than this world gives us -- something like William James's "Something More."
I consider the symbol of home to border on a cliché, but I must admit that the use of home as a symbol is a prominent one in the poems of the Winters Canon, especially in poems written in the last century. Winters himself and his wife Janet Lewis both used the concept of home in their finest poetry. The symbol appears to be central in some way to human life, so vital that it cannot be dismissed as sentimental or vapid. That is something that could bear closer study.
Among other great modern classical poems that address the issue at hand in "The Poet at Seven" -- ultimate reality, we could say -- I think of Wallace Stevens's "The Course of a Particular," in which one element in the world of nature issues a cry that "concerns no one at all." The suggestion is heavy in that poem that there is no home for us to be taken to, that we wait in vain among weeds in vacant lots, if any of us are waiting at all, for a friend or lover or parent to take us there. Also, there is Stevens's "Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb," in which the poet ponders his grave, chilling description of an "abysmal night / when the host shall no more wander."
Yet another poem, a very short one, that concerns these ideas, one that Winters seems to have considered at least near-great, was written by the forgotten Adelaide Crapsey, "To Man Who Goes Seeking Immortality, Bidding Him Look Nearer Home":
Too far afield thy search. Nay, turn. Nay, turn.
At thine own elbow potent Memory stands
Thy double, and eternity is cupped
In the pale hollow of those ghostly hands.
Home is in the mind, Crapsey appears to be saying, which echoes some of Stevens's less accomplished poems, such as "The Idea of Order at Key West." (I wonder what Crapsey's reaction would have been to developments in beliefs about memory in the past 20 years or so, as more and more thinkers and writers abandon all belief -- sometimes cynically, but often blithely -- that memory delivers anything real from the past, that everything we remember is a construct of the imagination.) Crapsey appears to be saying that no one is coming to whip us, gently or not, away from the weedy lot of this material existence.
Finally, though I have merely scratched the surface on this topic, I think again of a poem I have quoted already on this blog as one of our greatest and most important poems, J.V. Cunningham's "Epigram 43":
In whose will is our peace? Thou happiness,
Thou ghostly promise, to thee I confess
Neither in thine nor love's nor in that form
Disquiet hints at have I yet been warm;
And if I rest not till I rest in thee
Cold as thy grace, whose hand shall comfort me?
In contradistinction to Justice's poem, this poem portrays a world in which the "homes" the poet has found or tried to find have given none of the comforts we believe home should bring, though he longs for that comfort still.
There is much more in this vein among the poems of the Winters Canon, as found in Yvor Winters's great anthology Quest for Reality. At this point I leave the matter for your own study, though I look forward to your comments and reflections on Donald Justice's sonnet.
May 7, 2009
The Last Judgment
Medieval scuptors knew,
Better than marxists, what to do
With the exploiting upper classes:
You carve them naked into stone,
With fiends that strip them to the bone
While shoving skewers up their asses.
Torture them richly and with skill.
And then let them pay the bill.
More than venting one's frustration, this sharp, short poem is about shame. No longer fearing death much -- what with hell and even the afterlife mostly denied or ignored nowadays -- wouldn't many an exploiter like to hang on to his so-called earthly "legacy," as we see, for example, in the opening efforts of the Dubya team in recent months. Maybe the thought of lasting infamy is part of what keeps exploiters in line as well as they can be kept in line. That's worth some thought. Though I am a political liberal in the current parlance, I know a few erudite conservative commentators who have argued forcefully and persuasively of late for a renewal of shame in our culture. In that vein, this poem from Raymond Oliver gives rise to some valuable reflection.
On another matter, I noticed that the late Thom Gunn, a semi-Wintersian, blurbed a couple years back for Oliver's latest book of poems (which I have not seen and cannot find), His Book of Hours, “Ray Oliver's poems are like none others I have read.” I think I know what Gunn meant, but the blurb is unintentionally funny because it actually says nothing at all -- not unlike many an advertising tagline (such as Pizza Hut's latest vapid pitch: "Now, that's eating"). Oliver has written mostly in traditional forms, but he has published a few free verse poems that come close to prosetic musing. If you are inclined to try, it will be hard to track his work down, of course, but a few poems are available online here and there. He is not a great poet, in my judgment, but he has done some skillful and thoughtful work that deserves attention in a Wintersian classicist enclave, as Donald Stanford gave him in the Southern Review more than 20 years back. Oliver wrote an essay for and published more than dozen poems in the 1981 Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review. (That rich issue, by the way, is an important one that deserves attention among modern classicists.)
At some point I will come back to one or two of Oliver's translations.
Apr 30, 2009
One or two of Catherine Davis's poems have remained in circulation, which is heartening. You can find them on the web with a search engine. Further, just last year, after her work's long rest in near complete oblivion, Stanford University put on a reading of her poetry in her honor at some anniversary or another. But I wonder how many non-academics, or even academics, have been reading her work, besides me, during the past 40 years? It can't have been many. Any readers of this blog?
This week I reach back and offer a poem that has enriched my life over three decades. It was first published in the first issue of the Southern Review, Second Series, January 1965, that year's Winter issue, Volume 1, Number 1, though I read the poem some 15 years after its first publication. (The photo is of Pastor Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran leading a prayer service at the Chapel of Restoration in the Bronx, the pertinence of which you will see in the poem.) As I have discussed a number of times on this blog, Donald Stanford, classicist and former student of Winters, restarted the Southern Review at LSU and turned part of his editorial work toward the development of a Wintersian or Stanford School enclave from 1965 to 1982. Here's the poem, a forgotten near-great of modern classicism:
The First Step
The last step is the first.
And so I have descended
(Being of single mind)
Through fifteen narrow years,
And knew what I intended
But not what I should find.
The downward flight, reversed,
As I look back in dread,
Ascends and disappears
In shadow overhead.
What will the next step be?
It should have been the climb,
The ardent foot and hand
Seeking the laurel rood.
But I have come in time
To know that where I stand
Is not the place where he,
Bernard, or some lost guide,
Who led me here, had stood,
Stripped of his lusts and pride.
This figure of the stair,
Being a monk's design,
Having a monk's intent
Of purging self-regard,
I must at last resign
(God knows, some monks repent!)
As neither here not there.
The self unsatified
Is what I find, Bernard,
Not God; nothing but pride.
How does it help, sweet saint,
To know our wretchedness,
When there's no going back?
How does it help to know
By heart how comfortless
We are, how much we lack,
And what we fear? The taint
Of death, of broken meat
I've tasted, too, and oh
How cold the food I eat!
How does it help to see
How sick at heart we are,
Or find out where we erred?
I see both whence I came
And where I am, how far
I've drifted who preferred
My own fool vagrancy:
If, knowing this, I go
My own way all the same,
How does it help to know?
Boy, I gotta step out on the limb here and say that, if not great, this is pretty close to a great poem, even though Winters might have considered it too personal to be worth much. Though he never wrote specifically about this poem, he didn't think it even came close to reaching greatness, as is clear from his endnote in Forms of Discovery on the seven poems from Davis that Donald Stanford published in the 1965 Southern Review: Winters wrote, rather brusquely, that they are "of little interest." (By differing from Winters on this poem, as you see, I play my oligatory modern cultural role, as all writers must, in showing that I am an independent thinker beholden to or enthralled by no woman or man -- even though I have been called Winters's "epigone" [oh, what a shameful tag to be labeled with, even if irrational].) I guess I'm still willing to hold off and wait for some sort of confirmation of my judgment that this poem is great, not being as strong-willed or as sure as Yvor Winters about my judgments. So far as I know, I stand alone in my high judgment of this poem. Anyone want to join me? Or must all, as is irrationally required by the aforementioned cultural rule, differ from me? Was Winters wrong about it? Did he miss its achievement -- and, perhaps, badly?
The poem is the work of a person with a certain sensibility, going through a certain kind of experience. But it's delineation of moral resignation and weariness, of the dangers of acedia, is deeply powerful and searching. The structure is elegant and strongly rational. The meter and phrasing are downright superb. They deserve careful study, which I might get to some time, if I find the energy. The end of the fourth stanza, in particular, is strikingly meaningful, especially as the stanza moves to its chilling, insightful final line. I've been talking with this poem, answering it, letting it reply to me, for most of my adult life. I believe it to be worthy of attention across the American readership. I'd say that it's better than 80% of the poems in William Harmon's Top 500 Poems. In other words, it should, as I provisionally opine, be a touchstone. But whether it achieved greatness or not, it is a terrible shame that it has been forgotten for so long.
A couple additional notes: As I mention, John Fraser chose three of Davis's poems for his New Book of Verse. Fraser has been adding some new poems from living poets to his online anthology lately, and I encourage you to visit his site. He does not include this poem.
Finally, I want to point out that "The First Step" complements a number of extraordinary poems that Yvor Winters judged to be among our finest works of literary art. I think of George Gascoinge's "Woodmanship," which is also about spiritual or psychic weariness and frustration, though that early Renaissance poem has a very different emotional bearing. (That's the poem I have been stuck on in my review of the Winters Canon, on which I'll get restarted, I hope, by the fall.) Also, the poem has certain resonances with George Herbert's "Church Monuments," which concerns in an oblique but incisive way the earnest search for what to do with life. Further, it can be profitably considered with Robert Bridges's great poem "The Afflication of Richard," which is about the inability of a believer to quit a faith that frustrates him. Lastly, there is Baudelaire. My, there is a vast subject, which I do not have the time to go into now (who has?). But Baudelaire's trenchant examinations of "spiritual torpor" (as Winters called the condition in his discussion of acedia in his essay on T.S. Eliot from the early 1940s) is unquestionably resonant with Davis's poem in many ways. A sonnet to start with might be "Le Mort Joyeux" ("The Joyful Dead"), which Winters considered one of our greatest French poems (the rough translation of the first stanza is my own):
Dans une terre grasse et pleine d'escargots
Je veux creuser moi-même une fosse profonde,
Où je puisse à loisir étaler mes vieux os
Et dormir dans l'oubli comme un requin dans l'onde.
(In a fatty plot of ground, full of snails,
I'd like to dig myself a deep, dark grave,
Where, at leisure, I'd spread my old bones
And sleep in oblivion, like a shark in a wave.)
Apr 23, 2009
To My Father
The strong grow stronger in their faith
And from their strength their faith grows strong.
And you who fastened on a wraith
Which moved John Wesley were not wrong
To fix your being to that rock
From which the purest water flowed,
Allying pity to the stock
Whom Calvin fired into a goad
Which pricked old kings and cardinals
To fury, and whose faith subdued
The Plymouth winter, and the calls
Of flesh which tore the multitude,
Who built a solitary state
Upon the bare Laurentian soil,
Who looked on slothfulness with hate
That moment they were hating toil,
You were not wrong to scorn the man
Who scorning, turned the other cheek,
Nor with your grave religious scan
To seek the best which best men seek.
And you may challenge, not condemn
The risk each generation runs:
That faith from which your being stems
Prove insubstantial to your sons.
This is moving poem, and much of the emotion derives from the superb handling of the seemingly rigid structure. Note that it has a theme that it consonant with my discussion of Agnes Lee's "Convention" last week. The long second sentence, which runs over several stanzas, is particularly charged with emotion. Drummond had a style most readers nowadays would consider wooden. But I find his style to be particularly suited to a revival of classicism in our times, well ordered and dignified. This style is not going to be especially popular, I realize. But it pays well on careful reading. In this poem, the subtle variations from the strict meter and controlled structure are very well executed. There is only one minor flaw, this in punctuation. The line ending in "hating toil" should end with a semi-colon. As punctuated, the comma makes for a run-on sentence.
Finally, I pause to note that Drummond is one of the many, many students Winters taught whom he did not champion as great poets. Winters has far, far, FAR! too many times been accused of nepotism, for supposedly ridiculously favoring poets unheralded by any critic other than himself. But Drummond, as fine as his work was, did not merit much discussion in Winters writings, and he chose none of his poetry for the Winters Canon. Let me state again: it's time for critics to shut up -- stop making this silly charge of nepotism, which has unjustly damaged Winters's reputation. It is true that Winters thought a few of his students wrote great poetry, but I will both defend those judgments and counter that he passed over the work of many fine poets who have been lamentably forgotten. Donald Drummond is one.