Jan 6, 2009

Are the Religious Strongly Drawn to Yvor Winters?

Definitely, some connection exists between the literary thought and art of Yvor Winters and religion, and, further, specifically between Winters and Christianity. I haven't addressed this issue directly on this blog, but I have noticed the matter again and again through the years. I was reminded of it again when a recent correspondent wrote to me about how he came to become interested in Winters. He had been introduced to Winters's ideas and art in a college course taught by one of Winters's former students some decades ago. But his interest sharpened, it appears, when he learned of Winters's use of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and other classical Catholic thinkers in the development of his critical theories and his poetic art. My correspondent has become a Catholic himself.

There is more. Much more. The story of my correspondent is only one of a dozen instances in which a person has written to me about how he (the correspondents have all been male) met Winters's writings. In a majority of these cases, the men were religious, in one sense or another, at the time they first met Winters's writings. Many of these men were and remain Roman Catholic (the painting, by the way, is of Aquinas defeating Averroes in disputation). It appears that people have often been drawn to Winters's thought and poetry because of its congeniality to or accord with religious ideas and feeling, with a religious worldview, often specifically Christian. On the other hand (though I haven't yet studied the matter closely), few published scholars, poets, or critics who have had interests in Winters have been overt Christian believers.

What about me? As I have written elsewhere, I also was a Christian at the time I first read Winters. This took place in the mid-1970s while I was in college. I was an Evangelical Protestant at that time; I even dabbled in Pentecostalism (which, it might surprise you, is not irrelevant to Winters -- yet another topic for study). Like so many others, I was drawn to Winters because of the religious feeling in and behind his thought and art. There was something congenial to religion and Christian faith in his ideas that I haven't fully identified or come to fully understand. This feeling remains attractive and compelling to me, even though some years back I converted away from Christianity to religious pluralism, of a sort. (I'll spare you the details, unless I am asked to write on the matter. It might have some bearing on this blog, it's true.)

I also am writing on this topic because I recently re-read Alan Shapiro's highly amusing essay "Fanatics," which was reissued in his book The Last Happy Occasion. In that essay, Shapiro, an American poet of minor standing, wrote of his passion for Winters as a literary "prophet" during his years at Stanford in the 1970s, a few years after Winters died (Winters had been a professor at Stanford for nearly his entire career). Shapiro explicitly compares his zealous devotion to Winters to the religious devotion of a Jewish friend who in the 70s had converted to Lubavitcher Hasidism under the leadership of Rabbi Menachim Schneerson:

Just as Billy believed that the Torah was not only the law of the Jewish people, but the cosmic law of the universe, so we believed that Winters' definitions and prescriptions were true not only for the poetry he wrote and admired, but for any poetry at all that aspired to be deathless and universal.

Hard to mistake the point there. Shapiro sees his onetime devotion to Winters (he says he is no longer an adherent of the "prophet") as some kind of religious commitment -- one that was nearly fundamentalist in nature, much like the commitment of his friend to Hasidism.

No one I know of has studied the matter of the religious slant of Winters's writings in depth, but it seems clear that some religious ideas and moods and attitudes in Winters's writings, in his appraoch to literature and philosophy as a whole, draws in the religious believer, makes him feel at home in Winters's poetry and criticism. This seems evident despite the fact that Winters was not a religious believer, at least of any conventional or traditional sort.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Winters considered some explicitly Christian poets to have written some of our greatest poems. These are poets who have received only short shrift in modern times. Fulke Greville, for example -- though there are more than a dozen others. Further, Winters wrote about his being what he called an absolutist and even a theist in one of his seminal essays, the "Foreword" to In Defense of Reason. I should note, though, that the Being Winters came to believe in was not much like the Christian trinitarian diety, but, rather, a Being of "pure mind," a difficult concept that is almost incomprehensibly vague in Winters's poetry and criticism. As the late John Finlay discussed the matter in 1981 (Southern Review volume 17, number 3), Winters refashioned God to make Him presentable in more "intellectually respectable" terms:

But the unqualified theism [of the "Foreword"] is still intellectual to the core. Instead of extracting the divine essence out of God and setting it up as concept, Winters now leaves that divine essence within God, but eliminates everything else from Him, so that He becomes what that essence is defined as being, which, in Winters' case, is "pure mind."

As intellectually respectable as this might be, I cannot say that I fully understand Finlay's conception of Winters's conception of God as delineated here. But what's germane to this post is that certainly Winters's embrace of theism is something that would draw the religious believer to his work. A conventional believer would take note of the oddness and difficult nature of Winters's theism upon deeper study, and even then it would appear to be congenial -- to some degree -- to orthodox Christian theism, as it appears to have been to the Catholic John Finlay (who was, by the way, a very fine poet if his work is now, sadly, almost entirely forgotten).

Finally, Winters's whole critical system is built upon ideas of morality, which religion is, of course, deeply concerned with. I should note, though, that what Winters meant by "morality" and what religious believers commonly mean by that broad, vague, difficult term can differ considerably.

But in addition to all this, there is something more, something about the way Winters thinks and writes, the indistinct foundations of his work and art. I would like some comment on this matter, especially from the Christian believers who have written to me about their attraction to Winters's work, though I am not averse to hearing from those without religious beliefs who have interests in Winters. Naturally, I hope to offer some more thoughts on the matter myself as time goes on.


James Matthew Wilson said...

Dear Ben,

Your proposal to contemplate, or at least encourage others to contemplate, the more than incidental congeniality of Winters's work and its perspective to Christianity is a promising one.

I'll be exploring one dimension of it in an article on Helen Pinkerton, which will make substantial reference to Winters, in an upcoming issue of "Christianity and Literature."

However, I would suggest right now that there are at least two faces of Winters that might appeal to the Christian intellectual. The Protestant believer might appreciate Winters's suspicion of creation, i.e. the natural world, his insistence on a clear line between the good and the evil (ignoring, perhaps, his more nuanced practice of evaluating hierarchically), and his tying of feeling to moral judgment (a unity that comports with with most Protestant theories of faith).

The Catholic intellectual will inevitably find the above attributes troubling, or at least limiting (as did John Finlay). But he will appreciate that Winters was a metaphysical realist (albeit a troubled one, because of his anti-romantic gnosticism, as, again Finlay describes it). Moreover, Winters defense of reason at least attempted to be a counter-Enlightenment defense; he rejected the Eighteenth Century philosophe along with the Nineteenth Century romantic as two prongs of the same voluntarist fork. In so doing, Winters drew on, and put in a form palatable to non-Catholic readers, the defense of reason that the Catholic Church had made under the name of Thomism since the encyclical, "Aeterni Patris" (1879). Much of what Winters says in his writings sound remarkably like developments on the typical intellectualist and realist positions of such figures as Allen Tate, Jacques Maritain, and Etienne Gilson. The question, therefore, seems not so much to be "Why would a Catholic appreciate Winters?" but rather, "How did Winters become so fluent in positions and schools of thought typically poorly understood outside of Catholic intellectual circles?" A remarkable achievement, for which I am grateful. A lifelong Catholic, I had only the slightest appreciation of Thomas Aquinas prior to becoming interested in him through Winters's writing. As a final biographical note, it was probably John Paul II's encyclical "Fides et Ratio" that prepared me, among other things, to take an interest in Winters's criticism (though, needless to say, that was not the totality of that encyclical's influence!).

Kirby Olson said...

I'm a practicing Lutheran, but I somewhat resent Yvor Winters. I think he's way too judgmental.

Judgment is something that's gone out of fashion, and I can understand wanting to countermand that by bringing back in the judgmental, but Winters is way too harsh and not understanding in his criticism.

Or at least that's what I find.

I was reading the letters from Winters to Marianne Moore in the Rosenbach Library archives in Philadelphia about two years ago.

he started off in a genteel and polite-seeming way, and then ended up ranting and raving and bulldozing.

We don't have many Christian poets: Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, and very few others. Robert Cording is the only Lutheran poet I know about.

Many people argue that Robert bly is a Lutheran poet but I doubt if he's been to church for decades unless it's for the drumming business. Certainly he hasn't gone as a Lutheran. Maybe as a Wiccan, or something else.

Yvor Winters is very pinchy. There's a side of Christianity that is like that, but it's the side I don't like.

Ben Kilpela said...

James: I'll look forward to the essay on Pinkerton. I agree that Maritan and Tate and Gilson have affinities to Winters's thought, in general. I'd like to see a lot more written on this topic. Tate had very interesting metaphysical views, and much of Maritan is worth reading in light of Winters's classcism. I read "Creative Intuition" a couple times back in my college days. Also, I would agree that Finlay wasn't in agreement with Winters on religion, but I do believe there is an affinity there, an attraction to Winters, that is noticeable and deserves some study -- though it might be much more important just to see Finlay get any kind of study or attention at all, rather than focusing on his affinities with Winters. It is very sad that he has been overlooked. He was a great poet, at least in my provisional view. Thanks for writing. I hope others might comment on your take.

Ben Kilpela

Ben Kilpela said...

Kirby: I don't see any reason to "resent" Winters, not that I know exactly what you mean by that. Perhaps you just mean that you disapprove of his supposedly ranting tone (which I don't believe is all that "rantful"). I found little to get upset about in his letters to Marianne Moore, at least in the area of religion. He had his literary views and he stated them forcefully. He sounds like Luther much of the time, the Luther of "Babylonian Captivity," a favorite ranting book of mine.

I think Winters's harshness is far overblown, to be honest. I comment about this several times on this blog over the past couple years. Check those passages out. He could be a bit on the prickly side, but there have been plenty of condemnatory comments from hundreds of critics on all sorts of matters all through the 19th and 20th centuries. It's a bloody business, and it continues today in the "Theory Wars." Man oh man, in my opinion, Winters looks pretty placid compared with some of the language used and the hard-nosed tone taken in those battles.

Also, there are hundreds of Christian and religious poets writing now or who wrote during the 20th century, many of them formalists, though far from all. Maybe some of my readers can offer some suggestions. James Wilson might have a few. Auden is in there, don't you think, James?

Finally, I don't know what you think Winters was TOO judgmental about. Are you referring to his views on religion or his views on literature in general or his views on certain writers and such? I can't tell from your note. In general, I find Winters to be on the outside edge of the harshness continuum, but he's not the worst among critics or intellectuals. Just look at the tone Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens have taken in the New Atheism debate. Man, are they harsh! But Winters had his views and he stuck to his guns. I agree with him on many matters, but not all. I like it that he stated his views very clearly and forcefully on matters I care about deeply and agree with him about widely.

Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope to hear more from you.

Ben Kilpela

Ben Kilpela said...

Kirby, I meant to say that Winters's tone is NOT all that ranful.


Kirby Olson said...

Ben, I can't stand Hitchens or Dawkins either. Very harsh, very one-sided, and completely stupid (I liked Hitchens' book on Orwell, but when he talks about Christianity, he's just mindless). Ditto with Dawkins.

I can't remember what I read of Winters. It was a long book about the badness of the modernists.

I'll try to remember. I'm rushing about today.

I don't many of the formalists. I came out of the Beat school -- studied with Ginsberg and Corso and others at Naropa. But I'm Christian, and never understood their lack of appreciation for morals.

Kirby Olson said...

The book I read by Winters was called Yvor Winters on Modern Poetry, I seem to recall. But it was an ancient edition, possibly published earlier than the 1959 date, and I remember he attacked WCW in addition to the poets in the volume from 1959. One of the attacks was that these poets had no theology, I think, and therefore there was only mindless pleasure (I think this was his attack on Wallace Stevens).

I more or less agreed with this attack, but what was odd is that he didn't give any examples from the works he was reading.

I later heard through the grapevine that the notion that you couldn't print any piece of poetry, not the slightest line, because it was considered an integral aspect of the work, was because many of the modernist poets didn't want Yvor Winters attacking their work any more.

So they mounted that defense: that every line was integral to a poem and so you couldn't publish a single line without legal permission, which they wouldn't give. I've asked two lawyers to track this down, but no one has been able to do it.

Nevertheless, when I worked on the Gregory Corso volume I published at Southern Illinois UP I had to have permission for every line I published. Corso granted it, and so did New Directions, but I heard horror stories about Lawrence Ferlinghetti asking for enormous fees, and one poet, named Larry Fagin, wouldn't allow me to publish so much as a single line of his poetry in an article I had written for another book, Comedy after Postmodernism.

Of course, the churlish aspects of Dawkins and Hitchens come to the fore when they attack Christianity, and Winters is by no means as 100% in his hatred of contemporary poetry as Dawkins and Hitchens are in their churlish bigotry toward Christianity.

Winters admits there is value in the poems of Stevens, and in the poems of his other contemporaries, it's just that he is also rather violently pointing out their shortcomings (in many cases I agree with his remarks, but felt he went a little too far in his tone here and there).

But compared to Hitchens and Dawkins, he comes off as a paragon of liberalism and charity.

In the book The Future of Religion, Gianni Vattimo and Richard Rorty argue more or less that charity is needed when we listen to others from other viewpoints, other religions. I would say that Hitchens and Dawkins show exactly none of this in their diatribes against Christianity. Hitchens on Mother Theresa is almost sociopathic.

He's better when he's dealing with one of his own: someone like Orwell. That book ironically allows that Orwell had a Christian side, which is muted, but which guides the rest of Orwell's thought, and Hitchens suddenly thinks this is ok.

Dawkins has a few remarks here and there on Mary Midgley among others, that show that he's working on the more charitable aspect of his mind. It's by no means a natural aspect of his thought.

Rorty is also pretty bad when it comes to Christians. He basically says that they should have none in his classes, and the most charitable thing he could do is smash it out of them, since it's just mindless superstition and nonsense.

If charity is a kind of listening to the other, much of feminism is really bad at this. The Duke University faculty (the group of 88) was really bad at it.

Ron Silliman is terrible at it, but he's better than most of his leftist colleagues in the universities. (Which is to say that he's hard of hearing when it comes to those who have a different perspective, but he strains, and occasionally, succeeds.)

In general, I think that Christians of some stripes are better at this than others.

How do you listen to someone who takes an entirely different position from your own? It's very hard to do this, especially when you're locked into a debate with them, and your face is at stake.

I like your project of rehabilitating Yvor Winters, and look forward to seeing what else you can revive of value in his work.

I don't think he's a lost cause, but there is a certain vituperative quality, which gets even more intense in his unpublished letters. There was one in the Moore archives that wasn't published in her letters, or his letters, that went completely off the rails into sheer unchecked violence like you rarely see anywhere.

I read it with my jaw open.

I think it's part of his correspondence with her in regards to the Dial. There were many many letters from him, in fact, and finally she just stopped writing to him, as he had lost every ounce of charity he had had (he started in a rather courtly, and kindly tone).

Anyway, go see for yourself. It wasn't part of what I was working on, so I didn't make copies (copies at the Rosenbach library are quite expensive, and I'm not rich).

I'm looking forward to hearing if you know that Winters ever went to court with other modernist poets in regards to the permission to print poetry deal.

When I published my book on Andrei Codrescu I wanted to print a single line from Charles Olson's poetry and they said I couldn't do it without permission from the poet's legal owners. This was such a pain in the neck to procure that I dropped the line.

Was Winters behind all this?

James Matthew Wilson said...

What is so rewarding in Winters is his effort to ensure that a reader knows why Winters believes what he does, and judges as he does. One senses his "foundationalism," that is, his belief that beliefs have foundation to the extent that they are true, and that such foundation can be explored and articulated. He was not an "emotivist," as Alasdair MacIntyre would put it: one's judgments are accountable in terms that are not reducible to a mere, inarguable emotional preference.

Winters's fascinating theory of literary genre in The Function of Criticism is the great challenge to any of his admirers. I admire the consistency, and see that he has discovered some truths about literature in general. I don't agree with most of the conclusions there drawn, because the premises on which they are based seem weak. I know of no other modern critic, however, about whom one could make such an assertion. Most of them confuse or conflate their premises with their conclusions; or, rather, they hide the former and pass off the latter with a kind of erratic, pretentious swagger. Such is what Winters clearly loathed about Eliot (though I think Winters misperceived the rationale behind Eliot's writings, and consequently couldn't read them properly).

As a general point, let me note that it is not for being "excessively judgmental" that one ought to condemn anyone. Judging is what the mind does to come to know what it perceives. If one finds Winters shrill -- and in a few cases, I do find him so -- it is not because he has judged "too much" but because he has judged a premise true without adequately entertaining possible objections to the premise.

An update: a) the Pinkerton essay is away, and I intend to pitch a second one to another journal, because her work requires more attention, even within the scope of what I wish to say about it; and b) Finlay does deserve an essay of his own, and I'll provide it within the next two years; finally, c) Finlay clearly had immense admiration for Winters; what he criticized in Winters was a "gnostic" tendency that is evident in several poems. As Pinkerton has argued in an essay responding to Finlay, this tendency is evidently not present in other Winters poems. It would take a great deal of space to hash out who is correct; I'll get 'round to it.

P.S. surely Auden qualifies as a major Christian poet, though no poem of the Twentieth Century can compare with Four Quartets. It is the one long poem of the last century that is unquestionably a permanent addition to the life of mankind -- and of course it is about Christian belief, experience, and theology.


Ben Kilpela said...

Hi, Kirby. I somehow overlooked your last comment and failed to post it. I apologize. What a dumb mistake! I will try to comment on your comments promptly.

Ben Kilpela