Apr 30, 2009

Drifting Vagrants

Catherine Davis (1924–2002) was another of Yvor Winters's students at Stanford back in the 1940s, a student whose work he regarded very highly. Indeed, Winters chose six of her poems, which are epigrams, for the Winters Canon, a decision which has received no second that I know of, even among Wintersians. This is not to say, nevertheless, that Davis's poetry has been thought poorly of in the Stanford School. John Fraser chose three of her poems for his quasi-Wintersian anthology The New Book of Verse, even though, without comment, he discarded Winters's choices.

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

A Poet of the Pacific

A poet whose work I have always admired a great deal is Donald Drummond, a former student of Yvor Winters's at Stanford in the 1940s. His poetry was featured in the second regional poetry anthology Winters edited, Poets of the Pacific, Second Series. Drummond is wholly forgotten now. I do not know of a single writer or critic who has mentioned his work in the past 50 years. Here's a strikingly well composed poem of Drummond's from the pacific poets anthology, which was first published in 1949:

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.

Apr 16, 2009

Agnes Lee? Who's That?

Another of those seemingly bizarre judgments Winters made concerned the excellence of a small poem by Agnes Lee, a now almost entirely forgotten American poet of the late 19th century. The poem in question is "The Sweeper," which can be found on the web. It is hard to say exactly how highly Winters judged this poem, though that he judged it very highly and wanted to draw attention to it are without question. Some critics suspect that he didn't really consider it one of our greats, which doesn't touch on the question of whether we should consider it great. Those are important subjects for discussion when I come to the poem in my reëvaluation of the Winters Canon. For now, let me offer another poem by Lee, which in tone and structure is much like "The Sweeper."


The snow is lying very deep.
My house is sheltered from the blast.
I hear each muffled step outside,
I hear each voice go past.

But I'll not venture in the drift
Out of this bright security,
Till enough footsteps come and go
To make a path for me.

I admire this poem a good deal. It is hard to know without some deep study what exactly Lee might have been sheltering from and what the footsteps symbolize in this little parable. Was it religious belief? Judging from many of her other poems and the charged diction (blast, bright security), it seems so, though I do not know enough about her to venture a guess as to what exactly she believed about ultimate reality or religion. But the poem is poignant and thought-provoking. Of course, it runs against the American myth of rugged individualism, but that myth has always been very much more observed in the breaking than in the keeping. There is much more good stuff in the poetry of Agnes Lee. I'll get back to her -- she deserves the attention.

For now, another matter to think about is Yvor Winters's strident conventionalism, the idea that a rational society and culture are built on the shoulders of of our greatest thinkers past, who laid down the footsteps we should follow (to mix metaphors). Winters believed that modern literary practices and theories threatened the whole rational order of Western civilization. (The pictured T-shirt, by the way, reads: "Conventional wisdom is the ruin of our souls." There's a foolish saying for you, but it has surely become a modern myth in our society.) It is a position that no one I know of has tried since to make a case for or develop. Winters himself was fairly sketchy about the whole idea, with however much table-thumping certainty he wrote of the matter (as of nearly all matters). It's an idea that needs and deserves a new look, though no one has yet bothered to take it.

Also, I should mention that J.V. Cunningham, Winters's friend and one-time student, was closely interested in this matter of convention. He wrote a number of superb poems that reflected on the issue, as well as a lot of criticism that addressed it. Though only a Wintersian in a rough sense, Cunningham certainly was a classicist who gave us some exceedingly important insights into modern literature that, alas, have been mostly ignored. One of his epigrams from The Judge is Fury came to mind when I was pondering Lee's short poem:

Epigram 12

I was concerned for you and keep that part
In these days, irrespective of the heart:
And not for friendship, not for love, but cast
In that role by the presence of the past.

This poem is about human motivation, a frequent topic in Cunningham's verse, but also about conventions and social expectations. Particularly, it concerns conventions that are somehow assigned to us in living our lives as social creatures. I have been pondering this little poem for a long time. It troubles me. It is partially true, as a general idea, but it is not the whole general truth about familial concern.

Finally, let me mention as well that commitment to following the footsteps of others through the storms of life does not gaurantee virtue or success or safety. Following convention, as an abstract principle, is morally neutral. It promises neither good nor evil. For some conventions are evil and should be discarded. Slavery, to trot out one obvious example. Conventions, we could say, are good when put to good purposes, evil when put to evil purposes. Some conventions are so good that they are worth keeping against all enemies and defending with one's life. People disagree about which conventions are which, of course, which good, which evil. It takes great wisdom to know. It takes, too, in the end, a leap of faith, and often faith in other people. This is a matter I have written about in my on-line book A Journal of Doubt (1991), especially "Part V," the last part. The immediate context of that book was a struggle with believing Christianity, but my discussion has more general application to the difficulties surrounding setting, finding, and following the wisdom of the past, which hardens at times into convention.

Well, I have wandered far afield from Agnes Lee's little poem. Perhaps I had better bring these reflections to an end.

Apr 14, 2009

The Literary Cafeterias

I enjoyed a recent article on church shopping on Slate, which can be found at:


The short piece brought to my mind the idea that people are also doing a lot of literary shopping in our culture. What people read and appreciate and admire is all up for grabs (as in a cafeteria, I suppose) -- and it seems that that will be so for a long time to come, if not to the very end of our civilization, which is becoming ever more of a mishmash with every passing year. This is one of the stumbling blocks to the favorable reception of Yvor Winters and his ideas, who seems so cocksure and dogmatic, so narrow ("Your choices here are boiled potatoes, a wedge of lettuce, and a slab of seared red meat!"), to those who first encounter him. As much of we like cafeteria-style religion, as described in the Slate essay, we also appear to like the plentiful and varied offerings at our literary cafeterias. Do we not often read nowadays about High-Cult writers and critics and artists who like Low-Cult artworks, popular entertainments, of all sorts? It has become some sort of badge of honor to think both Shakespeare and, say, Elmore Leonard are great writers, or that both Bach and the Grateful Dead are supreme artists. We need a new Dwight MacDonald to study again this growing, mutating phenomenon of literary "cults."

There have been suggestions, particularly by James Howard Kuntzler (in his novel World Made by Hand and his environmental study The Long Emergency), that we will soon return to a land of villages. And then in what will our culture lie? But that seems a ways off yet. Americans and Europeans are simply deadset agsinst putting all their literary likes and needs and dislikes into one movement or organization or style or purpose. Literary classicism, let alone Winters's austere, demanding brand of it, won’t fulfill all the needs of all (or even many of many it seems), just as Catholicism or Dutch Calvinism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Southern Baptism do not any longer satisfy everyone or often even any single person, in whole or in part, or all the time. We shop around. We love shopping. We slum around, too (as the saying goes) -- and we love our slumming unabashedly.

My merest hope is that artists will start or keep writing and people will keep reading and judge highly good classical poetry, fiction, and criticism, as they "slum" with the Rolling Stones or Merle Haggard or "The Dark Knight." That’s one of the overarching purposes of this blog: to draw enough classical “converts” for us to be able to offer a few classical entrées or tidbits -- maybe even a main course or two -- in the literary cafeterias.

Apr 9, 2009

Two Poems by Philip Pain

Winters wrote a few times about the critical ability of finding the best poems. So important was this, he opposed the gist and theories of the criticism of several other specific writers in his essays (and almost all modern literary culture in general) on the grounds that those specific critics under discussion were, in his judgment, unable to discern which poems are truly great.

One of the discoveries Winters made of great poetry, a finding often considered bizarre by the few who know of it, was a small poem by an almost wholly unknown colonial American Philip Pain (who wrote in the 17th century), "Meditation 8" ("Scarce do I pass a day”), which Winters chose for the Winters Canon. I notice, nonetheless, that this sharp poem was chosen for the Oxford Book of Short Verse, which offers many strong and insightful works (but no J.V. Cunningham -– the editors must be kidding!). Some years back I read all of Pain’s other verse, which is small in volume as we have it. Here are two poems from the Meditations, which closely match the theme of "Meditation 8":

Meditation 54

The sons of men are prone to forget Death,
And put it farre away from them, till breath
Begins to tell them they must to the grave,
And then, Oh what would they give but to have

One year of respite? Help me, Lord, to know
As I move here, so my time moves also.

Meditation 56

The time will be, when we shall be
no more:
Where will our World be then? 'Twill be
no more.
Where will our Comforts be? They'll be
no more.
Where will our Friends be then? They'll be
no more.

Lord, grant me then thy grace, lest that
no more,
Do seize upon me, and I be
no more.

No More!
O solemn sound: this night I may
Be struck by Death, and never see the day.

These are well-struck pieces. In my opinion, they are, roughly, as good as most of the poetry in Pain’s Meditations. Also in my judgment, it seems clear that it is only the poem that Winters singled out as great (or perhaps nearly great**) that truly stands as one of our best. Here it is again, as given in Winters’s 1968 anthology Quest for Reality:

Meditation 8

Scarce do I pass a day, but that I hear
Some one or other's dead, and to my ear
Me thinks it is no news. But oh! did I
Think deeply on it, what it is to die,

My pulses all would beat, I should not be
Drowned in this deluge of security.

What do you see here? "Meditation 8" is very good stuff, better than the other work, which I believe is still pretty good poetry. In what lies the difference, the measure of greatness or near-greatness? That’s something no writer or critic has bothered to comment on since Winters wrote. It’s about time. In #56, in contrast to #8, Pain seems all too aware of Death -- what with those rather insistent and almost hysterical italics. The whole of the collection is an interesting study of the waxing and waning of that awareness.

** NOTE: I will re-asses the merit of "Meditation 8" some day as I work through my reëvaluation of the Winters Canon on this blog. I have no idea how long that might take.

Apr 2, 2009

A Poem by T. Sturge Moore

I wrote last of Elaine Showalter’s new book on American women novelists, saying in part that I would to see whether she had included any writers whom Yvor Winters or Janet Lewis considered significant or particularly valuable. Upon finding at my local Barnes and Noble that Showalter does not even mention Janet Lewis, does not discuss Catherine Gordon except for a lone comment about her civil war novel None Shall Look Back as compared with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and includes no discussion of any other writers the Winterses found compelling besides Katherine Anne Porter -- that took all the wind out of my sails ever since.

I have spent the last week or two just recovering from the blow that what I am doing with this blog has almost no meaning or importance. Yvor Winters and modern classicism are just too obscure, too long forgotten, too different to create a community of modern Wintersian classicists (non-academic classicists), despite a few essays that have shed a little light on his work (such as in the New Criterion, David Yezzi’s 1997 piece and Adam Kirsch’s 2003 piece).

But, hardheaded as I apparently am, I have come to feel compelled to try something new. I have been working through the Winters Canon, stalled as I am at Gascoigne for now. But I will continue that work in time. What I want to do now is add some poetry, especially the work of those authors whom Winters championed but who remain preposterously obscure. I will try to put up one little known poem a week from great or very good, but little known, poets whom Winters judged highly over the next year or so, while I try, meantime, to find some energy to labor on with my notes on current critical issues and my re-examination of the Winters Canon.

Forthwith, let me begin this series with a poem from Thomas Sturge Moore, a British poet of the late 19th and early 20th century, whose work is included in the Winters Canon, but who receives precious little attention nowadays -- and who is usually deployed as an example of the folly of Yvor Winters (something to this effect: "How could he champion Moore over Years?! Hah Hah!"). Here’s one poem I consider very strong, a classical poem with strong rational content, but yet subtly powerful emotions:

Value and Extent

The more they peer through lenses at the night,
The finer they split the rays of stellar light,
The vaster their estimates
Of distances, of movements, and of weights!

The stupor of this unimagined size
Like a mole’s eyelid palls the keenest eyes.
Yea, like unearthed moles,
We, by truth tortured, writhe outside those holes…

Dark homely galleries of confined thought,
Whose utmost reach must now be held as naught
Compared with that grand space
Which those unlike us may superbly grace.

Substance more subtle, forms of comelier growth,
Diviner minds, nothing but mental sloth
Prevents me thus to bid
Against the size revealed, with worth still hid.

No reason can be urged why all this room
Should hold no more life than, within a tomb,
The first small worm that stirs;
For all known life is less in the universe.

Undreamable communications, sun
To sun, may be the hourly routes they run,
Swifter even than light,
On business purer than a child’s delight!

But that I can, like scornful Plato, fear
Our fine things but poor copies of true worth;
Proportioned to this earth,
There thrill and shape small genuine glories here.

This poem reminds me of another and favorite poem of mine (though it’s actually a prosetic musing), John Updike’s “Mites,” a poem about how insignificant humans are in light of the immensity of the universe, like the microscopic mites who live with us in our world. I couldn’t find that poem online, but it can be found in Updike’s Collected Poems. It was published in the New Yorker many years ago, which is where I first read it. On a similar theme, Moore’s is much the better poem and deserves and repays careful study. I find the simile on moles to be particularly striking and moving. I have felt at times, in the face of my own struggles with skepticism (as recounted in my online book A Journal on Doubt) like a mole writhing outside its hole. Those brilliant lines are worth knowing well. But there are many more superb turns of phrase and strong lines in this compelling, insightful poem.

Suggestions and contributions are welcome. Want to hear from a certain poet, or have a certain poem of your own with some classical bent, drop me a line.