Sep 23, 2009

A Consideration of the Literary Theory Behind "The New Book of Verse," Part I

I have made the assertion several times over the years I have been writing this blog that John Fraser has done some of the most important work advancing the study of Yvor Winters in the past 20 years. Most notably, Fraser has published on line an anthology of very good and possibly great poetry that began from an effort in the 1970s to publish together as many of the poems Yvor Winters apparently judged to be either great or very good in one collection. The anthology would include the poems Winters mentioned as, roughly speaking, good but left out of his controversial 1968 anthology, Quest for Reality (hereafter QR), which, in my judgment, Winters intended, in part, as a collection of the very best poems in the English language.

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.”


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.

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