Sep 14, 2009

Look to the Poets!

I was sent a notice over the summer that Poetry had published two previously unpublished letters from Yvor Winters to a new student and that student’s father. The letters originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry and can be found on line at:

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.

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