Oct 9, 2009

A Consideration of the Theory Behind the New Book of Verse, Part II


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”
2. “craft”
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.