Dec 17, 2009

Shhhh! Say As Little As You Can About Winters

At "Slate," Robert Pinsky keeps publicizing the Winters Canon, this time by offering a brief look at and an audio reading of Ben Jonson's poem "Ode to Himself":

It's a wonderful thing to see, of course. In the current convention, naturally, Pinsky has to take Jonson's poem down many notches before he can praise it. Deflating revisionism is all the rage in our times. If you can't haul some work or person down a good long way, what critical good are you? In this case, Pinsky makes "Ode to Himself" sound like a simple, childish compaint, a kvetch, as he says, that rises, seemingly accidently, to profundity. He makes it sound as though Jonson might have described how he wrote the poem something like this: "I was just bellyaching like mad on paper the other day, as I usually do, and all of a sudden I noticed that I had all written a lot of pretty good stuff, you know that high and mighty writing that makes it sound like you're a deep thinker. So I put it in my book. Why not?" It's an interesting take on the poem, worth considering, at the least.

Whatever his critical position and opinions, Pinsky is the only nationally known writer or poet with connections to Yvor Winters (Pinsky was his student at Stanford University in the 1960s) who is doing anything to revive interest in Winters's work. Though what the nationally known give, the nationally known can easily take away just as quickly. For Pinsky keeps failing to mention Winters, as in this case, or downplaying Winters's ideas when he discusses the classical poems that Winters pretty much rediscovered for our era. It doesn't make me particularly angry, just sad that Pinksy doesn't make it clear, concerning Jonson's "Ode," that it was Yvor Winters who first championed this poem as one of the greatest in the language.

But this is not unlike Pinsky's reticence about Winters on other occasions, such as in his discussion of Herbert's "Church Monuments" on the same site some months back. In that piece Pinsky did mention Winters, at the least, but I found the mention a little odd. Pinsky left out that he was Winters's student and that Winters taught that poem for decades and, further, that Winters considered it one of the greatest ever written. This downplays Winters's ideas to the point, perhaps, of silencing him. I wonder why. It might be that it's entirely innocent. It could very well be that Pinsky is embarrassed by his association with Winters. I can't say. But it looks suspicious.

Finally, Pinsky's audio readings of the "Ode" and Herbert's poem are disappointingly weak. See what you think. Is "Slate" or Pinsky at fault for this very bland reading? I can't say. But they won't do much to help great poetry gain more attention.


Ted Hayes said...

I am writing a book on modern poetry which sharply criticizes its subjects and form(lessness). Winters is the seeminly unique exception, passing from modernism to formal expression, even faith.

Anyone with books, articles, names of poets, or comments are welcome to contact me at this site; on request will send a copyrighted ten page introduction to my opus.

- TH

Robert McLean said...

Hi Ben,

this new book may interest you (and Ted?)



Ben Kilpela said...

Hi, Ted. I long ago forgot to say that I would be interested in the introduction to your opus, as you call it. But you didn't give us an email address to get it. What is it?

Kippis, Ben Kilpela

Anonymous said...

Whatever his critical position and opinions, Pinsky is the only nationally known writer or poet with connections to Yvor Winters...

What about Phil Levine. I can think of a couple of others, but Levine should do for now.

Ben Kilpela said...

Anon: There are several others. Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Gerald Graff, even Alan Shapiro (though he only studied Winters through his friends and associates). There are others, but they don't come immediately to mind. Search my blog for posts on Wintersians for discussion of this matter. And Helen Trimpi, thank goodness, is still with us. Though not widely known -- and I hope she doesn't take offense at that -- she is our last strong connection to Yvor and Janet Winters as both student, colleague, and close friend. May she write about her long association with them some day soon.