Feb 27, 2009

Materials and Time Mostly Wasted

I suppose it’s about time to take on the wearisome chore of discussing Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, the book of poetry that won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2007. I know, I know, I’m a little slow in taking up this matter. But if the book is important and valuable, then a review should matter as much now as it did a year ago, at least. (And if it’s highly important, it should matter 50 or 500 years from now, right?)

You may well guess that I didn’t find much to admire about Hass’s latest work. (Does any classicist out there? Please let me know, one way or another. The photo is of Hass reading from the book.) So why, you might ask, bother with this dreary chore at all? Only because Hass was once a student of Yvor Winters’s and has thought himself competent to speak about Winters from time to time in print, even though he has distorted and misrepresented Winters’s ideas.

So what do I think of his prize-winning collection? Very little. There are a few strong turns of phrase, a few good lines, some snatches of good prose (broken into, in the common affectation of our literary culture, lines), some dimly memorable moments, but not a single wholly successful poem -- and certainly not one good or great poem.

This is Hass’s his first collection since stepping down as U.S. Poet Laureate. For the first time that I know of in Hass’s career he makes poetry and politics bedfellows. But Time and Materials is a mish-mash. It stirs together occasional pieces, imitations, a couple translations, some long narrative poems that are Hass's trademark, and a couple of prose poems.

I won’t cover much in the book, but I think the best writing in this slim volume is on politics. In the face of the controversial Iraq War that George IV dragged this country into, Hass has clearly decided not to keep his poetry free from political argument. I find this commendable, even though William Logan challenged this in his review of the book in the New Criterion. At least Hass is trying to communicate some ideas clearly and sharply. When it comes to the four anti-war poems in Time and Materials, they do “fall like bombshells,” as some reviewer wrote, in the latter half of the book, dropping upon readers quite unexpectedly, given Hass’s previous books. Other pieces take up other political causes, such as the human cost of global finance. Many of these poems stuck in my mind, however briefly. The most compelling, I thought, is "Bush's War," a long meditation on innocence lost to violence, a poem which shows Hass trying to write polemically:

I typed the brief phrase, "Bush's War,"
At the top of a sheet of white paper,
Having some dim intuition of a poem
Made luminous by reason that would,
Though I did not have them at hand,
Set the facts out in an orderly way.
This isn’t poetry, nor even verse, in my judgment, and it still appears that Hass is skeptical of poetry that has this kind of subject matter. He admits to arguing from facts he doesn't possess, but at least he’s trying to think, rather than to offer more of his customary blather about the fragments of his trivial personal life, which are ever drifting along the brackish, sluggish stream of his experience. True, his call to the light of "reason" even seems to stir with sarcasm, and the poem is written in very loose, almost wholly inappropriate language, a flaccid, mealy prose. But, as I say, he does take a shot at an important subject and at a rational argument of some sort:

The rest of us have to act like we believe
The dead women in the rubble of Baghdad
Who did not cast a vote for their deaths
Or the raw white of the exposed bones
In the bodies of their men or their children
Are being given the gift of freedom
Which is the virtue of the injured us.
It's hard to say which is worse, the moral
Sloth of it or the intellectual disgrace.

As William Logan pointed out, Hass sounds like he’s lecturing. But contrary to Logan, I find this something to take seriously. Nonetheless, Hass clearly hasn’t thought too well about situation he describes and judges. For every war, just or unjust, leaves in its wake many dead and suffering who did not deserve to suffer or die. Yet honorable and virtuous human beings have judged that some acts of mass governmental violence are worth the cost in lost lives and human suffering, as is the common judgment concerning the Second World War and the American Civil War, to consider only two examples. Hass shows little sign that he has a mind that can help us get beyond liberal cant, however much I happen to agree with the cant as applied to this one instance. Can Hass think less slothfully than the prosecutors of the Iraq War, think deeply about a difficult subject? It doesn’t seem so. But at least he’s doing a little bit of thinking through poetry, for goodness sake. For that I applaud him.

But what of the poetry in those lines I just quoted? They have a nice rhythm and several sharp turns of phrase. They give the feel that the poem has structure because of the stack of prepositional phrases that Hass erects and because all the lines end at natural grammatical breaks. But there is no meter. Overall, in contrast to a lot of Hass’s poetry, these lines have the feel of near-verse. They certainly are better than a lot of the trivial blather in this book.

Hass may wish he'd tried thinking in poetry a lot sooner than now. "Bush's War" and the similar political poems in this volume give attention to World War II, Vietnam, and the Korean War. These poems are fast-paced and disjunctive, lurching from horrific moment to horrific moment with little pause where contemplation can focus. As "Bush's War" reels from Nazi death camps to 9/11 to Iraq, Hass laments "a taste for power/ That amounts to contempt for the body." He seems to be fighting not political war-hawks or the moral dangers of state violence, but the destruction of physical being itself. But, alas, and predictably, you can’t quite be sure (a typical weakness). Still, at least, for me, he’s fighting for something, anything!, in verse.

I will only turn to one other poem amid all the very minor works to be found in Time and Materials. This is the only poem that has really struck me, though it is a prosetic musing, not a poem. It’s a prose narrative:

When I was a child my father every morning --
Some mornings, for a time, when I was ten or so,
My father gave my mother a drug called antabuse.
It makes you sick if you drink alcohol.
They were little yellow pills. He ground them
In a glass, dissolved them in water, handed her
The glass and watched her closely while she drank.
It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,
A social world, in which the men got up
And went to work, leaving the women with the children.

This is a cruel story, confessional and disturbing. You dearly want to know whether Hass has something important to say about this material, though I was worried as I read it that the poem would fall flat. The father here is a vague figure, someone of cold practicality whom we can’t quite understand without more information. But just when Hass might begin to explore his mother’s drunken benders, which have given rise to his father’s treatment of her, Hass calls up rather, with supreme pretentiousness, the scene of Aeneas escaping the flames of Troy with his father astride his shoulders. After that nonsense comes the denouement:

Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world -- about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things -- from somewhere.

Whuh? you stammer. That’s it? That’s what he has learned, what he wants us to learn from the wrenching scene he describes at length in this poem. What a waste. Hass appeared to building toward something. But typical of his work, perhaps typical of most modern poetry, the poem almost makes a flatulent sound as it falls flat, as Hass refuses to offer anything truly insightful about an arresting and compelling subject.

As usual -- as is typical of modern art, in fact -- Hass seems to expect us, his readers, to decide what to make of this disturbing family story, thereby forsaking his role as the visionary of life that we should expect our artists to strive to be. The poem takes a typically diffident, weak-kneed approach. Yet I give credit to Hass for trying, however feebly, to fathom big ideas, like justice and power. He even looks at what we now call “gender.” These aren’t trivial themes, though William Logan said in his New Criterion review that he thinks little of them, especially the matter of gender (“What was a harrowing family portrait finishes as a lecture on gender”). But to my mind the problem is not that Hass wants to explore the issue of “gender” in light of this old family incident; it’s that he finds almost nothing to say. The lecture is empty. Hass is such a meager thinker, at least as he is willing to reveal in poetry, that he has no compelling insight to give us based upon the striking and valuable anecdote. What are we to think about gender issues in light of this anecdote? What gender issues is he even talking about? In the poem, Hass betrays no pity for his father, the man guilty of a terrible crime, who did not want to leave his son with a drunk. Or is there? Are we expected to feel pity for the father as well as the mother? Well, you can feel any way you wish about anything in the poem. What does Hass want us to think? What evaluation of the theme are we meant to take with us, what vision of life? Hass leaves it to us to answer such questions, another instance of one of the most typical and worst errors of modern writing.

The writing in this poem isn’t stupid. It’s just weak. It’s unconscionably hesitant. True poetry, great poetry, seeks so much more. Readers should want more from their poets. I want poets who declaim, who are hortatory, who’ve got something to say, agree or disagree. They should seek to enlighten us, guide us to understanding. That was what Yvor Winters was after, a point I could discuss at quite great length. Hass seemed about to let go and really lecture. But he seems to have locked himself in the prison of modernism, where all he was allowed to do was mumble his way to a close.

As many have pointed out, poetry for Robert Hass has started to become a matter of conscience. But he has not found a way to get past the late modernist conventions that flatten and weaken his thought. And what he’s writing, all in all, is not poetry, except by self-definition. It’s prose, or what I call prosetic musing. It’s often not even good prose, as William Logan also pointed out in his review. The syntax is badly wobbly. The movement from thought to thought is often pointless, sometimes even silly. Modifiers dangle and phrases are strung out. Logan seems to think that Hass is avoiding the “poetry of witness” -- Logan considers this deadly contemporary genre -- to write the “poetry of lecture.” Contrary to William Logan, whom I read and respect, I wouldn’t mind some lecturing, if the lectures were sound and well executed in good verse.

And what, finally, of the much-praised descriptive passages of Time and Materials? One poem that received a good deal of attention, “State of the Planet” (yet another polemic of sorts) starts with one of Hass’s pastoral moments that he is so fond of:

Through blurred glass
Gusts of a Pacific storm rocking a huge, shank-needled
Himalayan cedar. Under it a Japanese plum
Throws off a vertical cascade of leaves the color
Of skinned copper.

This is not poetry. It’s descriptive prose. But things actually get better when he starts droning on about chlorofluorocarbons, passages which William Logan finds weak. He preaches a bit about the destruction of the ozone layer, which ain’t a bad thing to write about (though probably not the best subject matter for poetry to get a grip on). Logan thinks this kind of thing is just plain boring, the preaching that is. But I rather think, again, that Hass’s problem is that he has nothing to say, nothing that even has a shot at persuading us. It’s mostly the usual clichés, jumbled together and boiled until they’re turned into a grayish pulp. Another poem offers a potted history of aerial bombardment in Vietnam and another an account of the horrors of the Korean War. Neither is a poem. The piles of facts are not properly organized or explored. Hass seems to want them to serve as parables. But he winds up with muddles that fail to advance our understanding of any of these matters one whit.

It's disappointing that Hass didn’t accomplish more with this new effort to infuse poetry with politics. There are many other poems in Time and Materials on other matters, but I don’t wish to take up any more of them, none of which are very distinguished. He offers poems about poetic impotence, and some meditations on time the destroyer and time the error-maker. There are other poems about vague boomer disappointments. Overall, there’s not much to any of it. I don’t think the book is worth reading. But if you want to put yourself through some frustration, go ahead. Rather quickly, I think, Hass’s musings in this book will be forgotten.

Feb 19, 2009

Nabokov the Trickster

I’ve been getting a big kick out of all the ruminations upon the meaning and importance of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita lately, all attendant upon the 50th anniversary of its American publication. This novel’s reputation as great seems to be rising ever higher and stronger at the same time so many critics claim that it has no purpose beyond the pleasures of its prose and the panache of its narrative. The latest group of essayists have been gnashing their teeth over the problem of Lolita’s subject (as opposed to theme), the seduction of an adolescent girl by a lustful middle-aged man. Is Lolita encouraging or approving such behavior? Almost uniformly, the critics are claiming that the novel’s subject is out of bounds, as they defend the novel from the view of aestheticism, of some more or less vague notion of art for art’s sake. Lolita, so go these new apologies, is about the beautiful way Nabokov tells the story, not about any moral or social or political ideas.

Nabokov, of course, is mostly to blame. Endeavoring to be the contrarian in most things, and as well to play along with the aestheticist theories and practices of many a modernist, he said in a 1962 interview for the BBC that he had only aesthetic pleasure in mind when writing Lolita:

Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.

This, of course, is obvious nonsense, a playful tall tale (though there is the possibility that it’s self-delusion). I can’t say for sure what Nabokov intended by such inane comments, but I take them as funny, and it has always surprised and amused me that critics have been weeping and gnashing their teeth ever since to force themselves to believe in Nabokov’s rascally ruse. Lolita is -- obviously! -- a deeply moral book, as every essayist I have read in the recent round has been forced to admit by the unambiguous nature of the case.

My favorite among the recent essays that have come out is “Reading Lolita in Alabama” by Allen Barra on Salon, which can be found at:


Baara thinks Nabokov's masterpiece is still dangerous -- but not for reasons we usually think. Like hundreds who have already joined this endless queue of the self-deceived, Barra tries to force himself to believe Nabokov’s stunt:

This is the nicest way I can think of to tell Nafisi [author of Reading Lolita in Tehran] that Nabokov didn't give a damn about anything -- politics, feminism, humanism -- that she [Nafisi] does, at least not in any of his fiction.

Ah, such have been the tired and tiresome claims from many critics, claims that are so evidently false that they read as ludicrous. But, of course, Barra is simply paraphrasing Nabokov’s own words:

I don't give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth... there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.

That’s from an interview in Playboy magazine in 1964, in which he went on, “I have neither the intent nor the temperament to be a moralist or satirist.” Mediocrity, Nabokov thought, thrives on ideas, by which, as he told Time magazine in 1969, he meant "general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate a so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales."

Putting all this together, you wind up with the confusions and hare-brained theories like those described in Gerald Graff’s fine 1979 book, Literature Against Itself, which I will discuss below and encourage my readers to find and read. But was Nabokov confused or joking? Nabokov said he was intent on writing a “serious” book, as he told his French publisher in a well-known letter. So he must have been very serious about this beautiful telling of a story, whose content is incidental to the manner of the telling. Perhaps Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence, makes the most sense of such ideas in his discussion of the concept of art for art’s sake. Barzun’s sharp insight is that the concept of art for art’s sake is better expressed by the phrase “art for life’s sake.” That is, the aestheticist writer endeavors to seal himself off from ordinary reality, as it were, because his writing reveals or creates a higher reality of some sort, a reality of almost religious importance.

The confusions and incoherence of aestheticism frustrated Yvor Winters. Perhaps his most trenchant discussion of the matter, among several occasions he wrote on it, is in the essay “John Crowe Ransom, or God Without Thunder,” from the Anatomy of Nonsense (1943), which was reprinted in In Defense of Reason, which remains in print. In that essay he chided Ransom for believing that a serious work of literature like “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was about Shakespeare’s “love” of the subject matter, rather than an effort to communicate a full understanding of that dire subject matter, the commission of the crime of regicide.

As I say, one of the finest works on the issue of aestheticism I have come across is Literature Against Itself, especially in Graff’s first chapter, “Criticism, Culture, and Unreality.” Graff was a student of Winters’s at Stanford in the mid-’60s. He went on to do some original critical work that has bearing on modern classicism, and I recommend him highly. (In recent years later, I pause to note, Graff has sought to find ways to learn from and find affinities with postmodernism and literary politics -- efforts that I find laudable, if difficult.) Believing that aestheticism and related theories trivialize literature, Graff incisively delineated the twin concepts of the artist as a “hypersensitive weakling” and a “revolutionary prophet.” Graff found this, naturally, in Wilde, who talked like Nabokov’s prophet:

Oscar Wilde uses formalist rhetoric when he says in the Decay of Lying that “art never expresses anything but itself,” and that “art finds her own perfection with, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil rather than a mirror.” He switches to visionary rhetoric when says in the same essay that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” a view which defines art neither as a veil nor a mirror but as a mode of seeing which reorganizes life in its own terms.

Note the strong similarities of Wilde’s theorizing to Nabokov’s. Graff’s book, as the title makes plain, is an important, if long overlooked, effort to show that such views played a significant role in literature coming to be “against itself,” striving to undo its own purposes.

The critics battling to cram Nabokov’s novel into the art-for-art’s-sake box need to look at Winters and Graff to make much better sense of Lolita. Just as Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, as Winters argued long ago, is not intended to express “love” for regicide -- or even for the telling of a story about regicide -- so Nabokov’s portrayal of Humbert Humbert’s grisly yet titillating seduction of a girl is not intended to make us “love” the seduction of adolescent girls or the mere telling of a story of such seduction.

Perhaps it’s time to take Nabokov for what he showed himself to be when he theorized on his own art, a trickster. Yeah, I know the idea of the trickster has become a new high-brow cliché, arising from the interesting work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, but I am going to use the idea because it’s useful. Nabokov wrote one of the most moral novels of the modernist movement, a scathing indictment of ethical confusion and egoism. Let’s enjoy a good laugh at his playful deceits, but then let’s use Winters to get down to the business of understanding what Nabokov achieved.

By the way, is anyone interested in what Winters thought or might have thought of Lolita? He never wrote a single word about Nabokov that I am aware of, though they both taught at Stanford for a short while in 1941. I think Winters would have found Nabokov’s style fragmented and wasteful and his theme improperly developed. More importantly, he would have had very serious doubts about the use of an unreliable narrator. This matter is related to the issues discussed in the essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.” Using a narrator like Humbert, I believe Winters would have said, forced Nabokov to write less well than he could have and provided him with no sound way to generalize his theme or fix what he wished to communicate about the complex experience of lust. In general, I think Winters would have said, the author who uses an unreliable narrator has no means to reach a final judgment of his subject matter, which amounts to an abdication of the writer’s primary responsibility and a short-circuiting of the chief source of literature’s power.

Do any classicists out there think Lolita is a great novel? I’ll hold off on revealing my own judgment for now.

Feb 12, 2009

What I Hope to Work On - Part 2

Here’s some more articles I want to get to. These also directly concern Winters as poet or critic:


11. poets.org has twice featured a piece on Hart Crane and Yvor Winters by a writer named Tom Donnelly, whom I do not know. The short essay first was posted in 2006, but was reposted as a lead article for the site again recently. I need to give that piece some attention, particularly since it is distinctly favors Crane’s wild and woolly poetics to the disparagement of Winters’s classicism. But maybe I’ve got a few things to learn. We’ll see.

12. David Orr, a poetry critic of some renown (meaning in literary culture), reviewed Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems of Winters, briefly, in the New York Times some years ago (2002, I think). I’d like to take a look at the last look at Winters’s poetry in a national publication.

13. In a small journal named Gulf Coast, some poet named Kathleen Osip wrote about Winters as being a symbol of all that she is against as a member of the avant garde. This piece came out in 2006. It was an amusing essay that deserves a look, as genially negative as it is toward Winters’s art and ideas. (The photo if a shot of a pond in a Michigan woodlot. It is purely decorative, and, thus, an artistic weakness, do you think?)

14. A couple years ago, there was a piece on Hart Crane and Winters in Poetry (the 11/06 issue). I surely have to get to that soon.

15. Issue 3 of the now-defunct Canadian journal New Compass, from several years ago, was the journal’s "Yvor Winters Issue." It contained several insightful essays that I have yet to discuss here. I believe that the issue is still posted online. Sadly, the New Compass has ceased publication. Its editors have moved on to other matters. Though it published only four issues in the early 2000s, it offered an array of fine criticism and commentary in addition to its work in studying Yvor Winters.

16. Jan Schreiber, a poet and reviewer, wrote on Winters some years back in an essay entitled “The Absolutist.” As near as I can tell, this piece is a review of the poetry and criticism of Winters. It was published in the online journal Contemporary Poetry Review in 2004. I still need to get my hands on the piece and discuss it.

17. In the journal Literary Imagination, William Edinger, unknown to me, published an essay entitled “Yvor Winters and Generality: A Classical/Neoclassical Perspective.” The piece looks at some features of literary generality in the poetry and criticism of Yvor Winters through the language and methods of classical and neoclassical criticism. That sounds worthwhile, if a little stuffy.

18. A good 10 years ago, poet Alan Shapiro published a memoir essay, entitled “Fanatics,” on his attraction to the critical principles of Yvor Winters. I’ve mentioned the essay a couple times, but I really want to give it a close look at some point.

19. I haven’t found the time to get to Stanford Magazine’s short articles on Yvor Winters at the time of the centenary of his birth (2000). One was by Ken Fields, another -- a scathing attack on Winters’s teaching methods -- by Richard Elman. On VHS, I also have a couple of the talks given during the event (one by Dana Gioia, for example). These might be nice to discuss.

20. Finally, some journal going by the name of RALPH published an amusing piece on the worst poetry of 2003. Yvor Winters’s Selected Poems was chosen as the honoree. I would like to give that short piece the once over some time.


These are the writings I know about. Please let me know of other writings on Winters that you know of, and I will add them to my list of duties. Or you can write something for this blog yourself.

In a post to come soon, I will list writings that are in some way closely related to Winters poetry or criticism.

Feb 6, 2009

"Strange" Essays, T.S. Eliot, Helen Pinkerton, and More

James Matthew Wilson, the Treasonous Clerk (at “First Principles”), has written a couple comments in reply to a previous post, but his latest comment seems to require rather a reply by post than by further comment. I have reposted Wilson’s most recent comment below the following reply to it:

James: You make an unexpected turn here to Winters’s strange essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature,” which, for readers who aren’t all that knowledgeable about Winters, can be found in the readily available book The Function of Criticism. I’m not exactly sure why you make this turn in this context. We were discussing the attractions of Winters’s critical ideas to religious people. What does this subject have to do with Winters’s unique theory of genres (using the word “unique” in its strict sense -– the essay truly has NO parallel that I am aware of). Perhaps you can explain, though it might not matter.

But as to that essay itself, what I mean by calling it “strange” is that the singular ideas discussed therein have drawn not a single advocate in the past 60 years and few, if any, admirers. Indeed, no single critic, Wintersian or otherwise, has tried to build out from or improve on those eccentric but compelling ideas. I can think of no poet or critic, past or present, who has written sympathetically about Winters, to any degree, who also has endeavored to defend the “Problems” essay in whole or in large part. Further, only one obscure essay that I am aware of directly and thoroughly assesses the “Problems” essay (“Yvor Winters and the Antimimetic Prejudice,” Jonas Barish, New Literary History, Spring, 1971 [the photo is of a modern staging of one of the ancient Greek tragedies, which have occasioned much discussion of mimesis]). Barish’s nearly 40-year-old piece was almost entirely negative. I have long wanted to address Barish’s take, but haven’t found the time, alas. For I have so many defenses of Winters to throw up on other fronts, I have found it improvident to try to defend matters, as of now, universally rejected -- even by Wintersians.

Nonetheless, let me state, briefly, that I believe that Winters’s ideas in the “Problems” essay can be tweaked in such a way that those ideas might become more appealing to those who love and think highly of epic poetry, fiction, and drama. In my judgment, the real issue for Winters, an issue that, perhaps, he didn’t fully comprehend himself, was that writers in those “weaker” genres have not discovered or created sound ways of making general evaluations of their subject matter, with the ultimate goal of increasing our understanding, which, as Winters argued at length in the essay, stands as the final cause of literature. By rethinking the specific ideas in the essay in light of its more general, foundational concepts, I believe Winters’s objectives in the “Problems” essay will make greater sense and have much greater appeal. They have great appeal for me, at the least. Nevertheless, not a single writer has tried to back Winters up on his general approach to literary genres or on any of the specific ideas, leaving its defenders (or defender, meaning me alone) almost nothing to work with in developing a new approach to the essay. Still, as I imply, I agree with Winters quite widely and deeply on the ideas found in the “Problems” essay. As a consequence, I suppose it falls to me to try to defend a foundational approach to the “Problems” essay.

On yet another subject you raised, I’m not quite sure why you think Winters “loathed” Eliot (a word that I think offhand characterizes his view too strongly), but I am interested in your fleshing out your views on that. My view has been that Eliot’s writings, meaning in Winters’s judgment, were a rag-bag of insights, willy-nilly opinions and half-thought-out notions, in both poetry and criticism. The poems don’t add up to wholes, and this was for Winters a central, urgent concern -- as it is my own concern, if I may say. Winters prized and hoped to foster comprehensive, fully coherent evaluations in works of literature (all the parts working together as fully, properly, and rationally as possible). At the same time, he grew frustrated that so many writers at one time thought of Eliot as a sound and systematic thinker, rather than an occasionally erudite and interesting muser, a recorder of myriad learned notions and sparkling opinions. Winters wanted to get writers to put Eliot in proper perspective, albeit in his sharp way. (I add once again, though, that Winters’s “sharp way” was hardly any sharper than many reassessments of all sorts of writers and critics by hundreds of critics throughout the 20th century. I will probably never understand why Winters gets tagged as exceptionally harsh in the environment created by the endless literary wars of the past 12 decades, and more.)

I will say, though, that I disagree with Winters at points, about critical ideas and about individual judgments. What do you disagree with him most about, James? I’m very interested to know. I respect your judgments and opinions a great deal. I might disagree with you, but I am eager to reconsider my views in the light of the thoughts of someone I find learned, important, and worth careful study.

Pinkerton’s recent work is astounding. The blank verse meditations collected in the book Taken in Faith are, I judge (I am being cautious still), great poetry. I am almost sure that they should be part of the Winters Canon, standing among the very finest works of poetry ever written in the English language. John Baxter has published a study on her verse meditations on paintings, which are very fine poems, no question. But it is in the several blank verse meditations that Pinkerton reaches greatness, as I provisionally believe. I hope you’re going to write about them.

Finally, as to Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” I can hardly see any potential way to agree with you. I think there are passages of good poetry in them. But as a whole, they are badly lacking in overall coherence and generalized evaluative power. They are worth reading, don’t mistake my views on that. But they exhibit serious weaknesses. I don’t want to say more, so that my readers, few as they are, can feel at ease in studying the matter for themselves without fear of my jumping on them. (Apparently, I come across as too combative myself. A couple of critics who have interested in Winters won’t even write to me any longer just because I happen to disagree with them about certain things and am willing to defend my views, calmly and rationally. I don’t think I have ever been harsh, but people appear to be think differently. To me, they seem awfully touchy.) I truly am interested to hear why you think the "Quartets" are so great.

Also, would you call yourself a Wintersian, James? Well, maybe you should save an answer to that for some later post. That’s a big question that begs, perhaps, a big answer.


2/03/09 comment from James Matthew Wilson:

What is so rewarding in Winters is his effort to ensure that a reader knows why Winters believes what he does, and judges as he does. One senses his "foundationalism," that is, his belief that beliefs have foundation to the extent that they are true, and that such foundation can be explored and articulated. He was not an "emotivist," as Alasdair MacIntyre would put it: one's judgments are accountable in terms that are not reducible to a mere, inarguable emotional preference.

Winters's fascinating theory of literary genre in The Function of Criticism is the great challenge to any of his admirers. I admire the consistency, and see that he has discovered some truths about literature in general. I don't agree with most of the conclusions there drawn, because the premises on which they are based seem weak. I know of no other modern critic, however, about whom one could make such an assertion. Most of them confuse or conflate their premises with their conclusions; or, rather, they hide the former and pass off the latter with a kind of erratic, pretentious swagger. Such is what Winters clearly loathed about Eliot (though I think Winters misperceived the rationale behind Eliot's writings, and consequently couldn't read them properly).

As a general point, let me note that it is not for being "excessively judgmental" that one ought to condemn anyone. Judging is what the mind does to come to know what it perceives. If one finds Winters shrill -- and in a few cases, I do find him so -- it is not because he has judged "too much" but because he has judged a premise true without adequately entertaining possible objections to the premise.

An update: a) the Pinkerton essay is away, and I intend to pitch a second one to another journal, because her work requires more attention, even within the scope of what I wish to say about it; and b) Finlay does deserve an essay of his own, and I'll provide it within the next two years; finally, c) Finlay clearly had immense admiration for Winters; what he criticized in Winters was a "gnostic" tendency that is evident in several poems. As Pinkerton has argued in an essay responding to Finlay, this tendency is evidently not present in other Winters poems. It would take a great deal of space to hash out who is correct; I'll get 'round to it.

P.S. surely Auden qualifies as a major Christian poet, though no poem of the Twentieth Century can compare with Four Quartets. It is the one long poem of the last century that is unquestionably a permanent addition to the life of mankind -- and of course it is about Christian belief, experience, and theology.