Mar 11, 2009

What About the Women

Just a couple weeks back, here is how "Arts and Letters Daily" summarized the issue considered in a new book on American novels: "Why is it that novels about men in boats (Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn) are treated as important, while ones about women in houses (House of Mirth) are not?..." This was the Daily’s blurb to draw our attention to a review of Elaine Showalter's new book on the standing of American women writers in the standard canon, entitled A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.

Besides this book appearing to be a learned and interesting one, the Daily’s blurb drew my particular attention because Yvor Winters was one of the first critics to significantly praise the work of Edith Wharton (author of The House of Mirth), in his essay on Henry James from the late 1930s, which was collected in his early book Maule's Curse and later reprinted in In Defense of Reason. Winters took a lot of heat for decades for his high judgment of Wharton’s fiction, but for the past 20 years or so Wharton’s reputation has been rising so steadily that there is little of that sort of talk about Winters any longer (at least, critics no longer use the example of his evaluation of Wharton when they are on the attack against Winters). The House of Mirth was not one of the her novels that stood out as great in Winters’s eyes. He focused rather on the high achievement of The Age of Innocence and also mentioned The Custom of the Country, both of which I also judge to be among the greatest novels in our language. Nonetheless, I agree that Mirth is a superior novel.

Winters had little to say about Twain, though I have to say that I can only guess why. He doesn’t appear to have focused on Twain in his American Literature classes, and no former student (there are not many left) has written about the omission that I am aware of. He did consider Melville to have written one of the three or four greatest novels ever in Moby Dick. So here was a poet-critic who could appreciate the work of a woman novelist, as Showalter appears to be urging us to do more appreciatively.

Now, I’m not saying that these comments validate Winters in some way. I don’t expect Elaine Showalter to reflect a little glory onto Winters’s achievement because she happens to agree with him on this matter or any other. My point is simply that Winters had an admirable way of cutting through the fashions of his time, and his approach can help us cut through the fashions of our own time. If he could recognize the estimable excellence of Edith Wharton’s fiction long before most, perhaps it’s time that you find out why. For he might also have recognized the importance of other writers and works whom he championed but who still languish undeservedly in obscurity, such as Frederick Godard Tuckerman (especially in his truly great poem “The Cricket”) or even Wharton’s first novel The Valley of Decision, which I consider almost as great as her two finest that I have mentioned.

I hope to get a chance soon to skim Showalter’s book. I hope it contains some discussion of Winters’s wife, the superb novelist Janet Lewis. If anyone out there knows anything about this, let me know.

Mar 4, 2009

Are There Any Greats Out There?

If there has been a more appropo article in a national publication for this Yvor Winters Blog, I haven't seen it. But there it was, a week ago, David Orr's meditation on poetic greatness in the New York Times Book Review. The article “On Poetry -- The Great(ness) Game” can be found at the Times's Books page:

I give Orr credit. He is in there pitching, considering big questions, some of which were central to the literary criticism of Yvor Winters -- and many of which Winters took a lot of heat for back in his day. But since the piece is no more than one of those short NYT Book Review articles, Orr can't explore any of the central issues of evaluation or greatness deeply enough, let alone resolve anything concerning the Canon. But the article does brush past many of the major issues of literary evaluation and canon-making that are germane to the work of Yvor Winters, even if David Orr doesn't fully understand or accept what's happening in literary culture.

Nonetheless, in the final paragraph of the short piece, Orr implies that he believes that the work of determining true "greatness" is important to the future of literature -- just as Yvor Winters once argued forcefully and I have contended time and again on this blog and in my book on Winters. The truly great poems give us models and standards, as well as enduring works of art that are important to personal and social development. Orr appears to agree strongly with this, though he can't quite figure out what makes for greatness beyond the acclaim of those who take unto themselves some sort of authority. The most disheartening, almost sickening, aspect of the essay is the claim that the only great poet we currently have on tap is... I can barely say the name... is... John Ashbery. Oh ugh!! I cannot think offhand of a worse poet to serve as a model and a standard. Ashbery is far from great. He is, indeed, nearly worthless as a literary artist and, further, a model of bad poetry and unconscionably shoddy writing. Ashbery is probably everything the classicist wishes to see wither away (though I have little doubt that his influence will remain strong for a good long time to come).

When such decisions are made, such as whether Ashbery is great (I wince at the thought), is the point at which canon-making becomes extremely important and what this blog is nearly all about. I am trying to get Yvor Winters's modern classicist views to receive an appreciative hearing among enough people that some sort of new enclave can develop in which modern classical poetry, fiction, and criticism will be written, appreciated, and furthered. If other people want to proclaim and follow the false "greatness" of John Ashbery, we classicists can only lament the inevitable loss of yet more talent and time and effort to the nearly worthless literature that the idea that a poet like Ashbery is great will surely help give rise to. But I can't worry about all that. And no other classicist should either, I believe. It's just the way things are and will remain for a long, long time to come, despite Winters's foolish yet confident predictions that soon all the errors of modernism would be recognized and pass away.

By the way, Orr speaks of poetry that takes a person's breath away as a measure of greatness, the truly great works that seem so vastly important in one sense or another. William Carlos Williams's enraptured comments on Eliot's "The Waste Land" came to Orr's mind. For the classicist there has been little of late that would even feign to take the breath away. But I am pondering whether Helken Pinkerton's superb blank-verse poems in Taken in Faith might some day, soon, become one of the models, a standard of modern classicism. They have been almost taking my breath away. Please, please, tell me about anything else out there that you think might achieve this kind of importance. I have been reading Pinkerton, Adam Kirsch, Bill Coyle, William Logan, David Yezzi, Kenneth Fields, the Australian Judith Wright, of course the very fine Dick Davis, and a few others. They are doing (or did do) some good work that really is poetry and very worthwhile. But I haven't yet read anything great. Does anyone have something that truly will take the breath away, will astound most anyone who reads it (or at least any classicist)? Please tell me -- tell us all!