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.

Dec 9, 2009

A Steele Poem

Though not forced to wear the shameful label of "Wintersian" -- like a scarlet W -- Timothy Steele has certainly drawn the attention of many Wintersians, such as the late Donald Stanford, who published a number of reviews and poems by Steele during Stanford's long years as co-editor of the Southern Review. (Steele's three books on prosody, by the way, are very learned and enlightening.) Steele has more frequently been thought as one of the "New Formalists," which, he has written, is a label that suits him well enough. I like his poetry and think well of it. But I can't say that any single poem has inspired me in some significant way, standing as some sort of monument worth reflecting upon often. The following poem, though, is one that keeps coming to mind for some pondering. I think it pays on close reading, on the act of critical contemplation.

The Library

Emerging through the automatic doors,
I feel the Santa Anas' gusting heat.
It's five o'clock. The grainy sunlight pours
Through eucaplyti whose peeled bark strips beat
The trunks to which they cling like feeble sleeves.
The campus lawns are eddyings of leaves
Viewed by day's milky, unassertive moon.
The sculpture garden has a recessed seat.
I take it, thinking of the afternoon.

And of the library. Cultural oasis?
Few would object to its conserving aims.
Still, tracking books by way of data bases,
I feel I'm playing Faustian video games.
And jotting notes down from computer screens,
I doubt our armories of ways and means:
Whether in books or trusted to a disc,
The written record may, as Plato claims,
Subvert and put our memory at risk.

Yet books consoled me when I was a child,
And seeing words and software joined and synced,
Even philosophers might be beguiled.
And if a relish verses nimbly linked,
Here flowing, there concluded with a twist,
It was Greek librarian-archivist
Who had an odd pedantic inspiration --
Make prose and poems textually distinct --
And first gave lyric measures lineation.

Banners on the Art Gallery's facade
Ripple and flap; in a collegial wrath,
Two birds dispute the rights to a carob pod;
A puffed-up brown bag somersaults a path
Where Rodin's Walker [ital] makes his headless stride.
Leaves spin up into coilings and subside.
This windy much-ado, arising from
The desert could well serve as epitaph
For Alexandria, Rome, Pergamum --

For all the ancient libaries whose collections
Have vanished in a mammoth wordless void.
And though I have the evening clouds' confections,
Thoughts of the art and science thus destroyed
Leave me a little empty and unnerved.
The consolation? Some things were preserved,
Technology now limits what is lost,
And learning, as it's presently deployed,
Is safe from any partial holocaust.

I could construct a weighty paradigm,
The Library as Mind. It's somehow truer
To recollect details of closing time.
Someone, as slotted folders on a viewer,
Tucks microfiche squares in their resting places;
Felt cloth's drawn over over the exhibit cases;
The jumbled New Book Shelves are set in shape;
The day's last check-outs are thumped quickly through a
Device that neutralizes tettle-tape.

And shelvers, wheeling booktrucks through the stacks,
Switch lights off at the ends of empty aisles;
Jaded computer terminals relax;
Above lit spaces of linoleum tiles,
The hitching-forward minute hands of clocks
Hold vigil still, but a custodian locks
The main door, and the last staff members go
Home to their private lives and private trials.
Still over us, the Santa Anas blow

The leaves about in rustling shifting mounds;
The long, rusty-colored needles pine trees shed
In broom-straw trios strew the walks and grounds;
Winding, as though along a corkscrew's thread,
A squirrel has circled down a sycamore.
The frail must, in fair times, collect and store,
And so, amid swirled papery debris,
The squirrel creeps, nosing round, compelled to hoard
By instinct, habit, and necessity.

The varying stanza form is one that could, and should, provide a model for our times. It is similar to the 10-line stanza Paul Valery used for a few good and great poems ("Palme" and "Ebauche d'un Serpent," for example); the rhyme scheme that varies yet remains similar stanza to stanza could give modern formalists who don't want to get too rigid quite a bit more freedom than the traditional poetic forms of English allow. (Loose rhyme schemes and metrical patterns appear to be a major need for modern formalist poets and could help turn a few poets from prosetry to poetry. For the bane of rigidity has been almost completely scorned in our times [though I am ever puzzled why even the word appears to elicit shrieks of horror], even among the New Formalists. I should write more about this, but I only have time to say that if it takes loose forms to get more a few more poets to write in some sort of credible poetic form, then bring on the loose forms. A little bit of form is better than none at all.) Steele's nine-line stanza is expressive and well worth imitating for anyone aspiring to write real poetry, not the almost mindless, slapdash prosetry that fills our journals and magazines. His iambic line is well turned, though some of the variations are too loose. His diction is casual, in the way of the New Formalists, who hold court in their small fief nowadays while imitating the prosetic musers who run the cultural kingdom at present.

As to theme and content, there is a lot in this poem, about the meaning of the intellectual life, about civilization, about the importance of poetry and reading, about books holding off the winds of destruction, while books themselves succumb to those same winds. (I was just reading in a history of the Jews in ancient times of a lost history written about Nero's and Vespasian's war against the Jews in AD 68-70 that was written in answer to Josephus's famed work on that same topic. It is crushingly sad that that work did not survive.) It makes me want to get over to the library and gather some nuts for the winter -- though I really don't need much encouragement to do that, summer or winter. The symbolism is strong and moving, almost Post-Symbolist, in Winters's definition, though it is really not much more than a plain analogy -- and there's not a thing wrong with that, I hasten to add. Some of the diction here is pure ornament, but most of this cake's icing is understated and well turned. Are these witty moments weaknesses, like the empty flashiness of a vibrantly decorative stylist like, say, John Updike? I would say that they are slight weaknesses in a good poem. But I dislike quibbling about something so good as this.

It's interesting that the poem is so thematically diffident. Right in the midst of the poem, Steele writes that he thought about writing of the analogy of the library as a place where, perhaps, "Mind" is fulfilled and preserved. But then he immediately sets any such grand theme aside for some further musings about leaves blowing about and squirrels gathering nuts. He seems as milky and unassertive as the moon of the first stanza. The turn away from the big theme seems emblematic of our age, when our poets feel, or seem to feel, a little shy of big ideas. Winters certainly had no such diffidence. The poems he thought greatest are all about big ideas, perhaps too big in some ways. (I think of those dense poems on subjects like "being" that Winters wrote, wrote about, and thought highly of.) Perhaps Steele, like many another writer, felt that he is simply not up to the task of speaking of something so profound as the "Mind" and consequently felt compelled to set his sights much lower, even though his premise led him to the brink of saying something big with his suggestive analogy. But these are for now mere reflections, things I will ponder in the years to come as I think of this poem.

Yvor Winters, if I were asked to make a guess, would not think all that highly of the poem's style. He would almost certainly consider large chunks of it "journalistic," which was a particularly damning adjective for him. This word seems to have meant to him "pedestrian," and much of Steele's writing in this poem is a touch -- in the dogged convention of our era -- pedestrian, perhaps arising in part from the diffidence I just mentioned, but perhaps arising too from the need to get published, since this sort of chatty writing reigns in our literary culture. As to Steele's ideas, Winters would probably have found them poorly developed and the poem as a whole structured rather sloppily. I would agree with that assessment to some degree. The poem is not great, perhaps 2 stars or so in my system. But it is worth taking time to contemplate. It is a bit of a musing ("take some interesting subject; look at it in several ways and from a bunch of angles; see what pops into your mind by association or otherwise; finish by tossing your best notions into a pile, which then becomes the poem"), but at least it muses upon important matters with moments of fine style, a few sharp insights, and a fairly strong poetic line.

Any thoughts from my readers are always appreciated.

Dec 2, 2009

Logan on Wallace Stevens

I offer a brief note to say that I did read William Logan's overview of Wallace Stevens's poetry in the New Criterion in October of this year, which I am sure you would expect me to have read, since I read Logan regularly and since Stevens is a poet whose work has a prominent place in the Winters Canon. The chatty, witty, balloon-busting essay is worth reading, though not because it has any affinities with Yvor Winters's classical take on Stevens's work. I like Logan's iconoclasm, which irritates plenty of fans of particular poets and wins him few friends (how he stirred the nest of Hart Crane fandom a couple years back with a few sharp pokes).

As we all realize, Stevens has become one of those much beloved central figures in American literature, one of the untouchables, the object of a protective fan-base, almost a celebrity of sorts. As you also may know as well, though Winters considered Stevens to have written some of the greatest poetry in the English language and several of the greatest poems of the modern era, Winters also touched the now untouchable Stevens quite forcefully. I would say that he punched him -- and pretty hard. For Stevens's poetry degenerated badly in the last two-thirds of his career as a poet, in Winters's judgment, and my own. (I have no idea exactly when Stevens wrote his poems. I presume he tinkered with them for years before publishing them. I refer to their order and time of publication.)

At the end of his essay, Logan includes a list of the poems he considers very good or great in Stevens's body of work, and some of these poems aren't too bad. But Logan passes over almost all the poems Winters considered great. Only "The Snow Man" makes the list of both critics. Logan even makes the colossal mistake of thinking "Sunday Morning" tedious (without explaining why he thinks so). Winters considered this, perhaps, the single greatest poem written in English in the 20th century, and I come close to agreeing (Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit" gets my vote, provisionally). Logan doesn't quite say so, but it seems that he finds "Sunday Morning" to be soaked in amateurish philosophy, a view with which, if accurate, I cannot disagree more.

But, overall, Logan's is a provocative read and worthwhile for being that. And that's what William Logan is often after, a little provocation (though I do think that he truly holds the opinions he uses as sticks to poke nests). Regrettably, however, he doesn't sum up Stevens well. We hardly get any sense of why to read his poetry other than that it sparkles from time to time with some elegant lines, vivid diction, and passages that have little or no meaning or importance or substance. There is much more in Stevens than that, even in the weak later poetry. Logan seems to get nothing out of Stevens that I can tell from this piece. I see in his work a desperation that arose from a loss of meaning in life, the result of a flustered effort to find some purpose for modern humankind, which has lost all confidence in past truths. This overarching theme, for me, makes Stevens one of the truly representative modernist writers, even though his work declined so much in the later years as he treated his theme in ever more bizarre ways. I recommend for a summary of Stevens, if only it weren't so obscure and hard to find, the discussion of his work in Donald Stanford's Revolution and Convention in Modern Poetry, in addition, of course, to Winters's essay on Stevens in In Defense of Reason and his later reconsideration in Forms of Discovery. By the way, though Logan discusses a passage of it at length, I find R.P. Blackmur's study of Stevens nearly worthless.

On a side note, I wanted to say that I was very appreciative of a reader who sent the recommendation of the poetry of Australian Stephen Edgar, whose work I have been reading lately (and you too can find a few of his poems on the web). This is what I was hoping for a lot more of on this blog. I repeat my call for comment: please send me your recommendations for new classicists we can all consider. I will post a note on Edgar some time in the near future.