Mar 11, 2010

Winters and His Last Students

Bob McLean sent me a note that Robert Archambeau has published a new book about Yvor Winters and some of his later students, Laureates and Heretics. Archambeau is the author of the "Samizdat" blog. The book studies the influence Winters had on several of the last graduate students he taught at Stanford University before he retired and died shortly thereafter in early 1968. Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, John Matthias, and John Peck are the students, all of whom became poets -- one nearly famous, one well known, the others marginal. Hass and Pinsky served as Poet Laureates of the United States. The others have received much less recognition. None has been "canonized" (a term to debate endlessly, of course) as the blurb says. Archambeau was a student of Matthais, if I recall correctly. The book's blurbs say it's about the "cultural politics" of literary and specifically poetic reputation in our times.

Frankly, I have never figured out why Archambeau is interested in Winters and seldom read Samizdat because of that. His blog doesn't seem to have any bend toward Wintersian classicism in any sense. Hass and Pinsky, as I have discussed quite a bit on this blog, have wandered far from classicism of any sort, and both have a tendency to misrepresent Winters's ideas to a greater or lesser degree. I have read the poetry of the other three and have found little of value in their writings. If anyone wishes to make a defense of their work, I am willing to listen and read again. I hope to get the book, but it sure is expensive.


Archambeau said...

I suppose I'm interested in Winters for several reasons. A quick survey, in no particular order, would include the following:

-- He was a very fine poet in two poetic idioms not often represented in the work of a single poet: imagistic modernism and Augustan formalism. The fact that he turned against his own early work does not diminish it for me. In fact, I think "The Testament of a Stone" is the most profound document of imagist poetics out there.

-- He took the evolution of his own style seriously, and saw a clear link between form and ethos. This is admirable (and I say this as someone who does not share all of Winters' conclusions).

-- He influenced a wide range of important poets, from Thom Gunn and Donald Hall to the people I wrote about, as well as the more "Wintersian" of his students (Shapiro, Trimpi, Bowers, Cunningham). I don't think the full extent of his influence has been seen. I argue that Hass and Pinsky, while far from being orthodox in following Winters, became the poets they are because of their engagement with his works. I think the extent to which Winters' poetry and criticism have influenced contemporary American poetry (and not just American poetry) can't be understood unless we look at the range of poets who have learned from him, even when they don't follow his stricter Augustan norms.

As you rightly say, my blog doesn't concern itself much with Winters, at least not directly, though I believe my reading of Winters, and of Donald Davie (his successor at Stanford) has had an influence on what I believe and what I say about other poets.

The book I've written certainly isn't a Wintersian view of Winters -- I try, for example, to understand the young Winters on the young Winters' terms, not on the terms of the older Winters. Then again, it isn't an anti-Wintersian book. I suppose it'll be in for some harsh words from those who adhere closely to the later Winters' ideas, as well as harsher words still from people who dismiss Winters out of hand.

Anyway: for me, taking an interest doesn't necessarily entail following a doctrine. I mean, I'm not a Romantic, but I did feel a need to come to terms with Wordsworth (on whom I wrote my doctoral thesis so many years ago).

All best,


Ben Kilpela said...

Nice to hear from you for the first time, Bob. I don't have much to add to your comments, but I do deeply appreciate your chiming in. You are correct that "The Testament of a Stone" is a fine essay. Many of its imagist ideas found therein were ones Winters never left behind even after he had turned to classicism. That essay was written in 1924, when YW was only 24, and is available in "The Uncollected Essays and Reviews of YW" book (1972), though I hope to put it online some day (since it's now beyond copyright restriction).

I'll keep nosing around your blog trying to figure out what you're up to, since I still can't quite figure it out from this note and since there are so few of us who have ANY interest whatsoever in Winters's work. And now I suppose I'll HAVE to buy your book and read it to try to find out what you're all about concerning Winters.

Winters was interested in this "political" question you have written about, too, since he believed that the implicit evaluation was encouraging poets to write according to substandard methods. Writers and critics offer certain kinds of poems and writing methods as best. This encourages new and young poets and novelists to write according to the compositional methods of poems that are generally and implicitly judged worthy or great or "required reading," as we might say. This matter remains crucially important to this day, for only by encouraging writers to take up classicism and try their hands at composing classical poetry (and prose) that adheres to rational compositional methods can we hope to see more poetry and fiction and history written in a modern and developing classical manner. To encourage just that is one of my main purposes with this blog and my other writings on Winters.

Thanks for writing, Bob, and please comment when you have something to say.

Ben Kilpela

Robert McLean said...

Dear Ben,

I'm glad Robert (of whose blog I'm a regular reader)has taken time to respond to your post. He has written well about Peck and Matthias, both whom have suffered the same neglect that Winters did, and for much the same reasons - moral seriousness, high critical standards, and a refusal to pander to fashion. There's no point going into the form/content shebang, but these students of Winters pose the same questions of history and mortality that their teacher did, even though their prosodic tactics differ, albeit less so (on occasion) in Peck's case. Their modernism is one for which Winters almost certainly would have had sympathy, and it may be that Winters' seriousness, apparent on so many levels, is in itself worth considering, especially how it has come to be in Peck and Matthias, a characteristic that makes them stand out from so much American poetry, which is apparent even from the distance of New Zealand. For better or worse, questions of meter may have to wait until they've been untangled from knee-jerk political myopia.

I'm looking forward to your take on Stephen Edgar.

Take care,


Robert McLean said...


some Stephen Edgar poems online in the latest issue of Poetry. Not great, but well worth a look.

Best to you,