Sep 27, 2010

Kirsch's Curse

Adam Kirsch's short piece on Yvor Winters, which first appeared in the 2003 Poetry Issue of the New Criterion, was back in the lit-news last year, since it became one of the principal essays in his collection of criticism, The Modern Element, which hit the shelves late in 2009. There were a few reviews of the book, most of which can be easily found through a search engine. Several of the reviews considered Kirsch's piece on Winters fairly closely and treated it as though it stands at the heart of the collection. That essay, entitled "Winters' Curse," makes most of the common charges against Winters's criticism: it's too narrow, too nasty, too reactionary, far too hard on Romanticism. I have long wanted to go through the short piece paragraph by paragraph, since its charges are mostly misrepresentations or misunderstandings of Winters's work, but haven't yet found the time, though perhaps the rather short essay is more important than I think. It keeps coming up in google searches as one of the top essays on Winters, and, therefore, could cause a good deal of trouble.

On the other hand, Kirsch is strongly appreciative of some of what Winters thought and practiced, and for that I was relieved. Like many other critics, he considers Winters's understanding of form and poetic meter to be consummate and well worth attending to, and I certainly hope that many more readers will take Kirsch's implied advice. He also takes the insightful view that whether you approve the results of Romantic theories in literature, no one can help you understand those theories and what happened in modern literature as a result of Romanticism better than Winters. Amen! So what is the Winters Curse? To be so right in so few areas but so wrong in so many others.

But Kirsch himself misunderstands Winters in many ways. For now, let me just say that narrowness is hardly a fair objection, since being narrow was the whole point of Winters's criticism. If you are a standard critic who accepts the "Standard Canon," as I call that very rough consensus on the great works of literary art, there is no purpose in being narrow. For your defintion of the canon is as shapeless and unprincipled as the canon itself, a mass of works misnamed "classics" for no reason but that they have become accepted in the consensus. But if you are a critic who is seeking to substantially revise the canon, to get a new canon adopted (or even considered), why would you not be narrow? Indeed, you would have to be narrow to properly define why a new canon should be adopted and what should be in it, wouldn't you? Of course you would.

Further, as Kirsch just can't quite understand, Winters was seeking more than a new canon, but to define near perfection, greatness of an order far above the kind of work most poets and writers ever achieve. Naturally such a search would lead to what is perceived as narrowness.

Even further, why does anyone think that because Winters did not consider various poets to have written great poems that he did not think they were worth reading at all, that he thought that what they had written should never have been written? The implication is ludicrous. Winters himself read widely in poets that he considered less than great and many he considered downright bad. Though he failed to say it clearly enough, he didn't think there was a clear and wide distinction between the great (and very few) sheep of literary heaven versus the great mass of goats consigned to hell. There was no narrow gate for Winters. But he was trying to make a true canon, by which he meant not books that remain "fresh," as Pound said, but works that are truly supremely great.

Naturally, these would be few, for a true canon is a measure, the supreme standard by which we judge other works. He concentrated throughout his public critical career on these very best of the best — to the point of trying at the end of his life, as he faced death from cancer, to rewrite the literary history of English poetry by way of the poems he thought had achieved near perfection. But all along he failed to make clear that he wasn't trying to be a censor or an inquisitor (such analogies have been made against Winters by many hostile critics through the decades), but a critic trying to define and discover near perfection. That he would make mistakes seems inevitable. Even Winters thought so. Several times he confessed his own fears of being wrong in his bold judgments. But the narrowness arises from the work he set himself to. I applaud that work and think he was often right.

Amused by his alledged "narrowness," Kirsch laughs at Winters with his neat little analogy of Winters as King of his tiny literary Monaco. But that's exactly what a Wintersian should hope for, or at least what I'm hoping for: an enclave for modern classicism, as I have discussed on this blog a couple times (search on the word "enclave).

Now, as to this charge of "brutality," which Kirsch, like so many before him, levels at Winters: I must object again, briefly. The charge is simply biased against Winters. First, his disapproving comments on various poems and poets are hardly "brutal," an extreme word of moral judgement that simply does not match what he wrote. Second, I have read many a criticism of a literary work just as harsh and condemning as Winters's from authors and critics of every stripe, experimental, postmodern, traditionalist, etc. I have a book on my shelf, Literary Quotations, that contains a lengthy chapter of witty and cruel put-downs from all through the history of English literature (most of them from the past 100 years), many much harsher than anything Winters ever wrote. Some are so harsh that they could be considered libellous. And what, for example, of Mark Twain's endlessly repeated comment on the style of Fenimore Cooper? Somehow this does not make Twain in general "brutal." Why? Perhaps, simply, because modern critics agree with Twain (though I must pause to note that Winters found a lot to judge highly in Cooper, recounted in his wonderful essay on him in Maule's Curse, as republished in In Defense of Reason). Judging from my reading, it seems that someone is considered brutal when he happens to disagree with the popular mid-Cult critics of any time, with, that is, the hoary consensus. Therefore, it's time to put this nonsense about brutality to rest (as I have tried before).

I must end by praising Kirsch for questioning the achievement of John Ashbery, who has enjoyed perhaps the most ridiculously elevated career in the history of literature. That his poetry is considered poetry at all, let alone ever more often praised as the finest poetry of the 20th century in American literature, is cause for embarrassment — though, incredibly, unlike the fairy tale, our critical courtiers still cannot see that Emperor Ashbery has no clothes. Kirsch gingerly tries to justify his doubts about Ashbery's god-awful work, but if he had taken his own advice he could have made quick work of it. Winters explains where Ashbery came from in his various extended comments on Romanticism throughout his writings, but particularly in The Anatomy of Nonsense (third book in In Defense of Reason). I suppose every generation has its blind spots (to keep mixing the metaphors), though the love for Ashbery seems more like a full eclipse of literary sanity. Do I need to go through this? I hope not. But I think I do need to go through all that Adam Kirsch gets right and gets wrong about Yvor Winters some time, since, obviously, Winters is now being seen through his interpretive lens more often than almost any other.

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