Sep 28, 2010


Late last year. Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker. Sub-heading to an article about an artist:

"Urs Fischer's Inspired Sloppiness"

That could almost be a classicist's definition of the modern arts, from fiction to painting to sculpture to a lot of High-Cult music and, of course, obviously, to poetry -- even much of the so-called New Formalist poetry. The difference is that the classicist, and the Wintersian, sees the sloppiness as simply no more than that, sloppy, plain and simple -- that is, UNinspired sloppiness. (The photo is a shot of one of Urs Fischer's paintings at a recent gallery show somewhere.)

Yvor Winters had a good deal to say on what we could call sloppiness in his essay "John Crowe Ransom, or Thunder Without God" in In Defense of Reason. One interesting discussion that relates to the modern insistence on sloppiness comes in Part IX of that essay, "Meter and the Theory of Irrelevance." At one point in the discussion of a quotation from Ransom about "roughening" meter, which is, so Ransom said, pretty much pointless anyway, Winters enjoys himself poking at Ransom's ideas:

There is no relationship, then [in Ransom's theory], between meter and meaning; the meter, like the meaning, goes its own way, gathering irrelevancies to itself; but the two cooperate to this extent, that in interfering with each other they increase the irrelevancies of the total poem. Ransom at no point explains why we take pleasure in the irrelevancies of meter; he merely states it as axiomatic that we do so. He nowhere suggests the romantic theory that meter is a form of music, arousing the feelings by pure sound: indeed, his theory precludes the possibility of such an idea, for if meter can do this it is expressive of something. Ransom apparently assumes that we take pleasure in metrical irregularities for their own sake, as we might take pleasure (if we were so constituted) in the bumps and holes in a concrete sidewalk. Since the meter has no relationship to any other aspect of the poem, it is easy to see that the writing of regular meter will be merely a mechanical task and beneath the dignity of a true poet, who will take pains to introduce roughness for the mere sake of roughness:

"It is not merely easy for a technician to write in smooth meters: it is perhaps easier than to write in rough ones, after he has once started; but when he has written smoothly, and contemplates his work, he is capable, actually, if he is a modern poet, of going over it laboriously and roughening it." (quoted from Ransom's book The World's Body, p. 12.)
Things seem to have changed little since Winters's wrote in the 1940s. Sloppy irrelevance remains the goal, it appears. Most of the contemporary poetry I read nowadays (I follow Poetry and the New Yorker, and "Poetry Daily" and "Verse Daily" on the web) is so obstinately casual, so averse to formality, that "sloppy" hardly characterizes its lack of structure. I just read a bunch of Seamus Heaney's new book of poetry Human Chain, which William Logan rather generously reviewed in the New York Times last week. Like much of his "mature" work, this latest stuff from Heaney is just plain sloppy from end to end, though a nicely turned phrase does emerge from time to time amid the slops. Not many, alas, but a few.

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.

Sep 21, 2010

The Origin of Lists

I've written a good deal about the concept of the canon and lists of great poems and books on this blog, since the whole topic gets short shrift among those who study Yvor Winters nowadays. (In fact, the matter gets no attention at all. For example, the dozen or so authors of the erudite and thoughtful essays in the valuable 1981 "Yvor Winters Issue" of the Southern Review, edited by Donald Stanford, made not one mention of the issue of the canon or of literary evaluation.) I enjoyed and found insightful an article in the Independent (UK) some months back, "The art of the chart: How we fell in love with ranking the world," on the modern history of making best-of lists. The author, a fellow named Boyd Tonkin, sees its origins in the still massively popular Guiness Books of World Records, which often to this day easily outsells the most popular thrillers, mysteries, and romance novels.

Yvor Winters clearly saw great value in making lists of the greatest literature, though he did not make it sufficiently clear what he was trying to accomplish with these lists. Most writers who study or write about his criticism — almost all academics of one sort of another — soft-pedal his lists, claiming with some embarrassment that they are made up of mere "favorites" of his (in the hope, I assume, that that will help make Winters a little more palatable). But I agree with Winters, as I understand him, that it's very important to make lists of the best, however much list-making has become trivialized in the past 40 or 50 years, however close it is coming to fatuity with all these books about the 500 or 1001 books one should read or movies one should see, or restaurants to hurry to, or theme parks to visit (and so on). Is my judgment that lists are important to the study of Winters related to this phenomenon? After all, I loved the Guiness Books when I was a kid (which came about at roughly the same time Winters was making his lists). It's an interesting matter to contemplate.

Tonkin opines that the current pop-culture (low-cult?) mania for making lists is a "dream of reason," the hunger to make order out of chaos. That could have been the purpose of the lists Winters made — and of those I have been making as well. But maybe it's much more than a dream, but a just application of reason in a world of numberless (and growing) ideas and opinions and positions on matters of every sort to say what we think is greatest and on what grounds we make our claim.

Sep 17, 2010

Empty Churches

I was studying Philip Larkin's fine poem "Church Going" the other day as a consequence of having re-read the opening essay in Alan Shapiro's fine quasi-memoir The Last Happy Occasion, which focuses on this poem as one that has changed Shapiro's life. (As another of the essays in the book vigorously depicts, Shapiro was once a devoted adherent of Winters's.) Studying the poem brought to mind that John Fraser chose the poem for his New Book of Verse, that recent and very important online anthology that seeks to update the Winters Canon, which I have discussed quite a few times on this blog. And re-reading "Church Going" gave rise to the thought that modern classicists stand in much the same condition as those still willing to visit countryside Anglican churches. Just as many walk into empty churches, sense the decline in religious faith in themselves and their friends and family and in our culture, and yet still feel some twinge of attraction to the beliefs symbolized in the architecture and furnishings of the churches, so many seem to read poetry written in so-called traditional forms (or verse) and feel a tug of nostalgia for and perhaps attraction to literary styles and ideas of beauty that have long gone out of fashion. (I must put aside the issue of whether Larkin was right about the general decay of Christian belief in England, which, it seems to me, he was not, at least not entirely. Just last night on NPR -- the coincidence is amazing -- I heard a prominent British sociologist of religion claim that about 25% of the adult population of Britain is still strongly religious. That's decline from olden days, but not emptiness.)

Would many readers of modern literature feel something as Larkin says he did in the empty country church he stopped at if they were to look at the shelf of poetry in my musty basement library, with its dozens of obscure volumes of "formalist" poetry, elegant fiction, and modern classicist or "formalist" criticism of various sorts? It would be a small boon if some did. The closing stanza of "Church Going" holds out the same kind of hope I have, that some will see that there is "serious business" going on in the libraries and offices of us modern classicists. Maybe some will start, someday soon, coming back to "church" with us.

On the side issue of the achievement of Larkin's poem, I have strong doubts that Winters would have thought highly of it. I doubt that he would have considered it great -- or even close to great. But we should not be wholly constrained by his judgments, or our guesses at them. We have our own judgments to make. So what do my readers think? Is "Church Going" a great poem, as John Fraser suggests and Alan Shapiro seems to feel? I have my doubts, as well written as it is at points, but it is certainly worth knowing and appreciating, whether we judge it great or not.

By the by, if you find "Church Going" moving or insightful, you might look into two poems in the Winters Canon, as roughly delineated in Winters's 1968 anthology Quest for Reality, on similar or complementary themes to "Church Going": namely Edgar Bowers's "The Virgin Mary" from the 20th century and Thomas Traherne's "On News" from the 18th century. Both these poems, in my judgment, are far greater than Larkin's poem in just about every aspect. The most prominent difference between the two Quest poems and Larkin's might be Larkin's offhand diffidence, his unwillingness to say anything clearly or deeply serious about the "serious business" he seems to believe once went on or possibly could go on again in the empty country churches he liked to stop at. Compare that diffidence to the strong, clear assertions made in Traherne's and Bowers's poems. I must note, as I have before on this blog, that though John Fraser does include Traherne's great poem in his New Book of Verse, he makes a bad error in dismissing Bowers's from his anthology. "The Virgin Mary" is surely one of the greats.

By the by a second time, I note that Fraser has revised the "Critical Preface" to The New Book of Verse. The revision takes no note of my close study of the founding principles of Fraser's anthology published earlier this year on this blog.

The photo is my own of the courtyard of an Episcopal church in downtown Chicago on a snowy night.

Sep 13, 2010

The Imagism of Early Winters

I have been reading and greatly enjoying Laureates and Heretics, the new book by Bob Archambeau, a student of one of Yvor Winters's last students in the mid-1960s (Archambeau now teaches at Lake Forest College in Illinois). In his chapter on Winters, as canon-heretic, Archambeau places a lot of emphasis on Winters's imagist poetry and poetic theories. Yet I don't quite see how Winters's imagist beginnings have much to do with his eventual attainment of the status of heretic, but I found the discussion tangentially insightful and helpful in a number of ways. Archambeau's main point, that Winters has been rejected from the canon because his mature poetic theories and practice were not consonant with the much more frequent practices and much more frequently espoused theories of the prominent poets and critics of his times (and are dissonant with our times as well) is enlightening, if, perhaps, rather obvious. In general, I have appreciated Archambeau's emphasis on literary canons and their making, though I think Archambeau makes a big mistake in not defining what a canon (or "the" canon) is -- or at least what he thinks it is or ought to be. I admit, though, his defintion of canon, which is crucial to the study of Yvor Winters and the whole matter of classicism (Archambeau calls it Augustanism) and so-called traditional verse in our times, might arise cumulatively in the course of the book. I might study parts of this book in more depth on this blog in the months to come.