Mar 29, 2016

Mistakes Made, But...

A.O. Scott, the well-known book and film critic of the New York Times, has written of Yvor Winters in his new and widely reviewed book on literary and other kinds of criticism, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. A section of the book, one which briefly discusses a few ideas Winters had, was published in February in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott refers to Winters's long meandering essay from the Hudson Review, "Problems of the Modern Critic of Literature" (1951), which can be found as the opening essay of his book The Function of Criticism. That essay, not Scott's, opens with an interesting discussion of how literary artists and critics have to make a living in the mid-20th century, a subject which leads Winters into a much longer and unprecedented discussion of the strengths of the various literary genres and his defense of the short poem as the strongest or most complete and compelling form of literature.

Scott mentions Winters's attempt to establish a new canon, but that's not Scott's central interest. Rather, he is concerned to show that Winters was one of the artist-critics at mid-century whose careers were troubled by growing conflicts. These were the modern writers who first, to put it succinctly, turned to college teaching to pay the bills while working on their art on the side.

This section of Scott's book is insightful and thought-provoking. But he does make a number of silly mistakes concerning Winters. For one, he trots out the notion that Winters considered the poetry of Barnabe Googe to be the finest work of the English Renaissance. This is just plain false. Winters did consider Googe to have written a few sound and valuable short poems, but he did not consider him one of the greats of English literature nor the finest Renaissance poet, as Scott implies. For someone who later says that Winters's work deserves wider and deeper study, this is a foolish mistake to make, and odd, too, considering the final word in that subtitle. Winters did rank the poetry of Jones Very far above that of Whitman, as Scott claims. But he seems not to be aware of Winters's higher judgment of Emily Dickinson and Frederick Godard Tuckermen. It's strange to me that so often those few who nowadays write that Winters is deserving of deeper study find it necessary to go out of their way to leave the impression that he was a nut and a crank.

Scott's various misinterpretations of Winters, small and large, in the brief paragraphs he devotes to his critical thought deserve a rejoinder. I'll have to get up the gumption to offer one. Nonetheless, Scott gets a few things right, and it's encouraging to see Winters discussed in any venue of wide literary notice.

Mar 25, 2016

The Plain Style Re-Introduced

New York Review Books has reissued John Williams's anthology, English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson, which was originally published in the 1960s. The book is available in paperback and Kindle editions. The critical ideas of Yvor Winters deeply influenced this anthology, although, as is all too common but nonetheless frustrating, the NYRB blurbs and publicity make no mention of the fact. I have read the new introduction by a former grauate student of Winters's and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky, whom I have had occasion to discuss on this blog from time to time.

The anthology is an excellent introduction to some major and very fine poems that were once almost wholly forgotten, even among English professors and critics. The collection places a heavy emphasis on the tradition of what Winters termed the Plain Style (which C.S. Lewis called the drab style, as opposed to the Renaissance poetry he and so many others favored, that written in what Lewis called the golden style). It was Winters's 1930 essay "The Sixteenth Century Lyric in England," which I argue is probably his most influential writing (though not his best), that rekindled interest in and appreciation for the Plain Style.

Here is Pinsky, from the Introduction:

In the beginning, for many poets and readers, there are anthologies. They often provide our earliest source for poems. . . . For me, the most valuable anthology eventually became, and remains, this one: John Williams’s English Renaissance Poetry.

Pinsky does discuss Winters very briefly in his introduction, I should note. Winters persuaded Williams that, somewhat unethically, he had left any mention of Winters's influence out of Williams's original introduction to the anthology, a matter which Winters discussed in a brief but unmistakably prickly endnote found in his last book, Forms of Discovery. Williams then agreed to acknowledge his debt to Winters on a small sheet of paper inserted into each copy of the anthology.

On a more general note, I wish to say to my few readers that I am out here still working out and, I hope, up from the ideas and work of Yvor Winters, but this blog simply didn't get enough traffic to continue at the pace I was trying to keep. Perhaps I will get the desire to start again.