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.

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