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The Absolutist: The poetry and criticism of Yvor Winters

Posted By Jan Schreiber On July 20, 2010 @ 1:11 pm In Reviews | 2 Comments

In Defense of Reason by Yvor Winters. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947. Reprinted with an introduction by Kenneth Fields, Ohio University Press / Swallow Press, 1987.

The Function of Criticism by Yvor Winters. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1957.

Forms of Discovery by Yvor Winters. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1967.

The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters. R. L. Barth (ed.). Ohio University Press / Swallow Press, 1999.

As Reviewed By: Jan Schreiber

Yvor Winters, who lived from 1900 to 1968, was one of the most influential critics of poetry of his time. He played a large role in shifting the aesthetics of the literary establishment from its focus on the Romantics to a focus on the notable moderns, from a nineteenth and twentieth century canon weighted toward English writers to one weighted toward Americans, and from an emphasis on emotion and mystery in the evaluation of poetry toward emphasis on rational coherence. A professor of English at Stanford University for more than thirty years, and a poet in his own right, he taught, influenced, and helped launch the careers of a sizeable number of distinguished poets, including Thom Gunn, Philip Levine, J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, N. Scott Momaday, and Robert Pinsky.

For these reasons, any attempt to understand how the canon of twentieth century poetry was formed must include scrutiny of the role Winters played and the ideas that motivated him. Those ideas are set forth principally in three volumes: In Defense of Reason, The Function of Criticism, and Forms of Discovery. Winters also wrote three monographs—on W.B. Yeats, E.A. Robinson, and J.V. Cunningham. Only the first title mentioned is currently in print. It would be possible to trace the development of Winters’ thought over his career with the aid of these texts, but that is not my purpose. While some development can indeed be discerned, there was a remarkable consistency to Winters’ ideas over a long span of years, and, more important, his influence on his peers resulted not from any evolution of his ideas but from his insistent stating and restating of them in essay after essay.[private]

An Arsenal of Ideas

A succinct expression of Winters’ theory of poetry can be found in The Function of Criticism, in his essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins:

…[T]he poem is a rational statement about a human experience, made in such a way that the emotion which ought to be motivated by that rational understanding of the experience is communicated simultaneously with the rational understanding: the poem is thus a complete judgment of the experience, a judgment both rational and emotional…. The poem … is a method for perfecting the understanding and moral discrimination; it is not an obscurely isolated end in itself. [FC 139] Parsing this formula may require some effort. We must accept, first, that a poem is about human experience, and second, that it is or ought to be a rational statement about such experience. We also must accept that it communicates emotions associated with the experience, and that the emotions conveyed are in some way calibrated to the nature of the experience.

Winters calls this calibration a judgment and believes that this judgment (of the experience by the poet) is the essential element in the creative process by which the poem comes into being. It is a judgment because there is in Winters’ mind an implicit standard whereby appropriate emotion can be assessed, and that standard is part of an overarching moral code. In The Anatomy of Nonsense (collected in In Defense of Reason), he asks rhetorically, “How do we determine whether such a relationship [between motive and emotion] is satisfactory?” And he answers, “We determine it by an act of moral judgment.” (DR 370) For Winters, moral judgment implies an absolute standard. Taken literally, this means that all persons of high moral character will feel the same way about a given matter, provided they understand it thoroughly.

While he largely avoids intense theological speculation (wisely, it would appear, given his occasional forays into that territory), he admits to holding “a theistic position” (DR 14) and, though professing not to be a Christian, writes frequently and sympathetically of the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. We can fairly characterize Winters, therefore, as a moral absolutist whose ideas on divinely inspired morality are by and large Thomistic.

Winters sprinkled his critical writing with discussions of American intellectual history—in particular the development of religion and religious thought and its influence on literary practice. His most extended treatment of the subject occurs in his essay on Henry Adams in In Defense of Reason. He admired the moral stance of Luther and Calvin, though he saw the contradiction inherent in a philosophy that elevates faith to such a point that good works are essentially irrelevant to salvation. He recognized that, if taken literally, the doctrine of predestination, a cornerstone of New England Calvinism, offered no incentive for moral behavior, since one might quite arbitrarily be damned if one did and damned if one didn’t. But he also recognized the various intellectual dodges by which the clerics of early New England circumvented their own theology, discerned “signs of election” (or otherwise) in their congregants, and thus managed to encourage and enforce a rather stringent morality that they could not have justified by rigorous argument.

Winters believed that the New England mystical disposition, which flourished with the revival of Calvinism in the eighteenth century, provided fertile ground for the importation of Romantic ideas later in the century. These ideas held, as Winters put it, that God and his creation are one, that man as part of that creation is inherently good, and that man must trust his impulses and distrust his intellect. The chief American exponent of these ideas in the nineteenth century, in his view, was Emerson, and the chief literary practitioner was Whitman. To these two figures Winters attributed much of the decadence he perceived in the poetry preceding the modernist revolution.

It is apparent that Winters’ formulary description of poems and the process of reading them omits many qualities that others have considered central. Wit, figurative or ingenious language, irony, and the whole gamut of rhetorical devices are treated only in passing. It is not that Winters did not consider these elements possible tools of the poet, but he did not view them as essential, and in fact his pronounced preference for the Renaissance “plain style” of Fulke Greville and Ben Jonson over the ornate styles of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spencer made it clear to his disciples that rhetoric ranked low in his hierarchy of values. Unjustified decoration, in his characterization, was “aimless debauchery.” (DR 540)

By tying morality to the judgment of poems, Winters solved a problem familiar to priests and professors of literature: how to give primacy to their own judgments as against those of their acolytes. The man who is convinced that he can recognize a good poem better than can his students or other members of the English faculty grows impatient at having to explain himself or put up with what he sees as gross errors of taste. Though he may modestly admit to imperfect understanding, he nonetheless states or implies that he is in a far better position than most to apply correct moral reasoning to the issue at hand. The Absolute may be unknowable, but certain seekers in this view approach a level of understanding not shared by most of their fellows.

Winters put the matter baldly in a poem entitled “On Teaching the Young”:

The young are quick of speech.
Grown middle-aged, I teach
Corrosion and distrust,
Exacting what I must.

A poem is what stands
When imperceptive hands,
Feeling, have gone astray.
It is what one should say.

Few minds will come to this.
A poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude –
Laurel, archaic, rude.

In common with the southern Agrarians, with whom he often fought, Winters embraced a religious view of life and art even while such a view was finding ever fewer adherents among the educated elite. He could not conceive a morality that did not have a theological basis, and whenever he encountered a writer such as Emerson who rejected traditional absolutism without becoming personally dissolute, he concluded that it was only the force of habit that held the man in place. If his own times rejected such theologies, Winters rejected the times. He clung to a theistic position because that was his nature and because it gave him the solid foundation he needed for this approach to literature.

From the perspective of our pervasive social ethos that looks askance at claims of absolutism in either art or behavior, a divinely backed morality seems a curious basis for solid literary judgment. “Truth” might have been an alternative criterion, and one not requiring recourse to a deity; but while it is possible to define certain literary situations in which truth criteria are relevant, even in fictional constructs such as stories and poems, there are many others that pose a serious challenge. Winters mentions truth occasionally. For him, however, truth seems a subset of a more comprehensive set of moral judgments that the poet makes of experience, and that the critic, in turn, makes of the poem.

The Doctrine Applied

Oddly enough, the characterization of a poem as a species of moral judgment, though asserted relentlessly in Winters’ essays, finds few demonstrations in the treatment of specific poems. In a poem like Gascoigne’s “Woodsmanship” Winters recognizes that the poet is commenting ironically on his own lack of skill in shooting a deer, and by extension on his failures in various worldly pursuits. He understands that in so doing Gascoigne is calling the value of those pursuits into question, and that this questioning constitutes or at any rate implies a moral judgment. With such a clear-cut example from the tradition of moral verse in the plain style, Winters’ formula and critical approach seem appropriate. But in treating Emily Dickinson’s “Farther in summer than the birds” he offers a more complex analysis: “The intense nostalgia of the poem is the nostalgia of man for the mode of being which he perceives imperfectly and in which he cannot share.” (DR 292) Nor does he isolate an explicit moral judgment in W.C. Williams’s “By the road to the contagious hospital,” a poem he praises. Indeed, the moral judgment he discerns in most poems appears to have less to do with personal relationships or ethical issues than with the appropriateness of the emotions evoked to the matter the poem is dealing with.

Appropriateness of emotion may seem a rather narrow basis for evaluating a poem, and it may seem a perversion of terminology, at the least, to say that in evoking an “appropriate” feeling as he depicts a situation, a poet is rendering a moral judgment on that situation, but it is worth remembering that much of Winters’ criticism was written when the critical values of the Romantics were still ascendant. Editors of the major anthologies gave pride of place to poems in which the language might well be clichéd and derivative, but which featured emotional crescendos not clearly tied to the matter at hand. Edgar Allen Poe among the “traditional” poets, and Hart Crane, among the contemporaries, showed this emotional disparity, though Winters credited Crane with far more poetic talent than Poe. To achieve a sensible balance of emotion to material, to write without evocative clichés, cleanly and honestly, is a rare and noteworthy feat. Such writing attracted Winters’ attention throughout his career.

If a dogmatic absolutism and a fixation on morality as a touchstone in the evaluation of poems did not always persuade Winters’ readers and students, his perceptive responsiveness to poetry carried more weight. And his dogged indifference to received opinion allowed him to effect a substantial re-evaluation of the poetic canon he had encountered at the start of his career. Not that he succeeded (as he would have liked) in deposing Wordsworth and Whitman (among others) or anointing T. Sturge Moore and Jones Very—but he did nevertheless call attention to writers and poems that were being ignored, and he helped give legitimacy to a less mannered, more intellectual style that emphasized rational coherence over decorative effect.

One of his most significant contributions was a reassessment of Elizabethan poetry, undertaken in two essays: “The 16th Century Lyric in England” (published in Poetry in 1939, revised and reprinted in Forms of Discovery), and “English Literature in the Sixteenth Century,” published in the Hudson Review and reprinted in The Function of Criticism). In these essays he pays particular attention to the native plain style, which he contrasts with the ornate “Petrarchan” style of Sidney and Spenser. Practitioners of the plain style included Thomas Wyatt, George Gascoigne, Fulke Greville, Walter Raleigh, John Donne (in his late years), George Herbert, Ben Jonson, and various lesser poets. The fundamental distinction was that the Petrarchans wrote in a highly figured, trope-laden language with a minimum of rational argument, whereas the practitioners of the plain style dealt with serious issues of life and death, in a logical framework, usually with a minimum of ornament. Clearly there were shadings and variations in all writers of the time, and some, like Donne and Shakespeare, straddled both styles. But Winters’ essays were a corrective to the views of such English critics as Arthur Quiller-Couch and C.S. Lewis, and they helped revive the reputations of writers like Greville and Jonson, whose short poems had been largely neglected during the nineteenth century.

A digression is perhaps appropriate here. Winters praised the “rational structure” of his favorite poems, and deplored the “associational” structure of poems whose underlying logic appeared thin or non-existent. But it is worth noting that rational structure is often illusory. Winters’ one-time protégé J.V. Cunningham noted in print the “syllogistic” argument of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” only to be rebutted by a distaff response from Barbara Herrnstein Smith, pointing out that the syllogism was false, since “if there were time enough, you could delay” does not in strict logic imply that “since there is not, you must not.” And Paul Valéry, a “rational” poet esteemed by Winters above all others, likened prose to walking and poetry to dancing. It is clear that readers in some times and places will tolerate looser organization and more obscurity in poems than will others elsewhere. But that is a relativistic observation, and Winters was not a relativist. For him, rational structure implied a moral seriousness of purpose and a genuine contribution to civilized discourse. The undeniable delights associated with certain admittedly non-rational poems did not constitute a counter-argument for this critic, who viewed delight with scant charity among the array of poetic values.

To return to the business of criticism: death, as is often observed, confers a nice equality. It is not so difficult for a critic with a keen eye and ear to discriminate among poets and poems four hundred years removed, though he must be able, as Winters put it, to “find the poems”—something Winters was convinced he could do and believed that C.S. Lewis could not. (FC 197) But it is another matter to forage among the work of one’s contemporaries. For one thing, there is much more underbrush: large numbers of poems in all sorts of periodicals, most destined for history’s rubbish heap, but some— and not always in prominent journals—that may be the next generation’s cultural icons. For another thing, the complete work of one’s contemporaries has not yet been written, so it is difficult, even if one could read everything, to say whether a given poem is a flash in the pan or the sure promise of genius to come. For a third, the critic has a stake in the contest. He is often (as Winters was) a poet himself. He cannot help comparing his own work, and his own reputation, with those of his peers. He has been befriended by some of them and slighted by others, and he has slighted and befriended in his turn. Preserving an Olympian detachment under such circumstances is all but impossible. Winters’ solution appears to have been to treat virtually all his contemporaries without charity. He was the judge at the bar, St. Peter at the gate, and he was not lenient. Only, as it developed, with his own students did he show preference sometimes beyond merit. Of the major American contemporaries, Crane, Eliot, Stevens, and Frost did not get off lightly, as we shall see.

Winters knew Hart Crane personally, spent some time in extended conversations with him, and carried on a correspondence with him for several years. The frequency with which Crane is mentioned in In Defense of Reason is a measure of Winters’ interest in him and his work; it is evident that Winters recognized Crane’s talent and was disposed to view his work favorably, but also that he ultimately found more fault than virtue in most of Crane’s achievement. Some of the problems stemmed from Winters’ own literal-mindedness, but others must be laid at Crane’s doorstep. Crane took a rather tangential approach to the selection of images and to sentence construction. Commenting in an early essay on this passage from “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen”—

The mind is brushed by sparrow wings;
Numbers, rebuffed by asphalt, crowd
The margins of the day, accent the curbs,
Conveying divers dawns on every corner …

—Winters rebuked Crane for writing deliberate nonsense. Only later, on learning that “numbers” referred to the sparrows, did he credit the poem with some meaning and the writer with a serious intention. As for other poems, Winters recognized the magnificence of “Voyages II,” despite (or because of) its full-throated Romantic rhetoric, but he concluded that Crane’s attempt at a verse epic of America in The Bridge was ultimately a failure. In keeping with an approach he would use throughout his life, he criticized Crane’s work in relation to actual or speculative knowledge of the man’s personal characteristics.

He was unfortunate in having a somewhat violent emotional constitution; his behavior on the whole would seem to indicate a more or less manic-depressive make-up, although this diagnosis is the post-mortem guess of an amateur, and is based on evidence which is largely hearsay. He was certainly homosexual, however, and he became a chronic and extreme alcoholic. I should judge that he cultivated these weaknesses on principle; in any event, it is well known that he cultivated them assiduously, and as an avowed Whitmanian, he would have been justified by his principles in cultivating all of his impulses. I saw Crane during the Christmas week of 1927, when he was approximately 29 years old; his hair was graying, his skin had the dull red color with reticulated grayish traceries which so often goes with advanced alcoholism, and his ears and knuckles were beginning to look a little like those of a pugilist. About a year later he was deported from France as a result of his starting an exceptionally violent commotion in a bar-room and perhaps as a result of other activities.. In 1932 he committed suicide…. [DR 589-590]

Despite his moral disapproval, Winters’ considered assessment of Crane’s legacy is fairly generous:

The style is at worst careless and pretentious, at second-best skillfully obscure; and in these respects it is religiously of its school; and although it is both sound and powerful at its best, it is seldom at its best. Yet the last fifty-five lines of The River, and numerous short passages in The Dance and in Atlantis and a few short passages elsewhere, take rank, I am certain, among the most magnificent passages of Romantic poetry in our language; and at least two earlier poems, Repose of Rivers and the second of the Voyages, are quite as fine. [DR 598]

Characteristically, he sees Crane’s limitations as stemming from the dubious moral influence of his Romantic forebears, Emerson and Whitman: “We have, it would seem, a poet of great genius, who ruined his life and his talent by living and writing as the two greatest religious teachers [sic] of our nation recommended.” (DR 598)

Winters subtitled his essay on Eliot “The Illusion of Reaction,” and he meant it disparagingly: he insisted that Eliot was no true reactionary, as he himself was. Readers who might have thought Eliot’s interweaving of his Christian belief with his criticism and his poetry would strike a sympathetic chord in Winters were quickly disabused. Winters objected to Eliot’s criticism, in part because Eliot ascribed less overt judgment to poets, instead basing his assessment of their work on the language of their poems and the “sensibility” they evinced. To Winters this was far too passive a role, suggesting that the poet was merely a medium for some unconscious or semiconscious process. At least for the purposes of this essay Winters refused to entertain the possibility that poetic composition might indeed involve processes only partly under the poet’s control. Such a theory of art was not acceptable to his sense of the moral responsibility and active agency involved in composition.

Winters spent far more words on Eliot’s critical writing than on his poems. He was not an admirer of much of Eliot’s verse, yet he chose to challenge Eliot on the critic’s own turf—the battlefield of ideas. In that venue, however, Eliot proved to be a slippery character, for his statements, while appearing to come from a comprehensive and synthesizing intelligence, were consistent neither with each other nor with his own practice. At bottom the argument was over the nature of the process of poetic composition. Eliot believed that the poet, while he should be imbued with a deeply understood tradition and an active emotional intelligence (he was less emphatic about straightforward intellectual prowess), should write from his own profoundest feelings and without the explicit aim of creating an argument or a judgment. Winters, of course, believed judgment was everything and gave very little latitude, in theory or (at least in his later years) in practice, to inspiration.

He therefore objected also to Eliot’s statements seeming to support writers who worked with their native personalities rather than attempting to achieve an artificial or constructed “character” in their work. This debate seems quaint, involving as it does two men who had both quite consciously created their characters. In this case Winters at least retained the virtue of self-consistency.

At the heart of the one-sided critical argument (Eliot did not respond to Winters’ gambits) are differing views—and perhaps different definitions—of thought and emotion in poetry. For Eliot, thought apparently was something done only by philosophers on the order of Aquinas. Shakespeare and Dante did no actual thinking at all, he maintained. Instead, they dealt with emotion, though that was achievement enough: “In reality there is precise emotion and there is vague emotion. To express precise emotion requires as great intellectual power as to express precise thought.” (“Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” quoted by Winters in DR, 470.) It seems evident that Eliot was describing composition in which intellect and emotion were fused and in which there was a consequent intellectual basis for the emotional effect of the writing. This state of affairs closely approximates Winters’ idea that a poet “judges” his material by associating an appropriate emotion with the matter at hand. Yet Winters raises myriad objections to the passage and appears to dismiss it.

Turning finally to Eliot’s poems, he praises only “Gerontian,” though he objects to the use of portentous but unexplained characters (Fräulein von Kulp, Hakagawa, et al.) whose function in the poem is unclear. He objects that the subject of “The Waste Land” was handled better by Baudelaire. He believes Pound had a better ear. He does not treat “Prufrock,” “The Four Quartets,” “The Hollow Men,” or any of the other works on which Eliot’s reputation hangs, but in Forms of Discovery he comments on the general method: “The method is that of Dyer or Collins in the eighteenth century: a typical item is mentioned—a gothic pile in Collins, a pile of rubbish in Eliot—and we are supposed to have the typical, that is the “correct,” reaction or association, and to have it automatically and with great force. And many of us do, and will be angered by these remarks, but this kind of writing has no life of its own and ultimately becomes very tiresome.” (FD 322) While admitting the justice of what Winters says here, I regret that he did not deal more directly with the poems, or parts of poems, that have struck or moved several generations of readers. You do not have to be a champion of Eliot to wish for a more thorough and balanced treatment of his work. This technique of harshly judging a small sample of a writer’s output and dismissing him, on that basis, from the company of “great” poets is used by Winters with distressing regularity.

The charge Winters leveled against Wallace Stevens was that he was a hedonist. Winters made the charge against the man as poet and not, presumably, against Stevens personally, though we cannot be sure, since Winters was rarely careful with such distinctions. Winters’ frequent ventures into philosophy have a quality more of polemics than of rigorous thought, so it is not entirely clear what he understood by the term “hedonist,” though it was clearly a negative assessment. Hedonism can mean a pursuit of one’s own pleasure above all else or a philosophy basing ethics on pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number. The former reading does not fit Stevens personally and would be very hard to derive from his poems, however richly decorative their surface. The latter might be considered the dominant secular ideal of our time.

Much of Winters’ essay on Stevens in In Defense of Reason scolds the poet for wasting his talent in pursuit of “emotional stimulation” and “intense feeling.” Winters apparently believed that Stevens, lacking a God-inspired sense of duty, entertained himself by stylistic excesses but became bored by the process and wrote much trivia, among which his undeniably great poems stand out as anomalies. He speaks of Stevens’ ennui, which he finds depicted in “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad.” In that poem he finds in such lines as “Out of such mildew plucking neater mould, / And spouting new orations of the cold” a search for “some impossible emotional finality.” The implication seems to be that the talented but bored and aimless hedonist may commit some atrocity to entertain himself because he lacks a stern morality and resulting sense of inner discipline.

Winters’ beliefs and pre-formed attitudes toward Stevens distort his understanding of poems such as “The Comedian as the Letter C,” which Winters says deals with “a poet who begins with romantic views of the function of his art and who, in reforming them, comes to abandon his art as superfluous.” (DR 439-440) He states that Crispin, the poem’s central character, in leaving the exotic world of Yucatan, hopes now to achieve “the beatific pleasure reserved for the successful hedonist.” (DR 442) Perhaps the basis for this inference is Stevens’ lines:

[1]

But Stevens himself evaluates this as “illusive, faint, … perverse, / Wrong …” and concludes, “Moonlight was an evasion.” The poem does not say that Crispin abandons his art—and if we (reasonably, in this case) equate the poet and his protagonist, then the poem’s very existence and its virtuoso style stand as irrefutable evidence that he did not.

The pervasive finger-wagging tone makes Winters’ writing on Stevens difficult to read, but in spite of his condescension toward a man a generation older than himself who was surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, Winters appreciated many of Stevens’ virtues and identified a good number of the most distinguished poems not long after they appeared in print. He spent many pages discussing “Sunday Morning,” and despite reservations about some lines and stanzas clearly considered it a work of genius. And having used most of his essay to tell readers that Stevens was neglecting his gifts and was sinking into decadence and triviality, he appended to that essay, four years after Stevens’ death, a postscript sincerely praising Stevens’ late poem “The Course of a Particular,” thereby admitting implicitly that his previous report of the death of Stevens’ art had been greatly exaggerated.

Winters struggled mightily with the shades of writers who did not accept his own philosophy. He was hard put to explain how, benighted as they were, they managed to create what he was forced to recognize as excellent poems. Characteristically, he fell back on Aquinas: a demon is good insofar as he is realized, but evil insofar as he is incomplete. The writers of perverse genius were great to the extent that they could understand some things very well, and defective where their understanding failed. That, of course, might be said of anyone, whether poet or critic. We shall later explore how far Winters’ understanding got him as a poet. For now, the last word on Stevens (which says a great deal about Winters) comes from Winters’ summing up in Forms of Discovery: “Stevens was a man who understood very little, but that little is of great importance, and his understanding, his language, is one of the marvels of our literature.” (FD 277-278)

Robert Frost confronted Winters with an awkward problem. Winters’ theory of poetry almost required that a good poet be neither popular nor well understood. Poetry was for him the most intellectual of the arts, and the notion of a distinguished poet whose work was accessible and enjoyed by ordinary readers seemed not just implausible but self-contradictory. (Shakespeare posed a similar problem, but Shakespeare wrote dramas—crowd-pleasers that happened to contain patches of great poetry—and flawed sonnets that were valued by ordinary people who had been told they were treasures.) Moreover, Frost in most of his work adopted a persona that underplayed the role of the poet as priest and judge. He wrote in the voice of a plain-spoken countryman, colloquial and slightly cranky, a little like one’s grandfather. Perhaps most annoying, he wrote uncommonly well. But while Frost dealt with moral and ethical issues in many poems, he clearly lacked Winters’ sense of moral mission, and he was far more aware and tolerant of moral ambiguity. Winters saw this attitude as a serious weakness and labeled Frost a “spiritual drifter.” Armed with that appellation, he proceeded to dismember some of Frost’s less notable poems.

In the course of a thirty-page essay mentioning about two dozen poems, Winters treats only four or five that would be considered now among Frost’s best. He ignores the anthology favorites like “After Apple-Picking,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Mending Wall,” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay”; he says nothing about “Directive,” “Range Finding,” “Out, Out— ,” “The Oven Bird,” and many other larger and smaller triumphs. Winters rightly points out that Frost’s didactic poems are not his best, but he goes out of his way to choose didactic poems for discussion, apparently in the belief that they best illustrate Frost’s ideas. He calls Frost’s handling of blank verse “inept” and says his blank verse rhythms are “undistinguished and … repetitious to the point of deadly monotony” (an overly harsh judgment, in my view), without noting that Frost thought in lines that, if not end-stopped, had at least a perceptible syntactic pause after each. This slight pause, so helpful in the propulsion of rimed verse, breaks up the flow of blank verse, making a reader inadvertently look after every ten syllables for a rime that isn’t there.

Winters attacked Frost for the ideas he discerned in the poems, but it becomes evident that his equally deep objection was to Frost’s diction. He observes, “Frost early began his endeavor to make his style approximate as closely as possible the style of conversation, and this endeavor has added to his reputation. It has helped to make him seem ‘natural.’ But poetry is not conversation, and I see no reason why poetry should be called upon to imitate conversation.” (FC 160) This is a rather remarkable statement from a poet and scholar who would have had to be familiar with recurrent historical attempts to reinvigorate poetry with the vocabulary and diction of natural speech, who championed the Elizabethan plain style against the ornate, and who might be supposed to understand the emotional immediacy of an idiom that comes naturally to the tongue. We might at least have expected admiration for a craftsman able to write in strict rime and meter without resorting to the inversions, unusual contractions, and archaisms that were the stock in trade of lesser poets who had to wrestle their sentences into form. But Winters’ own sense of the poet partook more of the vatic bard who declaimed in the Russian manner: a deep-pitched chant with almost no concession to the rise and fall of natural speech. Archaisms of style and vocabulary were tolerated and even valued if they were seen as contributing to an elevated tone. That such easy enhancements might constitute a spurious “spiking” of the poem’s emotional aura (so essential to the “judgment” in which its moral character inhered) seems not to have troubled Winters.

A sense of Winters’ approach to Frost can be gained from his discussion of “The Road Not Taken,” a poem too well known to require quotation. It is this poem in particular that prompts Winters to call Frost a “spiritual drifter.” He comments,

[A] spiritual drifter is unlikely to have either the intelligence or the energy to become a major poet. Yet the poem has definite virtues, and these should not be overlooked. In the first place, spiritual drifters exist, they are real; and although their decisions may not be comprehensible, their predicament is comprehensible. The poem renders the experience of such a person, and renders the uncertain melancholy of his plight. Had Frost been a more intelligent man, he might have seen that the plight of the spiritual drifter was not inevitable, he might have judged it in the light of a more comprehensive wisdom. Had he done this, he might have written a greater poem. But his poem is good as far as it goes; the trouble is that it does not go far enough, it is incomplete, and it puts on the reader a burden of critical intelligence which ought to be borne by the poet. [FC 163]

What the earnest reader takes from this is Winters’ conviction that there are no choices over a lifetime whose relative merits cannot be clearly evaluated with the information at hand, that anyone who believes a given option is indeterminate is spiritually lazy, and that anyone who depicts such a moment of decision and reflects on its implications is a person of inferior intelligence. It is hard to credit such astonishingly simplistic notions to a man capable, on other evidence, of considerable perspicacity. It makes more sense to conclude that Winters’ competitive hostility toward Frost, his resentment of the great reputation which so overshadowed his own, clouded both his mind and his critical ethic.

In considering isolated passages in some poems, Winters finds real virtues and responds with the excitement of genuine discovery. He quotes from Frost’s poem “The Most of It” the passage in which a buck swims toward a solitary observer—

Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

Winters observes that “the style combines descriptive precision with great concentration of meaning and at the same time is wholly free from decoration, ineptitude, and other irrelevancy.”

But almost every compliment contains a barb. Discussing a long poem called “The Vindictives,” in which Frost depicts the Spanish conquest and destruction of the Inca civilization, Winters notes that the motivation is “a simple and honest hatred of brutality and injustice so obvious that they cannot be overlooked.” He goes on to state that such an attitude can be justified only by “the ideas of Christian and Classical philosophy, which …[Frost] has during all of his career neglected or explicitly maligned.” (FC 184) It should be unnecessary to point out that one does not have to espouse either Christian or classical philosophy to hate brutality and injustice. The parochialism of such a statement uttered by a professor of liberal arts at a great university is remarkable. It is especially perplexing to reflect that the statement comes from a man who in the same essay accused Frost of “willful ignorance” and “smug stupidity.” (FC 176)

In his memoir The Bread of Time, Philip Levine tells of a visit Frost paid to Stanford while Winters was teaching there. Informed that Frost was making his way through the quad toward the vicinity of Winters’ office, Winters hid and refused to show himself. It is not hard to see why.

If I have conveyed the impression that Winters was uniformly small-minded and hostile toward eminent poets, I have done him a disservice. He wrote habitually in a tone of irascible self-confidence, but he often wrote with insight, and his judgments offered a needed corrective to the pieties of his time. Even his misjudgments were salutary for many readers: they demonstrated that genius never deserves to be taken on faith but must justify itself, and that many texts admired uncritically out of reverence for tradition might or might not bear rigorous scrutiny but should at least receive it. For ordinary readers, students, and aspiring poets, that was a liberating perspective.

Arguably Winters’ most important contribution to critical theory has nothing to do with the moral basis for judgment, and only a slim connection with emotion in poetry. It is his description of the “post-symbolist method” that he finds in the poetry of Tuckerman, Stevens, and few other writers in English, but most plentifully in certain poems of Paul Valéry. A poet employing this method writes so as to invest certain words and concepts with double meanings, so that they can apply both to the sensory environment being described and to the underlying conceptual or philosophic issues in which the poem’s meaning chiefly inheres. This approach is not the same as metaphor, where a concrete object is mentioned but is not understood to be a literal part of the scene in the reader’s mind’s eye: when Wordsworth says he is “No sport of every random gust,” the reader is not expected to visualize the poet in a windstorm. But by the final passage of “Sunday Morning” the reader has gained sufficient insight into the predicament of mankind living in an “unsponsored” universe to perceive the resonance in Stevens’ language:

And in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink
Downward to darkness on extended wings.

Winters comments that isolation, casual, ambiguous, and darkness all take on extra meaning and freight the passage with import it could never have carried as pure description. “Their significance has been prepared by the total poem, and they sum the poem up.” (FD 276) By identifying the technique and praising its power to his students, he surely perpetuated its use by succeeding generations of poets.

The Poems

By curious contrast to his influential prose, which is increasingly hard to obtain, Winters’ poems, though still available in print thanks to his admirers’ efforts, have had a far narrower influence, notwithstanding that it was for his poems that he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1960. On the evidence of the poems, Winters’ natural gift was for keen observation and a portentous tone. Working in the pervasive imagist environment of the nineteen twenties, he produced poems like this:

When I walk out
to meet you on the
cloth of burning
fields

the goldfinches
leap up about my
feet like angry
dandelions

quiver like a
heartbeat in the
air and are
no more

The general observation is sharp, but the details and tone are puzzling. Why are the fields “burning”? We can agree that the goldfinches resemble dandelions, but why are they angry? Even without rational answers to these questions, the poem’s vocabulary suggests (but does not explain) a ferocity in the landscape that threatens the observer.

Beginning in the late twenties, Winters’ style underwent a mutation. He began to subject his perceptions and his feelings to the more rigorous formal constraints of rime and meter. Some early results of this process show clear signs of the struggle that must have been involved. Here is the beginning of “Sonnet”:

The God-envenomed loneliness, the stain
Of Deity, is eating out specific
Souls from nothingness, and the horrific
Writhing of a moment is our gain.

This too was a style of the times, which also produced Allen Tate’s “The Subway,” a poem of similar emotional violence. From the criticism Winters was writing during the thirties and later, we can infer that he began to find the emotional electricity of passages like this out of proportion to the matter being treated.

In some ways poems like this are typical sins of the young, who are beset by large and turbulent emotions to which they are often unable to assign clear motivations. One stratagem for dealing with the problem is a retreat into abstraction. This approach had attractions for a young academic attempting to chasten a too sensuous and emotional style. It resulted in poems like “The Moralists,” a sonnet that begins:

You would extend the mind beyond the act,
Furious, bending, suffering in thin
And unpoetic dicta; you have been
Forced by hypothesis to fiercer fact.

Phrases like “the mind,” “the act,” and “the brain” (later in the same poem) imply a kind of disembodied existence of human faculties as pure phenomena, and while it is indeed possible and sometimes useful to conceive them that way, readers and the poet himself can quickly lose track of the underlying behavior being discussed. We can speculate on what it might mean for someone to be forced by hypothesis to fiercer fact, but the poem gives no concrete guidance, and thus all feeling that might be associated with the poem remains uncertain and provisional at best. This technique was one Winters continued to employ till the end of his writing life, and its liabilities continued to dog him.

Now and then he was able to combine his talent for physical observation with his sense of the somberness and menace of his environment in a way that served to dramatize his struggle to retain intellectual control. “The Slow Pacific Swell” is a reflective poem that poses a perceiving individual against the vast and impersonal backdrop of the Pacific coast.

The rain has washed the dust from April day;
Paint-brush and lupine lie against the ground;
The wind above the hill-top has the sound
Of distant water in unbroken sky …

In a semi-allegorical reflection he recalls a threatened loss and willful recapture of intellectual control:

Once when I rounded Flattery, the sea
Hove its loose weight like sand to tangle me
Upon the washing deck, to crush the hull;
Subsiding, dragged flesh at the bone. The skull
Felt the retreating wash of dreaming hair.
Half drenched in dissolution, I lay bare.
I scarcely pulled myself erect; I came
Back slowly, slowly knew myself the same.

While allegory can be a less than satisfactory mode for treating personal experience, because the experience itself remains masked behind the representation of it, it is still superior to a mode that relies on pure abstraction. Here, at any rate, the physical terms in which the experience is presented are vivid enough to draw empathic feeling from the reader: “Yes, I can imagine what that must have been like.”

Then in a passage of inspired description he represents the vast, impersonal, brute natural world that serves as backdrop and qualifier to his moral and intellectual struggle.

… From the ship we saw
Gray whales for miles: the long sweep of the jaw,
The blunt head plunging clean above the wave.
And one rose in a tent of sea and gave
A darkening shudder; water fell away;
The whale stood shining, and then sank in spray.

At that point the rimed couplets, the rhythm of the verse, and the syntax of the sentences are beautifully coordinated. It is the high point of the poem.

In the poem’s last section, Winters makes clear that he, the intellectual creature, stands at the edge of a potentially engulfing sea representing all that is irrational and uncontrollable: “… one may come / Walking securely till the sea extends / Its limber margin, and precision ends.” The last image in the poem is the sea, resembling its most magnificent denizen:

The slow Pacific swell stirs on the sand,
Sleeping to sink away, withdrawing land,
Heaving and wrinkled in the moon, and blind;
Or gathers seaward, ebbing out of mind.

Some readers might find the allegory a bit too neat, might object to the Cartesian fractionation of the individual into mind and body, intellect and emotion, especially when body and emotion are seen as inimical to reason, but Winters has long and eminent precedent, including Herman Melville, and the poem is very well executed. It is one of his most distinguished achievements.

The personal struggle depicted in this poem, not incidentally, was to be Winters’ obsession throughout his life as poet and as critic. In another context he characterized it as “the pull against gravity, against earth and those determined by it, and against the qualities one shares with them; self-direction, self-organized out of chaos.” (Poems, 60) It is undeniable that this struggle was real, momentous, and on-going for him. It explains his impatience, as a critic, with writers like Stevens, Frost, and Yeats, who in their different ways appeared to him to indulge aspects of their natures that he had ruthlessly suppressed in his own.

A much later poem, “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” deals with the same theme in a different allegorical setting. This time the poet casts himself as Gawaine, and in reframing the outline of the medieval poem, he makes the Green Knight and his lady represent the irrational and the sensuous, which must be rejected in spite of all temptations. Again the specifics of the motivating experience are veiled. We must assume that a threatening real crisis, or set of crises, underlay the poet’s anxiety, but we are asked to take this on faith. Winters seems to be saying, “Surely every intelligent person will understand that intellectual autonomy is always under threat from the physical and the sensual.” But experience is far more various, and solutions to the mind-body problem have more breadth, ingenuity, and complexity than the rather straitened morality of this poem suggests.

There is another issue that surely deserves attention in light of Winters’ first principles. Repeatedly he reminded readers that a poem is a statement about a human experience. Everything starts from that. Yet in his own poems the motivating experience is often suppressed or disguised. Granted, every experience offered in a poem is to some extent abstracted, derived, or otherwise filtered through the memory, sensibility, and art of the poet, with the result that it is generalized and typified. But such “filtered” experiences may still retain much power in the eyes of readers if they can be discerned. In Winters’ work we get some intimations, in poems like “The Journey,” which recounts a four-day train trip from Boulder, Colorado, to Moscow, Idaho, where he took up his first teaching job. But in many poems and passages the techniques of allegory, abstraction, and plain mystification close off the primary experiences from readers and to that extent muffle the effect.

For that reason we come upon “A Leave Taking,” a poem dealing directly with a personal sorrow, with relief, and respond with strong feeling both to the poem and to the obviously genuine grief underlying it:

I, who never kissed your head,
Lay these ashes in their bed;
That which I could do have done.
Now farewell, my newborn son.

Later Winters wrote another poem that abandons the screens and masks he had used on many occasions to shield himself from scrutiny. “Time and the Garden, ” though marred by somewhat careless diction in some passages, represents a frank summing up of his life as a writer and critic, and a bittersweet assessment of his achievement. The poem places its author in his garden, aware that time is slipping away from him:

And yet excitement swells me, vein by vein:
I long to crowd the little garden, gain
Its sweetness in my hand and crush it small
And taste it in a moment, time and all!

He reflects on the great Elizabethan figures—Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Greville, Raleigh, Donne—who have gone before him. They are his models, and he admits he would like “to seize the greatness not yet fairly earned.” He remains true to his ideal, to “condense … unbroken wisdom in a single look” much as he had wanted to concentrate the fruits of his trees. But he recognizes that, even if that should be possible, his personal fate is sealed: “The mind’s immortal, but the man is dead.” The poem provides probably the most candid self-portrait in all Winters’ writing. Uncharacteristically, it represents not just a personal struggle (something depicted in many of his poems) but a struggle he was bound to lose: a likely loss in the pursuit of “greatness”; a certain loss in the struggle with death. “No one hears,” he writes plaintively, “And I am still retarded in duress!” His evident vulnerability makes this one of his most affecting poems.

Overall, however, Winters’ influence as a poet was transient. In the twenties and thirties he attracted significant notice; even by the time he arrived at Stanford as a graduate student in 1927 he was, as Helen Trimpi observes in her biographical introduction to the Selected Poems, “well known as a modern poet and critic.” (SP xix) But as the years went on, Winters grew increasingly dissatisfied with his early poems; he included only a few of them in his Collected Poems, published in 1952. He began to concentrate more of his energies on criticism, and as a result published relatively few poems during the last two decades of his life. And he never found a mature style that matched the intensity of his early imagist work while embodying the critical principles for which he was widely known.

Indeed, the core problem in Winters’ poetry concerns, ironically, the relation between the matter at hand and the poet’s emotional treatment of it. As previously noted, the emotion arises from a sense of menace and near disaster which the poet (or his persona) narrowly overcomes, even though the details of the crisis are not disclosed. Many of the poems ask the reader to take on faith the gravity of the situation, while providing little evidence to support it. Thus the “judgment” made by the poet in such poems cannot be evaluated.

It is likely that this reticence about personal details, together with an unwillingness to embrace a more conversational style (or at least to abandon the present subjunctive, as in “when this fix the head”), worked against the popularity of Winters’ poems, even as interest in formal verse was reviving. Although Hayden Carruth included poems by Crane, Tate, and Winters in his influential anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us, published in 1970 (two years after Winters’ death), a generation later R.S. Gwynn’s anthology Poetry (Longman, 1998), which is sympathetic to poems in form with solid intellectual content, includes Crane along with Winters’ one-time students Philip Levine and Thom Gunn, but omits both Winters and Tate. Yet the poems and passages I have cited, and possibly a few others (such as “At the San Francisco Airport” and “The Manzanita”), still reward the thoughtful reader and should be preserved. Selections of Winters’ poems in both the Barth edition and the Library of America series will keep them accessible for at least the near future.

The Legacy

Early in the twentieth century, as American writers were testing themselves against the English and European tradition (Frost, Pound, and Eliot, among others, first achieved a reputation abroad), American readers and academics were working to develop a coherent sense of a native tradition and to establish canons of both poetry and fiction that had weight, dignity, and durability. Concurrently a revolution in style was underway. Poets were throwing off what they saw as restrictions imposed by meter, rime, and traditional content. As a result there was a perceived need for critical guidance. What should now be the criteria for judging poetic value? What was an appropriate education for a poet, and for a discerning reader? What poems and poets should be models?

Allen Tate attempted to answer these questions. So did R.P. Blackmur and John Crowe Ransom. So did Yvor Winters. Their books and articles over a period of about three decades comprised a continuous and often contentious dialogue over the nature of literature in general and poetry in particular—what it was and how it was supposed to be written, read, and taught. Because all four men were teachers, they had opportunities to create protégés and disciples through personal contact, as well as through the written word. As is often true in such cases, the strength of the critic’s personality was at least as important as the strength of his ideas in furthering his agenda.

Winters’ personality was neither hesitant nor retiring. His critical ideas have radiated out into American literary culture through generations of his students who became teachers, writers, and editors themselves. Paradoxically, even though many readers who manage to locate the texts will find in the experience of reading Winters’ prose about equal measures of discovery and exasperation, the ideas probably play a stronger role today than at any time since they were promulgated. This is partly due to a historical pendulum swing that has brought formal verse back into favor, but it is likely that the incremental influence of many writers, editors, and teachers who once had contact with Winters helped the pendulum to swing when it did.

It is worth noting, in the interest of balance, that though Winters could be extremely harsh with writers he felt were overvalued, his judgments tended to be too generous with two categories of poet: those he had discovered or rediscovered, and those who had studied with him. His interest in promoting his discoveries led him to praise extravagantly the nineteenth-century Americans Frederick Goddard Tuckerman and Jones Very, and the English poets T. Sturge Moore and Elizabeth Daryush. Each of these writers has real virtues, but all are more minor talents than Winters asserted, and his attempt to promote Moore at the expense of Yeats (to take a salient example) seriously undermined his credibility with many readers. Among his own one-time students, J.V. Cunningham received the highest praise, but while Cunningham’s best poems are very fine indeed, it is probably an exaggeration to say that he was at any point in his life the most consistently distinguished poet writing in English, a claim that Winters unabashedly made (FD 299). (The claim might have more credibility had Winters ever so much as acknowledged the existence of W.H. Auden.) Winters did not praise bad poems or bad poets. But like many people he did not always retain a sense of proportion where his own emotions and interests were engaged.

By stressing the need for poems to have a solid intellectual core and the importance of fitting the feeling conveyed by the words to the content of the statement, Winters helped to rescue poetry from the self-indulgent fantasies of the late Romantics, but also from the recondite mystifications of his contemporaries. Poetry could become once again a respectable pursuit for a rational person with feet planted firmly on the ground. Students able to look past Winters’ own blind spots and eccentricities valued and emulated his ability to “find the poems”—to identify excellent and moving work they might otherwise have overlooked.

The trick was to separate the usable principles from the dogmatism. It is not necessary—and this cannot be emphasized too strongly—to adopt an absolutist philosophy or personality in order to accept and apply Winters’ insights. Even while acknowledging that judgments evolve and are negotiated in every culture at all times, large numbers of readers and writers can converge on the following central tenets, championed by Winters, that remain durable, though not immutable, over a long stretch of literary history:

That the writing of poetry is one of the highest endeavors to which a person can aspire.

That the process of poetic composition engages the whole person—intellect and emotion.

That poems need to be understandable, to have a rational core.

That the progression of ideas in a poem should be governed by rational principles, not private meanings or arbitrary personal associations.

That sharp and incisive language, close observation, and fresh expression are always desirable, but verbal ingenuity or elaborate rhetorical figuration for its own sake is suspect.

That the aim of every poem is, in relation to the experience it deals with, to present a complete understanding of that experience, intellectual and emotional, to the extent of the poet’s powers.

That the traditional devices of meter and rime offer the best way of concentrating language and emotion to make a poem both forceful and memorable.

That no poem—and no poet—should be accepted without question, but each should be scrutinized and required to satisfy the reader’s critical intelligence.

All these precepts can be derived from Winters’ writings, and though individual readers and writers would doubtless take issue with notions like “complete understanding,” “rational progression,” the centrality of meter and rime, or the mistrust of verbal ingenuity, they still constitute an excellent primer for poets, and a trustworthy means of orientation in the vast, overwhelming store of English and American verse.

It is true that for some, Winters’ opinions became a new orthodoxy. For a while the pages of the Southern Review and other journals edited or influenced by former students became havens for poems, articles, and reviews perceptibly modeled on his precepts, and some graduate students disdained Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hopkins and Yeats, because Winters had treated them dismissively. But some of the stronger poets like Gunn and Levine forged successful styles that incorporated Winters’ ideas without becoming enslaved to them. And some found a larger stage on which to perform and to teach. When Robert Pinsky, as poet laureate, launched his “favorite poem” campaign to collect and publicize the poems that had fastened themselves to the hearts and memories of Americans, the unegalitarian ghost of Yvor Winters, his one-time mentor, surely gnashed its teeth. Yet on reflection Winters might have seen the virtues of Pinsky’s idea—or he might have mused on one of death’s ironic mercies: that a poet and critic can influence but cannot control his wayward progeny.[/private]


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