I first encountered Winters’ name in the back pages of The New Republic, where the reviewer, discussing someone else, referred to him slightingly as “opposed to everything the 20th century stood for.” Ah ha, thought I, there’s the critic for me. I dug up a copy of Forms of Discovery — which is not the best place to start, the novice should try In Defense of Reason instead — and soon hoovered up everything he wrote.
Eliot is still generally regarded as the most influential critic of the century; history will judge that it was Winters. He taught poetry and American literature at Stanford for forty years; among his students were dozens of distinguished poets and scholars, including J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, and Scott Momaday, who will eventually be numbered, along with Winters himself, among the finest poets of the 20th century. (That’s two appeals to posterity in two sentences if you’re scoring at home.) Winters personally introduced several poems to the canon, including George Herbert’s Church Monuments, Robert Bridges’ The Affliction of Richard, and F.G. Tuckerman’s The Cricket (with help from Witter Bynner and Edmund Wilson). His reevaluation of Elizabethan poetry, upgrading Wyatt, Jonson, Greville and Gascoigne, and downgrading Spenser and Sidney, is now a well-regarded if not yet the standard view; in the early 1960s an English department hack published an anthology of Elizabethan poetry that plagiarized Winters’ choices, extremely eccentric at the time, almost exactly, without so much as mentioning his name. Other causes of his, like Jones Very, Charles Churchill, and Sturge Moore, have met with less success: then again nobody reads Lancelot Andrewes on Eliot’s account either.
Winters campaigns, in a phrase, against emotion for its own sake. He insists that indulgence in emotion without adequate motive leads to sloppy writing, sloppy thinking, and sloppy living. This leaves him hostile in philosophy to the Transcendentalists and to their 18th century continental predecessors like Shaftesbury, who find wisdom in impulse. And it leaves him hostile in poetry to the British romantics especially, who constantly fall upon the thorns of life and bleed, without troubling to tell the reader anything about the thorns or even why they are thorny at all.
One suspects most anti-romantic critics, like Irving Babbitt or Paul Elmer More, of being insensible to the considerable lure of romanticism, of priggishly denouncing vices by which they were never tempted. Winters, on the other hand, was very nearly seduced. His early poems, like those of William Carlos Williams (think of the fire engine and the red wheelbarrow) and like American Indian verse, which influenced him greatly, derive their power from an intense focus on tiny particulars that borders on the maniacal. His first book of poems was called “Diadems and Faggots,” after a line from an Emerson poem that David Fiore, ironically, quotes against him. He finally concluded that he had to think better, and use better methods, to write better poetry, and retain his sanity. He deliberately sacrificed intensity for balance, lest he end up, as he put it, “a minor disciple of W.C. Williams.” This felt experience gives his criticism a uniquely charged earnestness. Winters takes Emerson far more seriously than Emerson ever took himself.
Winters is most notorious for his oft-repeated pronouncement that a poem is “a moral judgment of a human experience.” His contemporaries, Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom for instance, commonly translated this as a demand for a sort of propositional poetry, and the misapprehension persists in Lawrence White:
I read Winters as an undergraduate. He was my teacher’s teacher, & I thought it’d help me figure out what was going on. I learned a lot, but I always stumbled over the “poetry is the highest thought” thing. Man, like, I was reading Kant at the time! I think Fulke Greville is an awesome poet, but a thinker? … Kant is 1,000 times more exacting, more exquisite, more voluptuous a thinker than any poet. For proof, compare his reasoning ability to the reasoning of Winters (the latter being the rational synopsis of the poetry). Not that Winters is by any means a fool, but he’d have a hard time getting a PhD in philosophy from the work he’s submitted so far.
This reminds me of my father’s remark, when I showed him J.V. Cunningham’s poem on the Central Limit Theorem, that he preferred the Central Limit Theorem. Winters does not ask for the Critique of Pure Reason in verse, and the phrase “poetry is the highest thought” appears nowhere in his work to my knowledge. He interests himself in the relationship between the paraphrasable content and the emotion the poem provokes. In the precise adjustment of this relationship, through various technical means of which rhyme and meter are only the crudest, lies the judgment. He praises such poems as Rimbaud’s Larme, which has no paraphrase to speak of, Allen Tate’s The Subway, in which the paraphrase is mad (much like Winters’ own Danse Macabre), and Elizabeth Daryush’s Still-Life, in which the moral judgment differs entirely from the paraphrase.
Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with Yeats, with whom this tempest began. Yeats is not just foolish, he is resoundingly foolish. He affects a vatic tone, insisting that the reader treat his risible ideas seriously. The resounding is far more irksome than the foolishness. A poet’s got to know his limitations, and Yeats was never too clear on his. Winters understood his very well:
What was all the talk about?
This was something to decide.
It was not that I had died.
Though my plans were new, no doubt,
There was nothing to deride.
I had grown away from youth,
Shedding error where I could;
I was now essential wood,
Concentrating into truth;
What I did was small but good.
Orchard tree beside the road,
Bare to core, but living still!
Moving little was my skill.
I could hear the farting toad
Shifting to observe the kill,
Spotted sparrow, spawn of dung,
Mumbling on a horse’s turd,
Bullfinch, wren, or mockingbird
Screaming with a pointed tongue
Objurgation without word.